Recently I was on assignment for SOFREP, checking out the latest developments in Ukraine, Switzerland, Romania, Transnistria, and by default Moldova. Moldova was initially a weigh station for me, a means to get into Transnistria and nothing more. That is until a few days before I arrived, when the FBI—in conjunction with Moldovan officials—arrested Russian mafiosos attempting to sell nuclear materials to agents posing as jihadis. This is the third time this has happened in the past five years. I got on the phone from Switzerland and started to look into the matter. I contacted the U.S. embassy, the State Department, and the FBI for information on our side, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MAI), the Moldova Border Police or Politia De Frontiera, and the Interpol branch in Moldova for information, all of which led to a lot of “maybe” and “I don’t know.”

The phrase “I don’t know” is commonly heard among information-seekers in Moldova, especially foreigners. I had already been submitting inquiries prior to this, requesting information regarding the security and border procedures with the breakaway republic Transnistria, so my popularity was being cemented well before my arrival. Moldova is a partly free nation, and from my observations and interactions with government staff and private citizens on the ground, it is a nation as free as you want, as long as you do what you’re told and don’t meddle in official affairs. Of course, money can buy you permissions.

Like a scratched CD, my requests for information and meetings were met with the ear-shattering repetition of “I don’t know” or silence by all official sources prior to my arrival. When I arrived, they were waiting for me. After landing in Chișinău, my fellow passengers and I were greeted by a bus on the tarmac, a bus that may have once been great in the 1940s. The passenger compartment was filled with exhaust from the bus, and I considered how laughable it would be to avoid the freezing rain outside only to suffocate to death inside. Now a bit high on fumes, we funneled off the bus, and I, being the cocky American that I am, made my way swiftly to the passport control booth, where I confidently presented my passport with a “Sup, brah?” The border official looked at me and my passport, a process repeated a few times, and then passed it over to a colleague to repeat the process. Eventually I was instructed to “come with me,” and I did. A whole 10 feet, to a waiting band of plainclothes secret police officers.

They were at least casual, all standing in standard circle-jerk formation and enjoying their coffees. I adjusted my posture to appear more casual, as it seemed like the thing to do. The border official handed over my passport and pointed at me, his eyebrows raised. I knew why they were there; they were just waiting on me. Staying the course, I said, “What’s going on, dude?” They all looked at me with this mostly tired, but trying-to-be-serious look. The person with my passport asked in English, “What are you doing here?”

I replied, “Well, I’m assuming you got my emails, or someone did, because you’re here.” He looked blankly at me and my passport again, and said “Come over here.” “Here” was maybe five feet away, to the open door of a dark office. I could make out two desks, some old CRT monitors, and a few bookshelves covered in a mountain of paperwork. He told me to wait as he went inside and, without turning on the light, somehow found and operated a copier. I can only assume he was copying my passport and prior visa stamps.

As he walked back out, flipping through my passport, he looked me over and asked again, “What are you doing in Moldova?”

I replied, “Journalism.”

He looked at me, disappointed, and said, “Special Forces, huh? American? NATO?”