Blast at ammunition depot leaves shattered lives in poverty-ridden Albania

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The Independent Online

Shkelqim Prini was engaged to be married. On Sunday the 21-year-old had all but lost hope rescuers would claw his fiancee, Zeli Elezi, from the rubble left behind by a powerful explosion at an ammunition depot.

The two were working in the depot in the village of Gerdec, just north of the capital, Tirana, emptying gunpowder from thousands of shells marked for destruction when the explosion happened on Saturday.

"She was at the heart of the blast," Shkelqim said, nervously clutching a bottle of water with his hands, both of them scarred by the weekend blast that left at least nine people dead and hundreds injured. "I don't think she survived." The couple eked out a living on €120 a month, facing long hours of work handling live ammunition and mines to save enough money for their marriage.

Shkelqim could not tell what caused the blast but recalls being pushed up into air from the explosion as he was carrying shells. His hair was partly burned from the flames and his ears were damaged by air pressure. He managed to run out of the depot to see his mother, Dylbere, covered in blood. Dylbere, 45, and two of Shkelqim's sisters were also working there.

"I carried my mother with my own two hands," Shkelqim said, his ears bandaged by doctors in Tirana's main hospital. "I held her for two hours until the helicopters came." Dylbere was in critical condition after suffering burns and fractures to the head. His sisters were lightly injured but out of danger.

His story was often interrupted by people scrambling in the yard of the hospital to inquire about the accident.

"She'll be all right, you mustn't lose faith," said a black-clad women who approached to shake his hand, struggling to find words of encouragement about the man's fiancee. Others grouped aside waiting for news of their friends and relatives.

The blast flattened the village of Gerdec and caused widespread destruction over a square mile, leaving a huge crater.

It highlighted Albania's woes in trying to destroy some 100,000 tons of explosives, remnants of its communist past. Authorities say most of the ammunition was Russian and Chinese artillery shells made in the 1960s.

Albania, which is hoping to join the NATO military alliance, has seen similar accidents in the past. In one such case three years ago, careless handling of ammunition killed a military officer.

"This was bound to happen," a Western military official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter. "There are depots in much worse condition around the country." More than 100 other depots storing excess ammunition dot Albania, many of them in heavily populated areas.

The official, who was involved in reforming Albania's military to conform to NATO requirements, said basic procedures for destroying the ammunition were often not followed in Albania's effort to destroy excess ammunition.

Brass shell cases — that are sold for scrap metal — were randomly emptied in the same depot where the ammunition was stored, a procedure that cuts down demolition costs, but increases the danger of incidents, the official said.

Albania's prime minister, Sali Berisha, said yesterday the country should not engage in further destruction of ammunition for the meantime to avoid similar incidents.

For Shkelqim that might be of little importance. He walked away from the hospital yard without knowing where to spend the night, but with one request for the authorities.

"I just want them to find her body."