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Tirana Diary 10 July 1999

Tirana 10 July 1999

Sometimes I have the idea that I am writing the senario for a cheap American B-movie about this unkown people on the Balkan. The stories are sometimes so cheap and full of prejudices that I could have written them like Karl May wrote his books, you don't have to actually travel here, just put all your b-movie type fantasies together and look - another story about the Balkan. On top of it you overdress it with a lot of gunfire and extra violence and nobody believes that you can just walk through it without getting shot.

Tonight was a stormy night, the thunder of yesterday afternoon and late evening created a kind of strange atmosphere in the air. You can't grab what it is exactly, but it is there, as if the electricity has jumped over to the town. Around half two somebody, maybe 50 meters away, maybe even closer, I couldn't see or hear properly since the house was between us, thought that it was neccessary to pump a lot of bullets in the air. The sound continued for at least 10 minutes or more. It is really kind of crazy. Again nobody was shooting on anybody, just in the air. And the reason will always remain a secret.

In Germany and other countries you would probably immediately hear a police siren after such an event, and although we live almost next to the police station, here you hear only the dogs and some cocks who were woken up by the noise. On the schoolyard in the middle of the night some idiots were driving around with cars racing each other and almost the whole night traffic was going on in the street nearby, normally around 3 o'clock it starts to be silent, but not last night. Almost half of Tirana seems to be out there. At least judging from the noise.

Talking about shooting, a group of volunteers went to the hospital in Combinat again today. They went there yesterday already to visit the kids there and came back with stories and pictures of a place that you would hope your own children would never end up in. The building is old, so old that it is slowly falling apart. The baby section has no special equipment, so little babies are lying in beds for adults in blankets which ae only rarely washed. There are hardly any medicines and most of the better trained doctors have left the country years ago to get better paid jobs abroad (not always as doctor, even as streetcleaner, it would still be a better paid job).

The place is heavily understaffed and tries to do the best it can. Outside, in the hospital's backyard, there's waste lying around, diapers and bandages included. One of our volunteers, Tref from Australia, described how the trees were dressed up like christmas trees, with all that waste. How it came up there - it was probably thrown out of the window or something.

Today the group stopped to make some photos of those trees and suddenly a few meters away from them shooting started, within the guarded area of the hospital. One of the guards came running down, also shooting and killed somebody. Our volunteers thanked their guardian angel that they just stopped to make that photo, otherwise they would have been in the middle of it. That's why I just said, if you'd make a film of it, nobody would believe it.

Later in the afternoon I went to the informal mine-awareness coordination and discussion group at UNICEF, it is strange sometimes to look around and see what strange combinations of people are meeting on such occasions. There were high officers from the Albanian Army, some NATO representatives from the Partnership for Peace, activists from Handicapped International Belgium, a mine specialist from ICRC from Zagreb (he knew me from Pakrac, one of the most heavily mined towns in Croatia, where I was involved in a social reconstruction project for a long time), Medicines sans Frontiers and UNICEF (and the Balkan Sunflowers).

The meeting was basically about the minefield the Serbian army has been laying in the north of Albania, in the mountain area. A mine field of about 80 kilometers long, randomly laid, sometimes just a few, sometimes a strip of up to 400 meters wide. The Albanian army came to UNICEF and the NGO's to ask for help. In the end of the month they want to start an action to mark these minefields and put wires around them. Handicap International Belgium was represented by a few mine experts who just arrived here and who wanted to go into that area tomorrow or the rest of the week to see. They basically wanted to drive up there with their four-wheel drive and look a bit around. But others made them clear that they should do it together with the Albanian authorities. Not because of the mines, but because of the fact that up there some NGO's were already kindly asked, at gunpoint, to hand over their carkeys, especially when they were driving such expensive four-wheel drives.

The people from the Albanian army reacted that they would very much like Handicap International to come there and that they were willing to help. Especially since Handicap International was very needed in that region, since a lot of people we already losing legs there. The NATO specialist said that the minefield clearence in Albania wouldn't start this year, and that it will not be as easy to clear them as the minefields on the other side of the border in Kosov@. Since in Albania mines are laid randomly, the Serbian army wasn't driving around in Albania with trucks full of mines laying them like carpets as they had done in Kosov@, they went in with small groups and laid just a few mines, only what they could carry over the mountains. Another problem is that almost all the mines are of so-called none-metal or low-metal content, so not so easy to find.

By the way even although there are a lot of demining groups on the ground in Kosov@, also there the really big work won't start before next year. One of the reasons is that the Serb military has not fulfilled its promises to identify and locate 80% of the mines they planted. In addition, the UCK not only laid own mines but also dug up Serb mines and replanted them, increasing the difficulty of the demining task. During this meeting it was said once more that the idea of the Balkan Sunflowers to organise so-called kid-safe places or safe-children-places together with other NGOs and hopefully with help from KFOR (NATO) should be promoted heavily. Since the list of mine accidents leading to deaths and injuries is still growing. In Gjakova for example yesterday two people died and six were injured after a mine which was dug up by a UCK fighter was shown to a group of people and exploded. So especially the message that mines are no play-toys, not even for machos, should still have a priority.

At this moment we have a helicopter highway over our house - within 15 minutes about 5 came over - each going in another direction. I wonder what they are doing up there. Probably transporting high rank NATO officials who don't dare to drive through the country anymore.

Also Shemri Way Station will close down very quickly, last night the police was shooting in front of the way station, so the situation is not so safe any more, and the amount of refugees passing by is not so big anymore either. The Salvation Army left the station today so the food situation, for bypassing the refugees as well as for the volunteers there, has become kind of problematic. Tomorrow a new kitchen may come, but that is not sure. So I advise all of them to go to Kukes if the situation is not improving and join with our volunteers who are now in refugee transit camp Kukes 2, run by the Danish Refugee Council. They, the DRC, were happy that volunteers came, and we can stay in tents in their camp, but for the time being they don't need more than five Sunflowers they said, I wonder how they would react if suddenly 13 show up. Most of them want to move on to Kosov@ and they are really needed there, but the problem is that we are just starting there and haven't enough sleeping places for all. I hope that DRC understands our position and that it is impossible for a grassroot organisation like ours to invest in a hotel in Kukes, as those have been getting extremely expensive in the last three months. All the NGO's and journalists have spoiled the prices into the extreme, and most of the hotel owners and private houses don't really understand that the big golden egg has now gone. They try to get the last out of the NGO's which are still there. Most have left already, for example UNICEF had an office in Kukes with 12 internationals, now there is only one person.

Today also the Albanian youth council sent 12 new volunteers up there, although I told them this morning that the way stations weren't safe anymore, luckily Katherina sent them on to Kukes (not to Kukes 2). I will have a nice conversation tomorrow with Altin since that was not a clever thing to do. But he is also working a lot and people are eager to help. Still, in principle it is a bit stupid to know that the way stations are there to protect people and even with this whole NATO corps here this seems to be impossible. Some people asked why NATO (AFOR) was still here in Albania, why all of those soldiers weren't already in Kosov@ as KFOR, since it seems that the NATO presence there is still not at its full strength.

At this moment I have got the feeling that the whole peace agreement and the speed in which NATO wanted to overtake, safeguard and control Kosov@ was maybe a way to stop the bombing, and that is good. But it also changes the safety situation in Albania so rapidly that you can have your thoughts about whether somebody really had an overview of what could happen. On the other hand NATO wasn't ready to overtake the control in Kosov@ with enough forces as is now slowly getting clear. I wonder how a ground war would have worked out.

What I don't understand however is that the newspapers abroad are still not really reporting on the quickly deteriorating situation here in Albania. And that is surprising for me. NATO and the world wanted to show with this whole giant action that they can restore peace and stop killing. But although they may have stopped the killing in Kosov@, the chaos in Albania has not been solved. Neither in Macedonia and Montenegro for that matter. Why is it always this way, it seems that NATO is not really taking it seriously, they were bombing out of the air, but cleaning up and having a kind of vision how to continue after such a campaign seems to be too much to ask.

I am getting really sceptical at this moment, billions have been spent on the throwing of bombs, millions have been spent (partly unneeded) to help refugees in Albania and Macedonia, but a really massive interest to solve the problem hasn't really been shown. If you have seen the massive army presence in the NATO camp in Durres, you are surprised that you can't find any real protection on the way back to Kosov@, nor on the way stations. A few small Italian NATO groups who cook very good pasta is not really what I had in mind when UNHCR announced that they would safeguard the returning together with NATO and Albanian police (the latter of whom are now the main problem in Shemri). Let's hope that somewhere along the line things will change for the better in this country, since I am really afraid that things are going to get out of hand again like they did in 1996 and 1997.

wam :-)

ps From Unicef I heard that they would really like the Balkan Sunflowers to continue its presence in Albania. They are very impressed by our work and want us to help with infrastructure (cars and office costs) in the future. It is so strange if we were one month further in time we would have got everything we hoped for, but the problem is we need it now. Let's hope the dinosaurs move quickly.

wam :-)