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Tirana Diary 5-7 Mai 1999

Tirana Diary 5-7 Mai 1999

Just before I left Berlin with the night train to Munchen I went for a late dinner with my girlfriend to a restaurant called Dubrovnik. The last harbour of the ship going down from Triest on his to Albania, last war I spend some time in Dubrovnik, now I am going further south. The international train from Munchen to Beograd (which takes the route of the famous old Orient Express). Strange feeling, for 3 years this train wasn't able to go further to Beograd from Zagreb. After 10 minutes already control in the train, "passport bitte", obvious that this train is not used only by people who are going to do relief work in the Balkans. In Vienna I met up with Adela and the two boys from the Netherlands who are going as pathfinder to Skopje.
We are on a lucky star and we met eachother as planned in Vienna, I am always surprised when things like this work out the way we plan it. In Vienna we had also a meeting with people, partly deserteurs from Serbia, who are there to help the opposition in Beograd by putting the other news coming out of their homecountry on the net. We talked some time about the possibility to connect refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia on the net and they immediatly say that they want to help. I am almost surprised how much people from Serbia wants to help the refugees from Kosov@, that is good.
The next day we had to leave early, since trains weren't going to Ljubljana in time anymore and the car rental services didn't want to get at least 1000 Dm for a car rent in the direction of the balkans, we were lucky that a friend of us from Vienna decided at the last moment to bring us to Ljubljana airport. At the incheck desk we were positively surprised, our reservations where known and the planes are still going. And see, to our big suprise, everything went okee.
At this moment we are sitting in the hall of Ljubljana airport, with a big group of journalists and aid workers on their way to Skopje and Tirana. There is a lot of complaining around us, it is "maybe airlines" time again. Like in the old days of Sarajevo, "when" and "if" the airplanes will go is the big qeustion. "Maybe in half an hour", "Maybe we will hear in 10 minutes", "Maybe they are not going at all", we are back in a warzone agian. To work here you need to bring a lot of good nerves with you. From this moment on it is "maybe yes" and "maybe no" or "I have heard that".
I feel sorry for BJ, our friend from IRC who will have to go through the same waiting process as we. It is a total mess-up at Tirana Airport the tell here. All kind of humanitarian flights are coming in and countries are flying refugees out. I can imagine the chaos down there. I visited Tirana a couple of times before and it is not particular a big airport, more a rather small one, even smaller than this one here in Ljubljana.
Same for the group going to Skopje, at last much quicker than we actually believed our both airplanes were taken off. A small one with almost only journalists and aidworkers to Skopje and a relative big one to Tirana.
The airplane we flying with is big, at least for this flight in normal conditions. Besides some camera teams, aid workers and some Albanian Business man, the flight is full with young and less young men, obvious Albanian from Kosova. All around us people are reading newspaper about the UCK. Where they are coming from becomes more and more clear when we before we land in Tirana have to fill in a custom paper, "what is your name", "your nationality", "the reason of your visit" until your pasport number. At this moment everywhere in the plane yugoslav passports are popping up. And people are starting to discuss how to fill in the questions, especially the one where you stay in the time you are in Albania and the purpose of your visit. It seems that they agree on the reason for visit on "visiting family" and "Tiran" (albanian for Tirana) as address.
Besides filling in the arrival papers you also need to fill in the departure papers, most guests are not allowed to stay longer in Tirana than a certain time (how long I haven't found out yet) and this departure paper is stamped at the entrance of the country, you have to give to the customers the moment you leave it. Most react by throwing this card away, there is NO customs on the border they will leave the country, and how long their fight will take, they don't know yet. I wish the guy next to me a safe return from the battle fields and a good return to his family in Switzerland. We both have tears in our eyes.
The flight took a lot more than the last time I flow from Ljubljana to Tirana, some 19 years ago. Due to the NATO actions we had to fly all the way over Italia untill Brindisi and than circle in the air above Tirana, waiting a long, long time before we get the permission to land. The airport is closed for civil airtraffic, the captain said.
On the airport it is a big chaos. We land on a short airstrip on the right side there are a few dozens "apache" helicopters standing, some of them are hoping up and down, ten meters of the ground, flying as close as possible together. Without any war actions already two came down in the last two weeks. No wonder if you see them making their practice.
It is raining when we leave the airplane, Tirana airport is even smaller as I remembered. We spend at least over 1 1/2 hours in the custom area. Actually a small building, which looks more like a railway station from a small Italian village than like an International airport. In the past probably also more people went through such a railway station in Italia, than through here. Albanian wasn't that open for tourism.
All the information from the check-in cards and pasports had to be written in big books, twice. And if something is forgotten, the man in the glasbox is making a lot of noise and you got the feeling that he is will exploded any moment or at least call the police and arrested the "criminal" in front of his box. Nothing of the kind, after all the "UCK soldeers" worked their way through the customs, finally we try. The man is rather calm now, writes everything down and makes some how clear that I have to pay $36, Adela from Praha doesn't have to pay anything, but she already collected a visum from the Alabanian embassy in her hometown, which costed nothing. The guy after me, he is british, had to pay $57. And the American before me $42, I am glad I brought at least some dollars with me.
At my hand lugages and backpack nobody looked, I could have smuggled almost anything into this country. But I wonder what you should smuggle to Albania. We leave the building through a group of people, asking if you need a taxi into town. We are proud, we have our own car to pick us up. And lucky us BJ still stands there, allthough we are almost 2 1/2 hours late.
We leave for his car, an at least 15 years old mercedes, with some big stickers "IRC" on it. Next to it are standing simular cars, with stickers saying that they are driving for "The flying Docters", "Medicines sans Frontiers", "Brown and Root", "UNHCR", etc. etc.
We drive almost 50 meters and end up in a traffic jam, due to all the sudden big amount of cars and trucks (humanitarian aid and military supplies) on this small road, it is really not more than a provincial backroad (not wider as say 5 meters or so), the asfalt has givven up and the road is like a combination of huge bumbs and holes. A truck of UNHCR has made a mistake and hangs somewhere in one of the wholes and blocks the whole road. The local drivers start to blow there horns, which is enormous when almost 150 cars do that at the same time. Some military airplane are taking of producing an unspeakable noise and the "apache" helicopters are keeping jumping up and down (sometimes even fly a bit around). Welcome to Tirana BJ shouts at me, I smile.
After about an hour the police comes, I don't know how they solved the problem, but 15 minutes later we could drive away. On the way to Tirana BJ explains what he is doing, basically rebuilding old warehouses and industrial complexes into refugee camps. IRC has decided not to teach the issue of tent camps, since sooner or later you have to build anyway and besides that due to the wheater, wind, at the cost already a lot of tent camps came into big problems, tents broke down or went up in the air. Anyway he complains about the leak of cooperation between most of the NGOs, the fact that there is absolute no coordination from somebody, everybody works for him or herselfs and UNHCR is more or registrating the chaos afterwards, he says.
Besides that it is almost imposible to find out who is the owner of an empty object, near to the Airport stand a brand new empty production plant for artificial fertilizer, it is not totally finished yet, but sure make a good place for at least 2000 maybe even 3000 refugees. The place belongs to some Egyptian company, who left the country in 1997. The new government, after the short civil war, broke their relations with Islamic countries. And although it is almost 100% sure that the company never will return to Albania and finish the plant, it is not allowed to use it, Albania is a capitalist country now, private ownership is holy. And there are dozens of this places all around the country BJ continues.
Driving into Tirana probably is probably only discribeable when you combine let's say San Salvador, Damascus and Bombay together, although Tirana is fairly small. But the chaos it produces and the noise of all the horns, the huge amounts of people on the street, the traffic without any rules. The bumping and broken road, the walking parts which almost looks like the ones in Sarajevo after shelling. The enourmous amout of people on the street. The translator of BJ says that we are going to the better part of the center, where new houses are build, by private investors. When we drive into a muddy backroads I am really wondering how the less better parts of this city looks like, but I really imagen an area where a lot of Embassy and governmental staff is living a bit different.
Nevertheless when we finally enter the appartment, we are surprised how good it looks. Although the type of fourniture is not my style, but you can't have everything. Most of the foreigners (not refugees) which come here end up first of all in hotel Intercontinental ($200 per night), since it is not that easy to find something to live, if you don't speak the language. We really are lucky and when our phone is changed for international phonecalls somewhere next week, we have hit the jackpot. Anyway sunflowers will blossom on the street of the Paris Commune, if you ever come to Tirana and you are able to find the street, please pass by and see it.

Greetings from Tirana,