Volume 13 Number 4
Albania Begins to See Daylight
01 August 2000

Paul Williams looks for signs of hope in a country that has suffered more than most.

'If I were God,' said the young Catholic priest from the Netherlands (two years in Albania and mastering the language), 'I would admit them all to heaven straight away. They have suffered so much.'

At first this might seem a somewhat odd comment, considering Albania's well-earned reputation for violence, corruption and crime, but as you look closer and listen to people's stories, you can see what he means. The marks of suffering--whether physically with the pot-holed roads and the near 700,000 concrete military bunkers that scar the countryside, or spiritually and psychologically in the people--are all too evident.

Of the European countries, Albania endured the darkest experience of communist rule. Party leader Enva Hoxha (pronounced Hodger) was a Stalinist who took his atheism seriously. In 1967, having grown impatient with the slowness of his brutal attempts to repress and control remaining adherents to the country's Muslim and Christian faiths, he declared Albania an atheist state. All mosques and churches were destroyed or put to other use.

Hoxha died in 1985 after 40 years of iron rule, but his malign influence lived on. It was not until 1992 that Albania had its first non-communist government--making it the last of the East European countries to shake off the system. Starting recovery late, and with years of isolation and neglect to overcome, it has left Albania with the unwanted tag of Europe's poor relation.

Enver Hoxha's long 'leadership' was only the most recent misfortune to befall a country whose history reveals a whole series of invasions and set-backs. For hope and a sense of nationhood, they look back to the time when national hero Skanderbeg held up the invading Turkish armies to give the country a brief spell of unity from 1444-66. There followed centuries of Ottoman rule until Albania declared independence in 1912. Mussolini's Italy invaded in 1939--ruling Albania for 4 years. The Italians were followed by the Germans, whose defeat opened the way for Hoxha's partisans to seize power.

In 1997, just as things seemed to be finally taking off democratically and economically, the country was hit by the pyramid savings financial crisis. The loss of confidence was so great as people lost their savings, that law and order broke down, production was halted and there were guns in everyone's hands. President Berisha, who had led the opening to democracy and western Europe, was swept aside and the Socialist Party (former communists) elected back into office. Only at the beginning of 1999 did recovery start to get underway again--and then Albania had to cope (generously as it turned out) with looking after 450,000 ethnic Albanian refugees from neighbouring Kosovo.

'Unless you have lived under a communist dictatorship, you'll never understand what it was like,' says Bardhyl Fico, former Secretary of State for Religious Affairs in the Berisha government. His father had been Foreign Minister of Albania in the 1930s. 'It's like a person trying to tell you what it was like undergoing an operation without anaesthetic. You hear what he says but your body has not experienced it.'

Fico's adopted daughter, Vali, was snatched from them one night when she was 16 and taken away, alone, to the work camps. She had been two years old when her natural parents were forced to flee without her and the Ficos had taken her in and brought her up as their own. Something her refugee parents had said or done abroad had drawn attention to her. 'I didn't suffer as much as so many did,' reflects Fico, 'but, like the vast majority, I was oppressed. You were afraid to speak in a foreign language in case they thought you were a spy. Just talking to foreigners could land you in prison.'

Fico is a Muslim, the majority faith (70 per cent) in Albania. (The Autonomous Greek Orthodox Church of Albania claims 20 per cent and the Roman Catholics 10 per cent.) He refuses to be disheartened by Albania's present difficulties or painful past. 'We are great survivors,' he says. 'We are one of the oldest peoples in Europe. Our language is unique, unrelated to any other. We have hung on for centuries and I have no fears about the new century.'

He also feels Albania has a unique role as a bridge between east and west. 'We are one of the very few countries in Europe with a Muslim majority. Over the years Muslims in Albania have developed a tolerance and even love of our Christian brothers. This has been heightened by our common experience of persecution. In this sense Albania can send an important message to the world.'

Sokol Mirakaj is not so optimistic. A Catholic working in the Prime Minister's Office, he is a member of the four-strong State Committee for Religions. He has spent a total of 42 years in the prison camp system. It was there that he met and married Vali, the Ficos' adopted daughter who had been so abruptly dragged from them in the night. Their three children were born in the camps. 'The struggle of our family has been for faith and for freedom,' he tells me. His grandfather proclaimed independence for his region of Puka in 1911--a year before Albania as a whole took that historic step. His father was exiled by King Zog in the 1930s and later led the last non-communist partisan group to hold out against Enver Hoxha. Mirakaj was two when he entered the prison camps. He was released in 1990.

'In prison, hope for the future kept me alive,' he says. 'But the kind of freedom I dreamed of during all those years was not what we have today.' He cannot bring himself to trust the former communists, however much they say they have changed their spots. 'Albania desperately needs to be led by unselfish people who love their country, not by those who want to fill their pockets.' He sees no hope that things will change or that such a leadership will emerge. Similar pessimism is widespread and there is no denying that the numbers leaving or wanting to leave Albania are huge.

So where is hope to be found? I discovered part of the answer in a village in Fush Kruja, nestling below the ancient hill capital of Kruja. There Astrit Kaloshi and his wife Vaselika run a cheese factory. They come from the Greek Orthodox tradition. Their daughter, who has found a strong faith in God's leading, suggested that the factory be called Sky Light--'because of the light that comes from heaven'. When the flood of Kosovar refugees began to flow into Albania last year, Kaloshi offered a house he had been preparing for other purposes to accommodate a group of 40 he had found wandering aimlessly on the road. The women slept in the house, the men in tents in the garden. The Kaloshis provided them with cheese, and local farmers with milk and other produce. 'We didn't want money from them. They had nowhere to go. It was the least we could do,' he says. Their act of generosity was duplicated many times all over Albania.

The Sky Light factory is at the centre of a growing network of local farmers who sell their milk to the Kaloshis. Recently they have linked up with the Dutch partners of an international project--Heifer Project International--which helps provide poor farmers with quality imported cows to increase milk production. Kaloshi administers the scheme in Fush Kruja. He procures enriched feed concentrate and sells it on to his farmers at cost. He also takes in low milk-producing cattle and 'nurses' them back to full health. Last year there were 30 small farmers in the scheme, today there are 152--all with increased earnings and seeing their small-holdings prosper.

Kaloshi says similar groups are starting up in other areas. He has recently been elected President of the Cattle Breeding Association of Albania. 'I get hope from the farmers,' he says. 'My message to them has been not to put their trust in get-rich-quick schemes, nor in some government minister, but in their own hard work. The small farmer is cautious, but if he sees something is working he will want to be part of it.' Vaselika adds, 'We have begun to construct a milk industry here. At the most difficult and dangerous moments, God has helped us beyond our imagination.' Kaloshi's next ambitious project, for which he is looking for international help, is to start a National School of Business and Enterprise.

Another who thinks he can see a turning of the tide is Lebanese businessman Pierre Semaan. He is Commercial Director of Seament Albania in the town of Elbasan. His company produces and imports cement. 'In the anarchy of 1997 the factory was closed for eight months,' he says. Half a million dollars' worth of goods and equipment were stolen. But the firm decided to keep faith with the workers by continuing to pay their salaries throughout. 'Today we employ 580 and are about to invest another $6 million to increase the factory's capacity. Business has begun picking up since early 1999.'

He is also Treasurer of FIAA--the Foreign Investors Association of Albania. It draws together all private sector foreign investors, with banks and international agencies having affiliated status. He says Telnord, a Norwegian-Greek collaboration, have just outbid all competitors for a big mobile phone contract. Also the port at Durres is in line for major World Bank aided development, including a new container terminal. 'If we can cut down the red tape and if stability is maintained, things look promising,' he says.

He is, of course, looking into the future. For the moment what Albanians see is that unemployment is unacceptably high and public sector wages, including those of doctors, lecturers and teachers, discouragingly low. In a lighter moment, and referring to their love of coffee bars (which are everywhere in Tirana), one politician remarked that of Albania's three million plus population, around half were engaged in drinking coffee and the other half in serving it!

But hope is also to be found, if not among school leavers (many of whom feel trapped and without prospects), then in the generation just above them. 'People are gradually learning to move away from reliance on "the big leader",' says Petrit Kokobobo, a businessman in his early forties. 'Ten years of democracy is a very short time. Our generation has a new European mentality. New ideas are being generated. The graph is upward.'

'I do get tempted to look for higher paid jobs abroad,' says 29-year-old Dr Neli Demi, Resident in Psychiatry at the Mother Teresa University Hospital Centre in Tirana. 'But somehow I find myself always looking for excuses to stay. I suppose it's really because I love the place and want to contribute something.

Bardhyl Fico's daughter, Nahlel Bejleiri, also shows that love for Albania. 'It's not for nothing that Albania is known as the Land of the Eagles,' she says proudly. 'We have stunning mountain scenery and a wonderful coastline, both in the north and the south.' She is a graduate in Sociology and Psychology and she and her husband Ledio have a four-month-old son. 'Whereas many countries around us are torn by religious differences, we have this tradition of working together. We have to look to the future. We desperately need a leadership that is not corrupt and is willing to share power. We need to build the whole country on the foundation pillars of honesty, unselfishness, purity and love. I believe these pillars are the word of God for the future. Without them we will have nothing--our plans to rebuild will not work and the killings and chaos of the past will return.'

Perhaps in Albania, with its worn and battered infrastructure and its continuing struggle to shake off the communist past, it takes faith to have faith in the future. 'If you are a believer, it's impossible to be without hope,' says Fico. 'Freedom is a long highway, and the road may pass patches of forest, but we are on the road.' He tells how one of Albania's leading writers paraphrases Shakespeare as: 'No night can be so long that it will never see day.'
Paul Williams


i am a man from albania. I am a muslim and i have married with a Catholic woman.I am a tolerant man. I love albania.
Enea Mancellari, 09 March 2007

tung a je mir si po ja kalon kush jeni ju une jom kristiani nga kosova
kristian lleshdedaj, 15 April 2007

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