Tirana cracks the whip over ethnic Greeks: The feud with Athens prompts Albania to tighten the screws on its minority, writes Leonard Doyle in Dervicani

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IT IS four years since Fr Michailis Dakos walked out of the manual labouring job he was forced to do by the Communist regime of Enver Hoxha. Now aged 77, the Greek Orthodox priest can freely observe his religion, but neither he nor his fellow Greek-Albanians feel liberated in the new Albania.

In 1990 Fr Dakos was one of the first to conduct a public religious service in Albania, about 23 years after the authorities tried to eradicate religion. Fondling the iron key to the church, looted by the Communists and turned into a farm store, he complains that Albania still uses the old Communist techniques of repression against the Greek minority.

'I am told to give services in Albanian and Tirana won't let us nominate our own church leaders or teach the Greek language and history in our schools . . . Our people are dragged away in the dark of night by the police and the secret police watch and report everything we do or say.'

As tensions mount between Tirana and Athens, and the prospect of a Bosnian-style ethnic war draws nearer, fear stalks Albania's Greek community.

A few Greek intellectuals flourished under Hoxha. Most of the community, numbering up to 300,000, suffered. The Greeks were considered disloyal because Albania was in a technical state of war with Greece until 1987. There were restrictions on Greek education and on the Orthodox religion.

Since the overthrow of the Communists many Greeks have called for enosis, or unity, with their 'mother country'. Albania has made clear to Athens that border revisions would be tantamount to war and has begun a harsh crackdown on the Greek community.

In April two people from Dervicani and four others were taken by the police and charged with having contacts with Greek intelligence, possessing hunting weapons without permits, and carrying out 'anti-constitutional' activities. They have not had access to lawyers or visits from their families, despite protests from Amnesty International.

Fr Dakos has hidden the church's blue and white banner, a symbol of the Greek community. 'We were afraid so we took it away,' he said.

Tirana is also causing problems over Greek language education and will allow only art, music and physical education to be taught in Greek. 'We speak Greek here and we want our children to be educated in the Greek language and in their own history, but we are not allowed,' Fr Drako said.

The once-dreaded secret police are back in action and ethnic Greeks have been dismissed from senior posts in the army. The police have raided villages late at night, arresting prominent Greek- Albanians without warrants. The sense of fear in the community is mirrored in the dramatic escalation of tension between Athens and Albania after a recent shooting incident in which two Albanian border guards were killed.

The Greek minority has been in Albania since antiquity, although that is challenged by the Muslim majority, who say they were brought to Albania as labourers under the Ottomans. They live around the city of Gjirokaster, where Enver Hoxha was born, and in a chain of villages along the border with Greece.

The area is in deep recession. Fields are untilled and unemployment runs at more than 60 per cent in the towns. The best hope for young Albanians is emigration to Greece, where they work illegally in construction. As Greek families leave, poorer Muslim Albanian families are queuing up to take their homes and land. It is not called 'ethnic cleansing', but there is potential for conflict if the authorities allow Muslims to settle in Greek areas.

In early April, armed assailants, reported to be wearing Greek military uniforms, attacked a conscript training base, killing the soldiers. It prompted a new crackdown on ethnic Greeks.

Michailis Nika, the mayor of a border village, says that when the attack took place he helped bring the wounded to hospital in Gjirokaster. 'They were conscript soldiers,' he said. 'Many were from the Greek community, so it does not make sense that we would attack them and anyway we have no interest in stirring up such troubles with Tirana.'

(Photograph omitted)