Flood of refugees brings Albania to breaking point

Europe's poorest nation overwhelmed by crisis

April 04, 1999|By Knight Ridder/Tribune

TIRANA, Albania -- Exhausted and working amid the smell of unwashed clothes, vomit and baby diapers, Fitor Mucha, a coordinator with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has given up counting the Kosovar Albanians streaming daily into this 800-seat gymnasium.

"Nobody can know how many people are in here," said Mucha, who in calmer times is pastor of an evangelical church here. "Maybe 1,000, 1,200, 1,300. The situation is grave."

Already the poorest nation in Europe, Albania is now an overburdened sanctuary for more than 200,000 refugees. They swell through the border, overwhelming international agencies. And leaving this country wondering how -- if estimates are correct -- it can handle another 500,000 without collapsing and igniting more chaos across the Balkans.

"I am a little concerned about the inadequate presence of people and goods from the international community," said Daan Everts, a Dutch diplomat who visited Tirana for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "A lot, lot more is needed. We really have to prevent mass death."

The pressure on Albania intensified yesterday when neighboring Macedonia announced it would close its borders to fleeing Kosovars unless other Western nations agreed to accept more refugees.

"It's a nightmare situation," Albanian President Rexhep Meidani said at a news conference.

It takes up to 12 hours on narrow roads for aid trucks from Tirana to reach the tens of thousands of refugees bottlenecked at the muddy border near the Morina pass. Helicopters and cargo planes would be faster, but NATO has closed the air space to carry out its attacks on Yugoslav military sites. The Albanian government has asked NATO to open the air space so clothing and medicine can be delivered.

Shelters in 11 Albanian cities are caring for about 66,000 refugees. Another 88,000 are living near the border town of Kukes. More than 60,000 others are scattered in apartments and houses or living in the fields and mountains.

Another half-million possible

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Julia V. Taft said yesterday in Tirana that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's "ethnic-cleansing" campaign might funnel another half-million refugees into Albania. But this country of 3 million people is already fraying. Northern mountain roads are crumbling from caravans of trucks and tractors carrying refugees south. Food prices are rising. The poor in Tirana are resentful and threatened by the new population of the destitute.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations have been stunned -- and sometimes paralyzed by -- the speed and volume of refugees coursing into Albania. They come out of Kosovo at nearly 2,000 per hour, a rate higher than during the Bosnian war.

"If the international community can't take measures, then the international community will face an even graver situation," said Mucha. "They must not forget Albania is part of Europe. If they don't take care of this problem, refugees will spread to Italy, Greece, all over Europe.

"You can't find a single country in the whole world to support this kind of refugee problem. What's happening to Albania is comparable to what would happen if the whole southern United States moved to the north" in 10 days.

Longing for home

Alush Fronca wants nothing more than to return to his home in Kosovo. A farmer, Fronca is from the town of Pec, which was shelled by Serbian troops while he and his two sons hid in the cellar. Yugoslav troops forced him to march into Montenegro, where he waited for six hours before paying $5 for a taxi to the Albanian border.

A woman wept next to Fronca. A loudspeaker in the gym broadcast the names of those lost, trying to connect them with families. The wooden seats teemed with refugees. Many were sleeping, others were eating bread, and some were drying their clothes on basketball hoops. Aid workers, wearing rubber gloves and scribbling names in ledgers, handed out powdered milk, water and aspirin. More than 1,000 people had to rely on 22 wooden outhouses for their bathrooms.

Makeshift clinics were set up in small rooms, one for cardiology, another for pediatrics and obstetrics.

"We are scared of an outbreak of infectious diseases," said Dr. Mira Karajani. "There is diarrhea and high fevers. The risk for cholera exists."

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