The immigration officer stares at my passport.
He looks at me wild-eyed as he realizes it’s a foreign one.
He stares back at my passport, looks at me once more and then runs away - with my passport.
It’s midnight. I’m on a train, somewhere between the Ukraine and Russian borders. It's June 1994.
Ten minutes earlier
The sound of the immigration officer echoes along the aisle as he moves through each compartment, stamping passports.
As he arrives at my cabin, a fellow traveller hands over his passport; it’s a Russian one and it’s red. Stamp.
The officer’s face transforms from confusion to horror when I surrender my passport for inspection. Mine’s blue; it’s a foreign one.
“Australian,” I explain. “My transit visa’s in there.”
Unfortunately, he speaks no English and I've got no idea what he's asking me in Russian, but I get the feeling he's not expecting any foreigners on the train.
There's an uneasy pause as he stares blankly at my passport again.
“I’m going to Bucharest,” I explain.
Open the damn passport and stamp the transit visa. I’m just passing through, for goodness sake!
Alarmed, I watch the immigration officer’s bulky figure disappear down the aisle, clutching my Australian passport containing several other crucial tourist visas.
Unthinkable scenarios swirl through my mind:
Should I run after him into no man’s land and risk being pounced on by vicious dogs?
What if he doesn’t come back with my passport?
What if I’m hauled away by armed guards because I should be flying, instead of taking the train across Eastern Europe?
Do I look suspicious at all? What would James Bond do in this situation?
It's the first – and only – time I’ve been separated from my passport.
I casually open my travel guide and glance at the number of the nearest Australian embassy. There are no suggested tips on how to handle passport kidnapping by border security.
I reluctantly decide to wait, nervously counting those long, drawn-out minutes. There really isn't anything I can do under the circumstances. I pat my money belt, knowing I've got a Greek passport as backup.
At least the train is still stationary.
How did he know that?
“So, you’re a journalist?” the formidable young Russian military officer asks in perfect English.
“Err… ye-e-e-e-s,” I respond cautiously, noting that he’s returned with my passport.
Is this a trick question? How can he possibly know that?
After all, I wrote my occupation as English teacher on all my visa applications, from China to Russia, Romania and Bulgaria. There was no written evidence that I was a journalist – except maybe on my initial Japanese working holiday visa (and that was two years earlier).
“I’m … on holidays … and … just passing through.”
“Well, enjoy your holiday,’’ the officer says, and hands back my passport, with my transit visa stamped accordingly. “I’m sorry for the delay.”
Have you ever had your passport kidnapped?
Have you ever been detained at the border for any reason?
15/2/2012 11:32:29 am
Even worse than your encounter Hari, I had my passport (plus cr cards) stolen in Lisbon. What a nightmare! Generally we have no idea how much that passport means until we don't have it anymore. My imagination ran wild as well, stuck in Portugal for the rest of my life mixing it on the street with the illegal immigrants - maybe not being able to prove who I was? But of course I found the Oz Embassy the next day and it didn't take too many days to issue a temp one. A couple of weeks later I was on the border between Transylvania and Croatia and had the border guard vanish off the bus with my temp. passport for what seemed like forever. Again imagining being detained in Croatia with illegal immigrants (as some were at that check point) and having to prove my Aust. citizenship. Arriving home seemed the sweetest ever.
15/2/2012 12:45:15 pm
Therese - it's true we don't realise how important our passport is until someone walks away with it and our identity. And we definitely wouldn't want to be stuck in a foreign country with no ID or suitable language skills... glad that you made it back home safely!!
15/2/2012 11:55:04 am
On boarding a ferry to cross the Gulf of Aqaba from the Sinai (Nuweiba) to the city of Aqaba in Jordan, four of us had our passports taken off us.
15/2/2012 12:47:16 pm
Great tip re carrying an old passport, Ian - I'll have to remember that next time I'm travelling overseas.
15/2/2012 12:26:15 pm
On a train in deepest Calabria in the middle of the night heading from Reggio to Bari (a long trip), the guard looked at my ticket. Apparently the previous guard had given me back the wrong half. My passport was then demanded but I just followed the guard and wouldn't leave him until he had finished his scrutiny. Obviously he didn't speak or read English and most of my Italian is centred on food. My Canadian companions thought it was great fun and kept yelling out "Kick him off". Every town in Calabria looked like a bomb had hit it and every platform had young men standing there staring at the train defying anyone to alight. All turned out well though and we eventually arrived in Bari at 1.00am.
15/2/2012 12:50:52 pm
It's great having friends being rowdy when an official-looking person is scrutinizing your passport (not)...
15/2/2012 01:54:02 pm
Old Communist paranoia?
16/2/2012 12:50:27 am
Unfortunately, yes, Earth - especially when the young military officer was dressed to the max in full military regalia....
16/2/2012 03:38:42 am
16/2/2012 06:20:18 am
Bernie, I've been to a few of those places too!
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© 2023 HARI KOTROTSIOS
I acknowledge the traditional Custodians of the land on which I work and live, the Gubbi Gubbi / Kabi Kabi and Joondoburri people, and recognise their continuing connection to land, the waters and sky. I pay my respect to them and their cultures; and to Elders past, present and emerging.