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Albania, the awakening

by Artur Katuçi
In the aftermath of early elections, Albania has returned to relative calm, with the country emerging from a century of dictatorship and several years of social and economic crisis. As always in such circumstances, the hardest hit by the recent violence were those most vulnerable to begin with: the poor and the outcast.
After a long period spent in the wilderness, the Albanian Red Cross has reorganized so as to be able to come to their assistance.

Despite the drivers’ efforts to reach Vlora before nightfall, it was dark by the time the Red Cross relief convoy entered the feverish streets of the capital of the Albanian revolt. That afternoon, an anguished phone call from the director of the city hospital dispelled any remaining hesitation at the National Society’s headquarters in Tirana: it was time to hit the road.

Yet, it was nothing if not dangerous to head across southern Albania where anarchy reigned. All sources confirmed that that day, the first of March, had been a particularly violent one. The national police and crowds of demonstrators protesting the collapse of “pyramid” savings schemes had been locked in a fierce battle which had left four dead and dozens of injured.

It did not take long for the Albanian Red Cross team to realize how serious the situation was. In the town, now abandoned by the security forces, the gloom was punctuated by burning buildings and vehicles and the intermittent muzzle flashes of guns being fired off to celebrate an unexpected victory.




Painful transition

A year earlier, Vlora, Albania’s second largest port, was regarded as in the vanguard of the change sweeping the country as it tried to build a future while repairing the damage left by half a century of dictatorship.

Isolated throughout its history as few other nations, Albania had remained uncharted territory until the early 1990s. Weary of the drawn-out agony engendered by a regime that spurned any alliance with either of the two great blocs of the Cold War, the Land of Eagles (Shqipéria in Albanian) flung itself headlong down an unfamiliar path — democracy and the market economy. In the years that followed the thaw, change rushed forward within an atmosphere of impatience mixed with apprehension. Albania saw the fall of communism, elections, freedom of expression, a massive exodus of its citizens, closure of State industries, proliferation of small private companies, price rises and the race to buy Western goods.

Needless to say, this process claimed its share of “victims”: the number of unemployed soared, as did that of villagers who left their land to migrate to the big cities; invalids, the disabled and retired people saw their pensions dwindle, while public services saw their resources choked off. Against this backdrop, the Albanian Red Cross, whose own history has been no less painful than that of the rest of the country, had to redefine its mission.

Emerging from the tunnel

Founded in 1921, recognized by the ICRC in 1923 and admitted as a member of the International Federation, the Albanian Red Cross was active in alleviating social ills during the period between the two wars, mainly thanks to support from a number of prominent people in the country. During the Second World War, it played a leading role in the search for missing persons and ran a field hospital on the front line. After the communist regime came to power, the Society survived as well as could be expected until 1969, the year its activities were taken over by the State. The following 20 years did enormous damage to the organization’s image, with its ideals and principles sinking slowly into oblivion.

In 1990 the Albanian Red Cross emerged at last from the tunnel and began a difficult comeback. Two years later, it embarked on a process of re-organization culminating in its first general assembly, which elected its governing bodies and approved a programme of activities for the future. In the meantime, the ICRC and the Federation had opened delegations in Tirana. Engaged at the time in a relief operation in Albania, the Federation took an active part in the strengthening of the National Society. With time, work to promote the role and principles of the Red Cross, as well as programmes for youth, first aid, disaster prevention, health care, social services and blood donation began to take shape.

Suddenly, in February 1997, the much-feared crisis that had been looming for some time exploded with revelations about the pyramid savings scandal. At the time, every penny the Albanians could save was placed with companies that promised to double the initial investment in the space of only three months. When the fragile financial edifice crumbled, the awakening was brutal and the reaction violent, particularly in the south of the country and its main city Vlora, where, as mentioned earlier, the rapid expansion had been particularly spectacular.

The backlash began modestly, with demonstrations, but the situation deteriorated rapidly as the State, caught unawares, proved incapable of resolving the troubles. On the contrary, it provoked an even greater crisis when its own structures disintegrated. The south degenerated into chaos. The forces of order were quickly overwhelmed and the population took to looting barracks, arming themselves in preparation for an attack which, thankfully, never took place. Soon the anarchy had spread across the whole country, with the exception of the capital, Tirana, and its surrounding districts.




Red Cross mobilization

“For the Albanian Red Cross,” says Pandora Ketri, the Society’s Secretary General, “it was quite natural to adapt to the new situation and reorient its work to help the most disadvantaged categories of the population who found themselves completely destitute owing to the reorganization of the machinery of government.”

On 4 March 1997, the ICRC reopened its delegation in Albania and for the first time established close cooperation with the National Society. On 17 March the Albanian Red Cross, the ICRC and the Federation launched a joint appeal for 15 million Swiss francs to support the country’s social and health services as well as to assist some 70,000 vulnerable families for three months.

At present work is in full progress and the situation, following early elections at the end of June, seems to have calmed down a little. However, the crisis is far from over, as the director of one hospital in the south knows only too well. Even as he is meeting a young delegate from the “International Red Cross” to discuss the hospital’s needs, the conversation is interrupted by a volley of shots in the hospital courtyard. The delegate need ask no further questions. It is clear that the hospital still needs all the supplies it can get.

Permanent disaster

About 4,500 kilometres west, on the other side of the date line, Janet Philemon is likewise seeking to revive traditional preparedness. In Papua New Guinea she needs all the help she can get. Volcanoes, earthquakes, landslides, floods, tidal waves and the occasional straying cyclone, can at times make life for the Red Cross here resemble a permanent disaster.

Volcanoes erupt with frightening regularity in Papua New Guinea, and Secretary General Philemon is currently dealing with the aftermath of the most recent eruption on Manam island off the northern coast of Papua New Guinea. Thirteen people died and the Red Cross evacuated 3,000 when it blew in December, and the population of three villages will have to be resettled – their homes lie under the lava.

In June last year, Philemon had another volcanic disaster on her mind when she visited the port town of Rabaul, on New Britain island. Back in 1994, two volcanoes, Vulcan and Tavurvur, destroyed it. Most of the town’s inhabitants lost everything, some lost their lives. Now partially relocated, it was a poignant setting for a work-shop on community-based prepared-ness organised with the Federation’s Regional Delegation in Sydney.

The workshop – to which Western Samoa’s Sapolu contributed – was one of a series of pilot projects to develop materials for a training programme to be used throughout the Pacific. It was aimed at community leaders, for it is not new structures that the Red Cross seeks to introduce but greater coping capacity for existing ones. Says Janet Philemon, “Ninety per cent of our people live in traditional villages in a traditional system. You don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs.”


Community health

Significantly, too, the workshop encompassed health and first aid. The Federation is encouraging the merger of disaster preparedness, first aid and health-care training in a single, community-based, self-reliance programme such as Western Samoa has pioneered. Philemon argues they are integral parts of each other, and at community level indistinguishable.

For her, in any case, there is no other way. Already she faces a logistical struggle; separate programmes would be out of the question. The Papua New Guinea Red Cross covers a territory of 462,840 square kilometres, with 700 language groups spread over New Guinea itself, the Bismarck Archipelago and the northern part of the Solomon Islands. The population, just under four million, is scattered so thinly and remotely there is an average of 8.5 people per square kilometre. When disasters occur it can take weeks of work to evacuate a few hundred people.

But for the majority of people in Papua New Guinea life is tough most of the time, life expectancy is low, and health vulnerable. The maternal/child death rate is the Pacific’s highest. Janet Philemon’s programme needs to cover more than calamity: “Parts of the programme are designed to help with everyday life, it’s not just volcanoes and earthquakes,” she says. “Our aim is to make people more aware, and help them cope better on a daily basis.”

Artur Katuçi
Artur Katuçi is a freelance Albanian journalist based in Tirana.

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