World

Out of Albania

Foreigners flee as mobs run wild

STACY SULLIVAN March 24 1997
World

Out of Albania

Foreigners flee as mobs run wild

STACY SULLIVAN March 24 1997

Out of Albania

World

Foreigners flee as mobs run wild

STACY SULLIVAN

Tonin Pellumbi was in his home in a Tirana suburb—intent on staying out of harm’s way—when a bullet struck him just above the hip. “It’s terrible,” said Vladimir Goga, the neighbor who drove Pellumbi to hospital. ‘Too many people are shooting. Everyone is afraid, and there is so much noise.” The ear-splitting crackle of gunfire resounded across the city last week, as pandemonium gripped Albania’s capital after the armed revolt, which took hold first in the south of the country, spread north. While both foreigners and Albanians rushed to get out of the country, beleaguered President Sali Berisha admitted he had lost control and asked NATO to send peacekeepers to disarm the rebellious population. ‘The speed with which the events unfolded alarmed many people,” said Susan Cartwright, Canada’s ambassador to Hungary, whose responsibility includes Albania. “It’s very difficult to predict what will happen.”

Of the 22 Canadians in Albania known to the Budapest Embassy, seven joined some 800 Americans, Britons and other foreigners who headed for the Adriatic port of Dürres, west of Tirana, after rebels closed the international airport on Thursday evening. With 125 mostly British citizens, the Canadians then went by Italian naval ship to Brindisi, Italy. Several other Canadians had left the strife-torn country shortly before the two months of civil unrest over failed pyramid investment schemes finally bubbled over in the past three weeks. ‘We would have been there right now—I don’t know whether this is pure luck or what,” said Dona Hurry of Vancouver, who along with her husband, returned home in January after two months in Dürres working on an $80million industrial park to be completed over five years. ‘We had felt the violence wouldn’t get to this point. Obviously, we’ll put everything on hold.”

For a brief time early last week, Tirana residents could hope the anarchy that gripped the southern half of their country was over. Berisha offered to call back his armed forces and form a “government of national unity.” In what the opposition her-

aided as a stunning triumph, the president agreed to new parliamentary elections by June and granted a general amnesty to all insurgents provided they put down their arms within a week. ‘Tomorrow will be a different day, perhaps the day we’ve been waiting for not only for days, but for years,” declared Pree Zogaj, a prominent member of the opposition Democratic Alliance party. But when tomorrow came, it became all too clear that even this deal was too little, too late. Newly formed rebel councils throughout the south vowed to push on until Berisha resigned and the money from a series of collapsed pyramid schemes was returned to investors. Nearly every Albanian family had put money in the shady funds that

quickly took off around the country. When a third of the populace lost its life savings, anger focused on the Berisha regime. “The government has lied to us before,” declared Albert Shyti, a day laborer in Greece who became the head of the rebel council in Vlore after returning in January to recover his money. “We won’t rest until there is a new government, and our money is returned.”

His fellow rebels kept to their words. One group took over Albania’s largest military base in Kucove, 75 km south of Tirana. Then residents of Bajram Curri and Kukes, Berisha strongholds in the north, raided barracks, echoing the demands of their comrades in the south. Almost overnight, fears of a civil war between anti-government rebels in the south and Berisha supporters in the north evaporated as Albanians united in armed insurrection.

As the anarchy spread to the capital, soldiers abandoned three state armories on the outskirts on Wednesday, leaving them to be looted by angry and terrified residents. Thousands of people, some just youngsters, toted off automatic rifles, hand grenades and ammunition. The next morning, with the city awash in weapons and almost constant gunfire, prison guards abandoned their posts, freeing both political prisoners and violent criminals. That, in turn, fanned

the fears of people such as Artan Yderizi, a 20-year-old student who had not looted barracks, but wanted a gun. “The prison was opened, so who is safe now?” he asked after buying a rifle from some children for 200 lek (less than $3). Suddenly, there was no police force, no army and only a semblance of a government.

It was a sorry sight to those who had watched the country’s recent economic gains. “They inherited an economy that was very bad and really had started reforms,” said Daniel McAdams, an observer for the British Helsinki Human Rights Group in Budapest. “It wasn’t elegant, but it was a start. This is lost now.” One man, who lived through the dark era of Stalinist Enver Hoxha, who died in 1985, and the turmoil following the 1991 collapse of the Communist regime, struck a more sombre note. “If they are shooting in the air today, they will be shooting at each other tomorrow,” he said, pushing a bicycle weighed down by sacks of potatoes.

Terrified of what was to come, hundreds of newly armed residents looted the Tirana flour depots and hauled away 45-kg bags of the state’s reserves. Although many took advantage of the lawlessness to help themselves to clothing and other goods, most were stealing basic foods. Those who could afford to pay went on shopping sprees. Riza Lahi, a retired military pilot, carried plastic bags loaded with hunks of feta and yellow cheese, olives and frozen hamburgers. “I didn’t even ask the prices,” he said. “I just spent all the money I had in my pocket.”

Amid the chaos, Western embassies, many of which had already evacuated non-essential staff, decided it was time to get out. American Sea Knight and Sea Stallion helicopters sent from the NATO force in Bosnia arrived to evacuate up to 2,200 Americans from the embassy housing complex in Tirana. Lined up in life-jackets and helmets, children screamed and families looked panicked as they tried to get seats on the choppers. Bob Durham and his Albanian wife, Eva, stood with their 19-month-old son, Jimmy. Why were they leaving? “Because her mother was hit in the head by a bullet yesterday and my brother-in-law was hit in the face by a bullet today,” Durham said. But the American evacuation halted when an anti-aircraft missile was fired at a helicopter. With only 408 U.S. citizens safely out, U.S. marines swarmed the embassy comUGOSLAVIA pound to provide added protection as authorities con-

sidered other evacuation plans.

When the French landed their helicopters on an open beach in Dürres, hundreds of Albanians stormed the aircraft. Begging for a lift and grabbing hold, they tried in vain to prevent the pilots from taking off. Giant twin-rotored Italian choppers airlifted about 100 people from Tirana’s football stadium, completing an evacuation of about 1,000 Italian nationals. And German troops guarding their force’s helicopters opened fire on two vans that sped through an evacuation area, spraying bullets as they passed.

As the Americans flew out, U.S. ambassador Marisa Lino made an extraordinary appearance on national television to reassure Albanians. “The United States of America is not leaving Albania,” she said. “I and some of my team will remain.” But the plea did little to calm fears in the capital as reports streamed in that hundreds of Albanians, among them a former defence minister and his family as well as the president’s children, had boarded ferries to Italy. As the exodus raised fears in Italy of a repeat of the 1991 tide of 40,000 Albanians who fled when the rigid Stalinist rule crumbled in Europe’s poorest state, the UN High Commission for Refugees urged neighboring countries not to turn back the asylum-seekers.

Meanwhile, the newly appointed Albanian prime minister, Bashkim Fino, appealed for calm in a nation where the populace now holds an estimated half million automatic rifles, nearly 30 tanks, anti-aircraft missiles, grenades and even fighter planes. “We’ve had enough bloodshed,” Fino said. “It’s high time we work together to end this anarchy.” As he spoke to a crowded news conference, the sound of gunfire from the capital’s streets punctuated his words.

STACY SULLIVAN in Tirana with ALLYSON VAUGHAN in Budapest