Despite crisis, Albanians gain hope

Paradox: With the world watching, residents of Europe's poorest nation open their homes to refugees and see an end to their isolation.

War In Yugoslavia

April 25, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TIRANA, Albania -- Jam-packed with soldiers of every description, with relief workers, with camera crews, with reporters from around the globe and with refugees from Kosovo who keep coming and coming, this capital of a nation on the edge of a war is alive with possibility.

Austrian army officers flock to the Austrian restaurant; Italian police, pistols on their hips, crowd the Italian restaurant; British army vehicles jostle for room on the rubble-strewn roads with white aid-agency cars; helicopters fly this way and that to the delight of little boys playing on the heaps of abandoned construction sites. And everywhere there are refugees, who yesterday numbered 83,000 in Tirana alone.

Maybe only a country as chaotic as Albania could so easily absorb the chaos that has come its way from Kosovo.

And a paradoxical sense of hope is growing here: With the world's attention turning to Albania, surely it is only a matter of time before the world (or the rich part of it) steps in to set things right in Europe's poorest country.

"Of course this will change life for the better -- and soon," said Shkelqim Barzeza, a cafe owner who offered to take in eight refugees and got 18. "The world is involved in Albania now, and it will intervene. They will tell us what we should do, and we shall do it together."

Said Luan Peti, an engineer with the city water system, which runs about 18 hours short of a full day: "With the whole world watching us, we don't feel our future is entirely in our own hands."

And Arben Sinani, the principal of a school that has seen its rolls swelled by 80 Kosovar children in the past month and is expecting 30 more, added, "If the United States is on your side, you have to be optimistic."

Few Albanians long for a return to the repressive isolation of the old Communist regime, but if there's one thing most people agree on here it's that the current crop of political leaders has been incompetent and worse. The economy is a wreck, electric power is fitful, distrust is rampant and politics has a way of taking violent turns every year or so.

`Can't run anything'

"This is a country without a government," said Barzeza, "because the people we have in government can't run anything."

But along came a war in Yugoslavia and Albanians unexpectedly found themselves with a chance to break out of the rut they had fallen into.

Some have profited directly. Hotels are overflowing with foreigners, and anyone in Tirana with a spare bedroom had been able to rent it out. The phone company is pressed to the breaking point by international calls. Albanian Airlines flies a sold-out Russian-made Tupelov 134 every day to Bologna, Italy, and back. Restaurants fill every table every night.

"It creates a nice atmosphere when it's full," said a cheerful Donika Bardha, an Albanian-American from Birmingham, Mich., who runs an upscale Italian restaurant that had been hurting for customers a month ago.

But others see a longer-term gain, and a deeper one at that. At its heart lies the spontaneous outpouring of generosity by thousands of Albanians as 350,000 Kosovar refugees streamed into the country. In Tirana, population 600,000, 70 percent to 80 percent of the refugees have been taken into private homes. A tremendous crisis struck the country, and it was not the government but the people who rose to the occasion.

It has made them feel tremendously better about themselves -- particularly after the bloody anarchy that followed the collapse of financial pyramids in March 1997 -- and they believe it should make the rest of the world feel better about them as well.

"The world sees with its own eyes that Albanians are not just criminals," said Sinani. "We have shown hospitality, generosity, doing the right thing."

`Albanians will be owed'

Now, they say, it is time for the world to respond.

Albanians were already so poor, said Jennifer Oldham, a Baltimorean who helps run the Catholic Relief Services office here, that most of them would qualify for relief in any other European country. Instead, they turned out to help those in even greater need.

"I think the Albanians will be owed," she said. "They think it, too."

A word of caution to all this is offered by Fatos Lubonja, a journalist who spent 17 years in prison under the Communists.

"I'm against this spirit that says, `Now the world will take care of us,' " he said. "The most important improvement will be inside our own consciousness."

The spontaneous solidarity that Albanians surprised themselves with in response to the refugee crisis was a step in the right direction, he said, "but it's something which will have to be developed or otherwise it will collapse."

But that solidarity is everywhere in Tirana these days.

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