War In Europe: Refugee presence tests Albanians' patience and generosity

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The Independent Online
AFTER A two-day lull in the campaign of ethnic cleansing, Serbian forces were back in business yesterday. By dawn 1,500 new refugees had entered Albania, which has already accepted more than 300,000 Kosovars. The country is bursting at the seams, and the the compassion people show towards their Kosovan brethren may not last for ever.

Selahtin Pllana, who had remained in his village despite two visits from Serbian forces, described how they were forced from their homes: "They told us, `All the intellectuals, all the leaders, are in Albania. Everyone has to go. This is your fault, you wanted this to happen, so go'." The men were allowed to leave in a car and tractor convoy past towns said by other refugees to be destroyed.

"On the way we saw burning villages, destroyed cars, dead animals, clothes on the road," Mr Pllana said. "There was no one on the road - only tanks, soldiers and police."

At midnight on Friday, the first of the new wave of refugees, expelled from the village of Vregoli, seven miles from Pristina, crossed the Morini border post into Albania. "Albania is poor. How long can it really maintain this?" asked Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Albania, so far, has behaved rather heroically. The Tirana government made herculean efforts to ship the refugees on to towns rather than allow them to fester in muddy fields as in Macedonia. Nevertheless, the arrival of at least 300,000 desperate, terrified people bodes ill for an impoverished country still trying to recover from the anarchy that followed the collapse of pyramid schemes in the spring of 1997, and 50 years of isolation under Enver Hoxha.

"There is dirt and disease everywhere. We are risking an epidemic," said Defrim Elezi, selling cigarettes and soft drinks outside the Kukes mosque, where hundreds of "tractor families" have made camp.

"Prices are high because the Kosovars are here, and people think they have money," he said. The influx has brought inflation to Kukes and to Tirana, where the concept is almost unknown, since Albania produces nothing, collects no taxes and lives largely from the smuggling of drugs, guns, migrants and prostitutes.

Before the current crisis the Albanian attitude to the Kosovars had mostly been one of resentment. In Yugoslavia, Albanians were free to travel abroad and make money, while the Hoxha regime trapped their cousins in a paranoid time-warp and deep poverty. None the less, perhaps 70 per cent of those living in Kukes opened their homes to refugees - Mr Elezi had 17 Kosovars staying in his house for five days. Opportunism has surfaced swiftly, however, with some drivers charging refugees for the 15- mile journey from the border to the town. "Many Albanian people are taking the humanitarian aid and selling it in the market," Mr Elezi said. It is a pattern familiar to anyone who has dealt with Albanian officials.

"There was a reluctance to put aid in because it would disappear into the pockets of the criminal gangs," said one Western observer in Albania. However, the government will no doubt use the crisis to extract more money from the international community. Tirana has already told the World Bank and the IMF that it wants to re-negotiate its loans.

Although aid will pour in, it will only benefit Kosovar refugees, despite the poverty in which many Albanians live. This is likely to exacerbate tensions.

Nato is certainly welcome here - Albania was the first country to sign up to the Partnership for Peace programme in 1993 - and no one seems concerned about Belgrade's reaction to the deployment here of US attack helicopters. "No, I'm not worried about Yugoslavia attacking," Mr Elezi said. "I think it's good we help, because we have the same blood as the Kosovars." Even the influx of foreigners - aid agencies, journalists, soldiers and so forth - will bring only temporary gain. They spend money, but they also drive up prices for everyone else. "Someone said that Kukes had won the lottery with this," said Genti Hajdari, a student. "But you see the conditions here and it is not like that. This used to be a beautiful town and now it is all dirty. And the prices have gone up for all of us."

As far as Mr Hajdari and Mr Elezi are concerned, the costs far outweigh any possible gain from the Kosovo crisis - and the rest of Albania may soon agree.