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Tirana Diary 11 June 1999

Tirana 11 June 1999

The ride by minibus from Tirana to Vlora takes about three and a half hours, we were lucky, since although we took the bus on the hottest time of the day, thanks to some clouds it didn't get to the boiling point in the bus. Kathy said before we left the house that the buses were airconditioned, maybe the one she had taken with the group a week ago when they went down the first time. This one certainly was not. Only two windows in the front could be opened, otherwise there was no fresh air. In America people are paying a lot of money to go into rollercoasters, here you pay 500 lek (say 7 DM or $ 3,5) and you get three and a half hours of bumping up and down. The road from Tirana to Durres is the best part.

At Durres the big fun starts. From where the huge AFOR (NATO) camp is - there must be a total invasion force there, thousands of vehicles - for a while the road is just gone, literally not anymore there, for a couple of miles. After that you pass along a stretch where they seem to be working on the road, but where the workers are mostly sleeping in the machines, it is the warmest time of the day: why aren't they working at night? Probably it's too dangerous. They must have started some months ago and they're not really moving fast. Not unlogical, with all those thousands of cars on the road, it is kind of difficult to repair a road and still let traffic drive on it as well. To protect the new asphalt some guys are throwing dirt on the road all the time, but this part with new asphalt, which is rather good, lasts maybe 700 meter or so and there's fifteen guys there to protect it.

Everywhere in the landscape there are factories and old agriculture combinates obviously standing empty. Indeed there doesn't seem to be one factory still working. Officially there's a 60% unemployment in this country. If you see the empty factories you start to believe this extremely high figure. Of course that doesn't mean 60% is doing nothing, since they would have died of starvation, as social welfare (unemployment benefits) is not known here. They run one of the hundred thousand kiosks, restaurants, bars, fast food stands, etc. It is clear that nobody can make a good living that way, the competition is murderous, but that doesn't seems to bother anybody. If one is successful with something everybody else starts copying it, even in places where every normal person would understand that it won't work. Like opening a kiosk somewhere where nobody actually lives; basically the owners are sitting in front of their small shops the whole day, waiting until that one customer per day comes by and buys a package of cigarettes or something. Probably they are their own best customer.

Apart from the empty factories, the waste and car dumps and the half-finished or half-destroyed constructions everywhere, the country is beautiful, the algarves are already blossoming, olivetrees fill the fields in the south, thousands of bushes with pink, purple and white flowers are everywhere, yellow flowers in the fields, donkeys with colourful blankets on them, nice restaurants underneath grapevines. I look at this while the minibus keeps humping and bumping through the landscape. We're driving alongside the train line to the south, when I look at some of the constructions of this track I am happy that I took the minibus instead, the bridges in particular don't really look very trustworthy, but then if I would have been in the train looking at the road bridges, I probably would have thought the same.

Just before Vlora we pass by a refugee camp - on the road down here we've seen many, on one of them was written in German "Milosovic baby killer, thank you Nato" - consisting of brown, grey, white and blue tents which look a bit like arabic nomads' desert tents. Nicely situated on a small hill, a new row of tents on each terrace. It is the camp of the Dutch/Belgium Red Cross. Driving into Vlora we pass the big Italian camp of "Arcobaleno" (Rainbow), today looking even more nice than usually, the Italian president Ciampi is passing by, he was in Tirana yesterday. Then we pass by the camp 101K, which is formally run by the local prefecture, but in fact by three nuns from Caritas Italia, who don't want to have anything but strictly catholic organisations in their camp.. Our Sunflower volunteers already got some problems, and the Italian Boyscouts who are also with a small group here in Vlora, have also been more or less pushed out of the camp.

From the center of Vlora, where the minibus finally stops, to the Workers Hotel (an old holiday resort for the more privileged party member workers, which must have been a very well organized hotel in its better days), where the volunteers are staying, it is almost three kilometers more, the busdriver wants to bring us there, but only if we pay him another 500 lek. So we decided to walk to the local autobus, which is only 15 lek, if you are lucky enough that somebody comes to take your money, otherwise it is for free. We pass by the harbour, and docked there are the grey speedboats. On the one side of the street there are hundreds of rather expensive-looking restaurants and bars, in front of them the most expensive cars are parked, and the other side is the beach, a bit smelly so close to the harbour, but much cleaner than in Durres, with hundreds of families on it. Vlora was planned as the Costa del Sol of Albania. It could have become it, or maybe even will become it, but they should find a way to stop the criminality in this town, since the fact that after 10 o'clock everybody has to stay at home and that around that time there are often shootings in the harbour and beach area, is not really good for business.

More than half of the Workers Hotel complex (a few buildings, the Hotel where we stay is the best part of it, obviously the "higher" workers stayed there in the past - although I need to make clear here that this is the kind of hotel that you could find in any communist country in Europe, it has obviously been planned and built by the Russians, so don't think too highly of the term hotel) is occupied by refugees, 230 or so, in the hotel itself, too, almost 46 refugees are staying, but they are paying for it, waiting for a possibility to go to Italy, by speedboat. Our volunteers explain that the bodyguard of the hotel is the middleman between the refugees and the people with the speedboats, he is the one making the connections and negotiating the prices. But that is not something of this town in particular, it is happening everywhere. The 101K camp is described by the locals as totaly overrun by the maffia, the three nuns are not able to push them out and the one police guy at the gate is also more happy staying alive than closing the gate for the maffia.

Just two hours after our arrival I am already sitting at my first meeting in the university of Vlora, a relatively good building with in the front something that must have been a nice park before, with a big monument of Hoxha in the middle of it, now only his shoes are left, and considering their size the statue must have been over five meters. Here the NGO-meetings are organised by the OSCE (for those who still don't know, that stands for Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) and not the Albanian mission, but the KVM, which stands for Kosovo Verification Mission, the orange cars which were in Kosovo. KVM is by the way not existing anymore since yesterday, it is now called Transition Task Force, and the former KVM, now TTF, people will go into Kosovo next week. They are packed and ready to go. It is a meeting about the food situation, and somehow here in Vlora things seem to be a lot less chaotic as in Tirana or up north. It sounds like ADRA, WFP, World Vision, Red Cross and Caritas Italia have more or less gotten their act together. The only complains were about the fact that the bread is delivered too late in the morning, so that people can't use it for breakfast anymore, but that was all.

Directly after the meeting we went to the balcony with World Vision and the Dutch Red Cross in order to get something organised. World Vision is more or less taking care about the social services in this region but its still only arriving and installing themselves. The social services officer for the Dutch camp had also just arrived, which means that we are all new here and that is always a good starting point, nobody really has everything set up for 100% already, so we can cooperate from the beginning. Here in Vlora some refugees have already been leaving these last two days, about 60 went to the north. Also four small collective centers have been closed and essentially moved to the Dutch/Belgian and Italian camps. Like everywhere these camps are slowly getting more organised, here in Vlora as well, the panic situation is over.

After the meeting we walked a bit up and down Vlora, a nice small town, basically one road with palmtrees on both sides, and a lot of small parks, with monuments and fountains, at least what is left of them. Here too, public property is just fading away, falling apart or getting stolen. Ten years ago this country was the only communist country where there were always streetlights, now it is probably the only country which hasn't any, even the pool's are nicked often. And when the remains of a streetlight pole is still standing people just break those, too, so as to illegally connect up to the electricity wires inside, stealing electricity for their kiosks and bars and so on.

During the late-night dinner, near to the hotel - it is too dangerous to stay in the town center so late - we have a long talk with a young guy from Pecz. He is helping Mike and all the foreign doctors here in Vlora with translation work and is basically in action sixteen hours a day. So Mike took him out for a dinner, which he of course didn't want to have. He explained how they had been forced out of their houses in Pecz, which was 30% Serbian, and had walked for eight days, in a group of 200, with a little bit of food, no water and some wounded UCK soldiers, which they had to carry, from Pecz, via Montenegro to Shkodra. They walked mostly during the night, hiding during the day, crossing the border illegally. Not knowing if they were safe up to the moment that they saw the first Mercedes with Albanian numberplates. In two weeks time he wants to go back to see what remains of his house.

Finally very late in the night, we had nice long talks with the refugees staying here and with the volunteers of the Albanian Youth council, who arrived yesteday, I went to sleep on the balcony of the room of Mark and Sun Wan, the dogs out there keep barking and the sea is making a peaceful sound. The town on the other side of the bay is quiet. After 10 o'clock there is only police and bandits on the street somebody told us today. Sometimes the quietness is broken by the sound of one of the grey speedboats on it's way to Italy.

wam :-)