No pay, no police, but the polls will be open

Andrew Gumbel visits Vlora, Albania, where lawlessness is a way of life

It doesn't take long to realise that Vlora is in pretty poor shape to host a general election campaign.

The shops are all shut, the streets are full of uncollected rubbish and stray animals, and even the bars where the city folk congregate don't stay open long after noon. By mid-afternoon, the "Chechens" - the men with guns - have taken over, and the place looks less like a smugglers' haven than a morgue.

The city's municipal building, an elegant Italianate palace, is little more than a burned-out shell, the victim of repeated assaults and lootings at the height of the anti-government protests in February and March. The downstairs rooms are blackened and useless, while upstairs the remaining civic authorities struggle on with a handful of broken chairs and half- salvaged bookcases. One could spend all morning staring at the ceiling and counting the bullet holes. From the stink, one imagines - not all that fancifully - that every adult male in Vlora must have urinated on the place.

Two 11-year-old kids are playing in a stairwell when a municipal worker emerges from a meeting and asks them to leave. They ignore him, so he cuffs one lightly over the head. The boy turns rounds, whips out a revolver from the top of his shorts and says: "Hey! You watch out how you speak to me, mister."

Welcome to Albania's Wild West, a city without police, without a mayor, without a government prefect. A city where bombs go off without warning, where even the children are armed, where gangland killings, kidnappings and robberies are the stuff of everyday conversation. The banks have all been looted, and pensions and state pay cheques no longer arrive. For a while, state benefits were paid out from an office inside the devastated main police station. But a couple of weeks ago the lone officer on duty was killed by gunfire, and the payments have ceased.

In a few short weeks, Vlora is supposed to register some 120,000 eligible voters, set up polling stations, advertise candidates and organise something resembling a free and fair election. It's mission impossible, but that does not mean the effort is not being made. "This is the last chance for true democracy in this country," says Medin Xhelili, head of the Vlora district government, staring down with just a hint of desperation at the small pile of voter registration forms he has been given.

He'll have to make hundreds of photocopies to ensure all names can be entered properly, but the municipal photocopiers are long gone, and there is no money to contract the job out. Mr Xhelili hopes either the government or the international community will come up with a solution before tomorrow's registration deadline, just as he hopes a mayor can be appointed soon and a police force will show up on the streets again.

"I don't doubt we'll be ready," he says. "We have no other choice. It's a crime that a country of three million people should suffer like this." Strange though it sounds, his optimism is not entirely misplaced. With President Sali Berisha unequivocally declared public enemy number one, Vlora has only two really big underlying problems.

One is the threat of attack by forces loyal to the president, by now a rather distant prospect, since the city is armed to the teeth and vigilant to the point of paranoid obsession. And the other is a destabilising profusion of competing authorities - starting with the legitimate city and district councils, and including the so-called National Salvation Committee and the criminal gang run by the glamorous local bandit known as Zani.

Until the recent crisis, Zani (or Sazan Caushi, to give him his full name) was a tough mafioso with a criminal record in Greece for operating prostitution rackets, but he returned to take advantage of the chaos and quickly established himself as a colourful Robin Hood figure. His favourite game is kidnapping local businessmen grown rich on smuggling rackets and persuading them - with the use of torture, if necessary - to hand their accumulated wealth over to him.

Zani claims that he distributes the proceeds to the poor, although it is more likely that he invests most of it in operations to smuggle marijuana to Italy. He knows how to stage a good publicity stunt, though, and a couple of weeks ago his men commandeered three trucks full of eggs and handed them out in Vlora's main square.

There is a second gang in Vlora, believed to be working for President Berisha, and every few days there is a spectacular exchange of violence between the rival groups. At the end of May, Zani's right-hand man was shot dead. Unable to take immediate revenge, Zani blew up a few cars and fired off several hundred machine-gun rounds instead to vent his frustration.

One might have hoped that some of this mayhem would have been stamped out by the contingent of Italian peacekeeping troops stationed in Vlora since mid-April. But the number of murders has in fact increased since the force arrived. Outside the Italian base, two children spend all day waiting for commissions to pick up coffee from the bar across the street - their school was closed after a bomb went off in the playground and a man blew himself up trying to hurl a grenade into a classroom.

The Italians have not been entirely useless, however. The roads around Vlora are relatively safe for the first time in months and during the morning, at least, the city is starting to return to a semblance of normality. And they have also found an unprecedented use for one of the swarms of concrete bunkers built all over the country by that master of Albanian paranoia, the communist dictator Enver Hoxha.

The bunkers, which were never put to use in Hoxha's time, have been converted into houses, mushroom farms, smuggling covens, you name it. But the Italians have gone one better. They are using their beachside bunker as ... a bunker, complete with artillery position and 24-hour lookout over Vlora harbour. Enver Hoxha would have been proud.

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