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Tirana Diary 16 May 1999

Tirana 16 Mai 1999

Already for one week I try to change German Marks to Dollars, since this country, at least here in Tirana is the first part of the Balkans were not German Mark, but the American Dollar is accepted. They told me that before, but somehow on the way down here we hadn't the time to change it. So I tried at the local banks, but or they asked to much for the exchange, or didn't had so much money ($1000) in store. So finally I decided to ask George, our Albanian helper, if he knew were I could change such amounts of money.
You have to know that money changing in Tirana is not really done at the banks, there are about 4 or 5 points in the town, in front of the national bank, on the main square, on the corner of the telecom building, a huge group of people is gathered, who stand there with huge bundels of Leks or Dollars in their hands. I never have seen before the black market changing so openly and so normal that even the police is doing their changing there. Strange is however that the exchange rate on the black market has almost the same rate as in the official exchange offices or some times even lower.. George explains us that the street makes the exchange rates, they can change with the hour or even with the minute. And somehow all those people who are standing there, some times with plastic bags full money, the more modern ones with a hand calculator, know from minute to minute what the exchange rate is. The people don't trust in the official exchange rates, nobody has his money on the bank, all the money trade is done here on the street.
At this moment it is better to buy Leks, and sell dollars or german marks, George tells, if you change lots of money now and wait a few hours you can make at least 1000 or more Lek, since it is almost sure that the dollar will go up later today. The German Mark is not doing that good at this moment.
This all is going on openly, when George gives me the money back, in dollars and to an exchange rate which is almost that what I would get in Germany, maybe even better, 2000 Dm into $1080+100 Lek ! I believed him and put the money in my pocket, but no he said I had to openly count and control it, and don't put it in your jacket pocket when everybody can see it, but it somewhere else were you feel it all the time. And now we have to get away from here, but although I had to go to another place as him he convinced me to go somewhere else with him, since everybody had seen how much moeny we had and you never know if somebody would follow us. After half a kilometer he said that I should take a taxi now and drive home, so nobody could follow me.
In some way absurd, there on the corner people are standing with huge amounts of money in their hands, I reckon that a few million dollar is been exchanged on that corner every day, and there nothing is happening, but walking away from it can be dangerous. George said not alone there, if you come out of the bank that can also happen, you should go always in pairs. But he is not afraid, he is from Tirana, he tells, but we foreigners should look out.
I stayed a little longer in bed this morning than normal, so I took around 8.30 a shower, and suddenly the water went out. I asked George if that is normal in this part of the town. Yes he said, we have to be lucky, we only have two times per day no water. He only has water two times a day (almost at that periods when we haven't). He explains that the water system from Tirana is build for 350.000 people. And has to serve now 3 times more, that the pipes are old, the pressure low and that it is much worse during the summer. And I idiote tought that it was only a problem for the refugee camps, but the whole country has this problems also without refugees, that promises something for the future.
By the way I start bumping into this situation that everybody starts to explain that everything in Albania is different from the rest of the world, albanians are different (and special), like the croats told me in Croatia, the Serbs in Slavonia and the Muslims in Bosnia. Different things are different, the way it goes is different, etc. But honestly for me goes a lot the same like anywhere else in such situations. Of course Albanians are different, so are Dutch for that matter, or Belgiums, or what ever. But I will sit down with a coffee and a cigarette and listen to the stories from the Albanian history, each time they are slidely different so each time I hear a new aspect what I didn't hear before. I start to become a specialist on Balkan history on the side line.
Our American Jerry is slowly understanding that it is not so simple to get things off the ground. Yesterday he joint BJ, Lynette and Stefan (a polish ex-pakrac volunteer, who works for UNDP in Travnik now and visits us) and heard the stories about our work in Pakrac and how we slowly move, some times we had the feeling that nothing had happened and than suddenly we moved miles in an hour. Working here is the same thing, with money you can do a lot, but not everything. You slowly have to learn how things get done here, how Albania ticks, how the UN agencies here are functioning, how the politics are working, what the connections are between the NGO's. And as grassroots that takes a lot of talking, sitting, listning and explaining. But even the big ones, must adopt in a way the situation on the ground and learn how to work with it. So although they can move a lot of things on the ground, with their huge organisations and help from NATO or AFOR (the other international force here) they also often are running into the walls of impossible. That is often hard to imagen if you are not in the middle of it. Technically it looks so simple to get infrastructures up and build up camps and so, but the reality is so different always.
Jerry came since he wanted to help to build tents, cleaning sites, help in kitchens, etc. Do the hard labour, but that is not the work foreigners are doing here, they do planning, monitoring, designing, and social work, like us. The heavy work is done by local constructors (otherwise they would get angry and in this way they earn a bit of money in order to build up their own future) and the AFOR/NATO troops. I tried to explain him that he has to be patient and help to build up our contacts and slowly I noticed that he starts to understand, but still rather would be busy building tents. "I want to feel usefull" : he keeps saying.
It is sunday in Tirana, most NGO's are closed for the weekend, the town is much more quiet as normal. Although most shops are open, they are not that many cars on the street (but NATO and UNHCR were flying more with their helicopters as normal). There are however far more people walking. The small park behind the statute of Skenderbeg was more full than ever. This is the place were refugees from Kosov@ try to meet eachother. You see big families sitting in the grass, making some coffee on small gas burners and sitting and waiting there, untill maybe a known person passes by. You never know. There are now so many ideas and allready actions started how the Kosovarian can trace eachother, some big compagnies want to put mobil phones in all camps and on central points, through which people can phone online databases with voice interfaces, others say that we have to wait until Microsoft starts their registration programme, which is a tracing tool as well. Some believe that ICRC get their act together after all. Some like us, like to work with mobil computer connections, linked with online databases.
But I wonder how they will reach out to all those refugees which are somewhere here in Albania, far more than the half in host families, "wild camps" and who are moving all the time. They travel from camp to collective center, from private house, to empty fields, from Tirana to Durres. They follow each rumour that it is better some where else and that people from their village have been seen there and there. More and more are coming to Tirana, since there are the embassies. You easily can spot the Italian, Swiss, German, Swedish, Dutch and Norwegian embassy or consulate, since in front of them are hundreds, some times thousands of people standing waiting till they are able to go in and file a request to leave Albania for a third country. The kosovarian from big cities in Kosov@, who mostly work as geustworkers abroad don't want to stay here in the country, this is albania they say, a country full of thiefs and mafia, they have spend big parts of their lives in western countries and feel afraid here (they are not surprised that everything is such a mess and badly organised "what can you otherwise expect, this is Albania" they say).
The Kosovarian from small villages are fleeing from the big camps, they are not used to live togther with so many people. So everywhere you see people on the move, on their tractors, in their cars (without numberplates) or by foot. The people I was talking to yesterday let their car standing in the center of Tirana, it wasn´t able to drive anymore, I asked them if they weren't afraid that it was stolen. That doesn't matter they said, ofcourse it get stolen, but we lost every thing already and a car I can't take with me when I go to Sweden anyway. No he said I am not going back to Kosov@ no way, it is over there. Maybe the old people and those from the country side will return, but not the young ones, they go abroad, legal or illegal. In the south of Albania the contrabands are making big money with their speedboats it has been told. Kosovarians here count their money, the bush news say that it is at least $500 per person, but it easily can be more.
George was a long time in Germany, he studied for becoming an antroposofic childrengarden teacher there, but was thrown out of the country 8 months ago since his visa was out, he nearly finished his study. Original he is an artist, a painter and works with pottery. He has got two big hopes, to start a walddorf childrengarden in Tirana (but he hasn't got the money and the enregy he says and the people from the waldorfschool in Germany promised him to help, but they haven't reacted back on his appeals for help) and to make big money in order to build an orthodox church, "I can't make peace in this country as a whole," He says "so I want to make a church in which people find at least a bit of peace and quietness." I told him to start dreaming again and don't look further to get a job on a construction site, since he is perfect when we start with our first community project. The only problem is that he doesn't speak english, but he learns fast.
Today it was also the last day of the Den Haag Peace Appeal, this huge international peace conference, I haven't heard a thing from there so I hope that something has happened there especially with the Balkan Sunflowers. But that is a bit selfish.....

This was Radio Tirana again, hope your day was as sunny as mine....

wam :-)