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 …

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Letters

Disorder in Albania December 4, 1997