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Heart of Darkness


In March 1992 a year of political chaos in Albania was brought to an end when the Democratic Party, led by Dr. Sali Berisha, the country’s leading cardiologist, was swept to power with an overwhelming victory in parliamentary elections. After having suffered nearly half a century under the most oppressive and isolated Communist dictatorship in Europe, most of Albania’s 3.5 million people seemed happy about the victory of Dr. Berisha and the Democratic Party, which he had co-founded some eighteen months before the vote. The new parliament lost no time in electing Berisha to the office of president.

The new administration faced immense problems. The Communist regime had left a desperate legacy. The few factories that produced anything were deathtraps; workers in the bauxite, chrome, and coal-mining industries, having inhaled noxious dust for years, were struck by frightful diseases. In the cities, thousands of houses had no functioning water supply. In 1991, a doctor in Tirana gave a group of journalists a tour of the hospital. The dingy operating theater, lit by candles, was covered in blood. “This is just like a slaughterhouse,” one of the horrified journalists remarked. “If this were a slaughterhouse,” the doctor replied without emotion, “they would have closed it down years ago.” Albania is certainly part of European history but by 1991 its economic and social peers were Afghanistan and Mozambique. Already Europe’s poorest country, with a monthly average income, mean and median, of $20, Albania was shaken further by rising unemployment and inflation.

But the new president’s most pressing challenge was lawlessness, a direct result of the collapse of Communist control, which had been established under the draconian regime of the dictator Enver Hoxha, who died in 1985. When Hoxha’s successor, Ramiz Alia, conceded the end of the Communist monopoly in early 1991, many towns witnessed a ferocious outburst of popular violence, aimed in particular at the police and at the notorious secret police, the Sigurimi. After fifty years of having had their lives minutely examined, picked over, interfered with, and, frequently, destroyed, Albanians poured out their anger and frustration in a series of demonstrations, riots, and strikes.

The violence crippled what little was left of Albania’s economic capacity, and exposed the country to the spread of gangsterism. Armed bandits first fixed their sights on the country’s collective farms, herding all the livestock into trucks before smuggling it over the border to Greece and selling it. What remained of the state-owned factories was looted, while the government drained the treasury, handing out welfare payments to the huge number of unemployed people who seemed to appear overnight. Italian military units were invited into Albania in the summer of 1991 to distribute food aid to stem the growing chaos.

The gangsters were not associated with any political force. They were bands made up almost exclusively of young unemployed men who seized the opportunity of chaos to enrich themselves. Stalking the countryside and towns in their blood-soaked balaclava helmets, they considered anybody a legitimate target—civilian or military, foreigner or local. The incidence of murder, looting, and rape rose throughout the country; the utterly demoralized police force lacked any authority to counter the lawlessness.

But although Alia’s successor, President Berisha, was faced with a mountain of difficulties, he also had widespread support. The people had spoken through the ballot box, while the governments of Europe and, especially, the United States gave him unequivocal backing to restore order and embark on desperately needed political and economic reform. Berisha had promises of aid from the IMF and the World Bank. For the first time in Albania’s tragic modern history, there was a palpable sense of optimism in the country. Everybody was rooting for President Berisha and at the time he seemed to deserve that support.

Now, five years later, he has been thrown out of power. Berisha’s defeat by the Socialist Party in the elections of June 29 and July 8 came after an even more appalling period of lawlessness than the one that had preceded his victory in 1992. Albania is once again out of control; once again vicious, murdering gangs, now running lucrative drug- and arms-smuggling operations, are terrorizing the country. Berisha has been accused of virtually every political crime conceivable, from fixing elections to misusing the constitution, persecuting his political opponents, muzzling the press, and allowing corruption and clientism to flourish under his rule.

Berisha indulged in the politics of vengeance and has paid the price for it. Now, it is his nemesis, the Socialist Party leader and Prime Minister-designate, Fatos Nano, who must meet the challenge posed by the wreck of Albania. Nano was one of Berisha’s earliest and most prominent victims, forced to serve four years of a twelve-year prison sentence after a trial on what human rights organizations said were trumped-up charges. He now faces two challenges. The first is to get the country working politically and economically, in cooperation with international financial institutions. The second is to break the spiral of revenge, rooted deeply in modern Albanian history, which has seen the country swing from one wild extreme to the other since the end of communism.

The Socialist Party and its smaller allies, both from the left and the center, have a two-thirds parliamentary majority; its size makes the first task easier but the second task more difficult. In parts of the country, the hostility to Berisha during the election campaign was so charged and violent that Nano will need the most deft political skills to prevent a further round of butchery.


Ten days before the June elections, I was in Cerrik, a small town in central Albania. The people there were anticipating an attack by forces of the National Guard, the paramilitary units loyal to President Berisha. Sixteen anti-aircraft guns had been put in place on the flat rooftops of the town by the local resistance group. Its leader, Commandante Rolando, his face framed by tangled shoulder-length hair and a dirty baseball cap, pointed proudly to a gun facing north. “If Berisha comes here,” he shouted, “I’ll show you what we’ll do!” With the confidence of a seasoned fighter, he strolled up to the tripod and blasted a dozen deafening rounds into the sky.

This particular rooftop defends the town against an attack from the Mediterranean-green mountains, beyond which lies the capi-tal, Tirana. In the shadow of the mountains stand an oil refinery and a thermoelectric plant, both now idle relics of Communist industrialization. Twenty miles to the east across the plain the vast steel and metallurgical plant at Elbasan scars the landscape, a ghostly complex of twisted metal and broken glass that has become the most enduring symbol of Albania’s insane autarchic Stalinism. This huge industrial corpse has been decaying for five years, while unemployment and intense social disaffection have increased throughout the region. Over the mountains in Tirana, the friends and associates of the President have grown obscenely rich by grabbing the choicest fruits of an uncontrolled capitalism.

Commandante Rolando has been unemployed for the five years since he left school. He has three children, and has always been dependent on the pittance known as Social Assistance, about $15 a month. He peers down from his vantage point on the roof at the once-pretty town square below to show me an armored personnel carrier, a rusting monument to the three-hour battle of Cerrik, which took place on the afternoon of May 26, when a well-armed unit of President Berisha’s National Guard stormed the town in order to arrest the members of the local citizens’ resistance group, called the Salvation Committee, and to reestablish Tirana’s control over the town.

Cerrik, with a huge television booster station and a military airport, is of considerable strategic importance. The Cerrik Salvation Committee was formed in March, along with dozens of others in central and southern Albania, to take over the functions of government after anti-Berisha riots and demonstrations in February and early March destroyed state authority in large parts of the country. The committees differed from place to place. In some places, they were fronts for the mafia thugs who exploited the breakdown to expand their operations. In other towns, the committees organized their own police to protect the population against the destruction caused by the mafia.

In Cerrik there are no gangs, since the town lies off the main smuggling routes. The rebels here see themselves as fighting against a man who they believe was personally responsible for the ruination of Albania’s industrial heartland. Before the collapse of communism, virtually everybody in Cerrik was employed by large state enterprises. Within months of Berisha’s victory, all these factories had stopped functioning, and although Albania received considerable financial aid from the IMF and the World Bank during his tenure of office, none of this found its way to Cerrik, Elbasan, or the other industrial complexes of central Albania. As far as Rolando is concerned, the Democratic Party took away his town’s livelihood and replaced it with nothing, and he and his fellow committee members had every right on their side when they defeated Berisha’s National Guardsmen. In the Manichean world view of Rolando and his friends on the Salvation Committee, Sali Berisha is the devil.

Berisha lives beyond the mountains in Tirana but comes from Tropoja, a town in the highlands of the northeast, close to the border with Kosovo, where Albania’s clan system survives in its purest form, and where justice is administered by the concept of besa, or honor. If the besa is violated, the clan that feels insulted resorts to gjakmarrje, or blood revenge. The violence in Albania this year has many different political and economic causes, but it is also blood revenge writ large. Commandante Rolando’s determination to avenge his family and his town against Berisha was partly a reaction to the President’s five years in office; it is also part of the legacy of fifty years of the most appalling Communist system in all of Eastern Europe. Six years after the belated fall of communism in Albania, the country has been caught in a spiral of vengeance, driven by greed and guns, which has left most of the population in a state of extreme deprivation and terror.

The front-line atmosphere in Cerrik, which recalls the war in Bosnia, contrasts starkly with the anarchy of Tirana. The broad Boulevard of National Martyrs, which dominates the town center, was built in the 1930s during the reign of King Zog, who served as president of the Albanian Republic in the early 1920s before being proclaimed king in 1928. The symmetry of the long avenue and the Italianate neo-classical buildings which flank it show the influence of Mussolini, who established an effective protectorate over the country in the 1930s. Countless dilapidated apartment blocks sit uneasily next to the grand buildings of fascism now reserved increasingly for embassies and the growing number of international organizations, like the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE), which have been invited into the country. Beyond the center, hardly known to the international organizations, lies a new explosion of third-world urban sprawl—miserable shanty towns, without decent hygiene, which in the last five years have attracted hundreds of thousands of impoverished peasants, seeking, and not finding, work in the big city.

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