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Friday, April 16, 1999 Published at 16:29 GMT 17:29 UK

Good for Tirana

Tirana looks like Sarajevo but feels like Saigon

Tirana looks remarkably like Sarajevo. Only that this city was disfigured not by war but by decades of astonishing neglect and poverty.

The streets are full of craters the size of bathtubs. The buildings look as if they've been pockmarked by machine gun fire. Albanian cement crumbles like parmesan cheese.

The inhabitants rush around with the wild-eyed stare of people bracing themselves for disaster.

As one American veteran journalist put it: "This place feels like Saigon."

Carnival of conflict

[ image: Albania: a troubled past]
Albania: a troubled past
The hotel lobbies are humming with a carnival of conflict, earnest aid workers giving information. Nato soldiers in crisp uniforms denying it. Paramilitaries in black leather jackets, making it up. Journalists scrambling for stories. Visiting politicians scrambling for attention.

And sour-breathed black marketeers promising the earth. All trading secrets, rumours, arms, cigarettes and God knows what else.

Outside on the streets, in the tent camps, there's the wretched flood of refugees. Tirana has accommodated tens of thousands of them in an extraordinary feat of hospitality.

The brother of our driver, Ladi, owns a small hotel, The Quiet Cave. He has given all his six rooms, free of charge, to refugee families.

Time on their hands

[ image: A sports complex is now home to ethnic Albanian refugees]
A sports complex is now home to ethnic Albanian refugees
The municipal park is full of farming families living out of their tractors. It looks like a cross between Woodstock and an outdoor meeting of the National Union of Farmers - from the last century.

Now that the initial struggle to survive is over the refugees have time on their hands. Too much time. They can spend all day reflecting on their status as the new errant tribe of the Balkans.

The Palace of Sports once built to celebrate physical prowess is crammed full of families living on mattresses.

Albania's only public swimming pool complex has become a tent city. The authorities emptied the pool because refugees were washing their clothes and themselves in the filthy water. Disease was spreading. The 20ft diving board tower is used for live TV presentation by an American network. Luciano Pavarotti is on his way.

The poorest country in Europe

[ image: Enver Hoxha described Stalin as a wimp]
Enver Hoxha described Stalin as a wimp
This is a nation of three million people accommodating some 300,000 refugees. Albania is the poorest country in Europe. It is subject to periodic bouts of chaos and lawlessness. It is a country still relishing its wild behaviour after decades of a gruesome and stifling dictatorship by Enver Hoxha.

Mr Hoxha thought that Stalin was a wimp so you can imagine what life here must have been like. As a colleague of mine put it, "Albania today is frisky." It is perhaps astonishing that this country hasn't been falling apart under the weight of refugees and the threat of war from neighbouring Yugoslavia.

The opportunity for modernisation

The answer perhaps is that this crisis has presented Albania with the opportunity to come of age, to join the club of modern civilisations. To join Nato, perhaps even the European Union. And to get some roads and telephone lines put in.

Such is the government's desire to help that they've handed over the entire air space to Nato air traffic controllers. The foreign minister told me that he was hoping for thousands of Nato ground troops to teach Yugoslavia a lesson and to spend cash, preferably dollars and Deutsch Marks.

Nato will protect us

[ image: Albanian soldiers may not be up to the job]
Albanian soldiers may not be up to the job
"Aren't you worried that if Nato uses this country as a barracks and a spring-board you might incur the wrath of your powerful neighbour: Yugoslavia," I asked. "Oh no," he said. "Nato will be here and it will protect us."

I hope so because the Albanian armed forces may not be up to the job. I met some of their soldiers on the border with Kosovo. The ill-fitting uniform was made of thick Russian fleece from the fifties. The wooden rifles were vintage Chinese, 1956. And every belt buckle had the old hammer and sickle scratched out because they couldn't afford to buy new ones. The Albanian army has a belt-buckle scratching department.

The arrival of Uncle Sam

[ image: A flashback to WWII as Uncle Sam arrives]
A flashback to WWII as Uncle Sam arrives
The soldiers in their late teens were extremely friendly and I have no doubt that they will fight tooth and nail to protect their country. But for now they are left to marvel at the arrival of Uncle Sam.

At the gates to Tirana airport, now a military base, I saw a heavily armed American GI hand out sticks of chewing gum to grateful Albanian soldiers. It was another flashback to the Second World War, to go with all the other ghosts of the past. It's as if seven months before the end of the century, history is telling us that after all very little has changed.

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