Dispatches From the War Zone

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The walk from Montenegro to Albania is short, hurried, and confused, littered with the contents of refugee’s plastic bags that couldn’t take the pressure: smashed onions, spilled flat white beans, unfinished bottles of mineral water. It’s not clear where Albania begins. There are flat concrete buildings on both sides of the road. On the right, a policeman checks in the refugees, but this seems entirely voluntary. Some people just walk past, like I did. In the building opposite, a woman is continuously sweeping rubbish onto and off the balcony. Past the policeman’s building, the refugees put down their bags and take out their bread, in some cases, with sausage. Stupidly, I did not pack food: I had figured a couple of hours to the border, a half-hour to the nearest town–starting off at 9 a.m., we’d be in Shkodra or another Albanian city by early afternoon. I had forgotten that interminable slowness is part of the refugee condition. I was a refugee in another time in a far more comfortable place, and the comparison would be obscene were it not for the unmistakable sense of being herded, the endless wait without the right of complaint. No one objected while our bus idled in Ulcinj. And no one is asking questions now, while the refugees crowd and the variously uniformed officials rush to and fro on their inscrutable missions.

There are Austrian uniformed officers apparently here to maintain order, if one can apply that word to this anxious crowd. There are a man and a woman with important American expressions on their faces, the man taking pictures with an amateur camera. “Police?” Bedri’s wife asks me softly. “No,” I say, spotting the words “Northwest Medical Team” on the backs of their jackets. “Humanitarian organization,” I think. I wonder if international volunteers might consider identifying themselves in the native language.

Bedri’s son is crying. “He hasn’t seen his grandfather in a month,” explains Bedri. “He is anxious.” The daughters confer and delegate the oldest to ask whether we are in Albania yet. “Yes,” says Bedri, and the children refuse to believe him, because sitting on plastic bags in the middle of a road, getting wet, cold, and achy, does not feel like Albania. “Albania should be paradise,” says Bedri, and I am not sure whether he is translating what the children say or explaining their disappointment to me, and it doesn’t matter, for this is the key problem with Albania: It should be paradise, but it isn’t.

When Kosovars speak of Albania, they get a faraway look in their eyes as though remembering a long-lost love or a dish their great-grandmother used to cook. Those few who have actually spent time in Albania will invariably say that it was “wonderful.” Albania’s wonderful traits are that it is populated by Albanians who speak Albanian, read Albanian, and study in Albanian, and no one says a bad word to them about it. The problem with Albania is that it is unimaginably, almost indescribably poor. For all of Kosovo’s poverty–it had the lowest standard of living in the former Yugoslavia–going to Albania for Kosovars is like going back to a time they don’t remember. In addition, while Kosovars partook of Yugoslavia’s openness to Europe, Albania shut itself off, declared the world its enemy, and built 800,000 tiny mushroom-shaped concrete bunkers to protect itself from attack. There are bunkers hiding at the bottoms of hills, climbing up the sides of hills, sitting on tops of hills (there is really no flatness in Albania, so these are the available options). Before I ever saw the bunkers, I asked a colleague who had been to Albania whether the bunkers could possibly be used for anything–maybe for solving the homeless problem, should Albania develop one; he said no. Now that Albania has a homeless problem, I have seen the bunkers, and I have seen that they could not possibly be used for anything, least of all for protection from attack. Their only function seems to be to make Albania look even more like the surface of the moon and even less like paradise.

So for Kosovars who were reared to dream of Albania as the Promised Land, this in-your-face backwardness poses a definite problem, and most of them seem to have solved it by loving the idea of Albania while avoiding the reality of it. Bedri managed not to visit Albania until three years ago, when his brother from Germany came to meet him here. Bedri is a knowledgeable man, and an economist at that, but he admits that Albania was “like a broken dream.” But he is also a wise man, so he says, “It is still motherland.” And as if to prove it, he points to the Albanian government’s human treatment of Kosovar refugees: “They can’t do much, but they are doing all they can.” He tells me there will be free buses from the border to Shkodra.

In fact two old buses pull in and are swarmed upon by 10 times as many refugees as can possibly fit inside. As the buses try to maneuver through the human mass, I wonder how it is that no one is killed. Just then a whisper brings a rumor: An old man is dead. Not from the bus but from exhaustion and illness, and he is not dead but near death, and he is lying on a concrete barrier by the side of the road, and the Northwest Medical Team and the Austrian soldiers and assorted translators and one photographer are rushing around getting adrenaline and syringes and IV bags, and it turns out there is no vehicle to take the man to the hospital, and one is hired, and a small woman–a doctor or a translator–lifts the man into the van–he is so emaciated that it looks easy–and an IV is rigged up inside, and then it still somehow takes an hour for the van to leave the border zone.

Two more buses have come and gone, full to bursting, and riding perilously low to the ground. There are definitely more refugees here than left Ulcinj this morning: At least four more buses are needed. “If we have to spend the night here, it will be very bad,” says Bedri. He had a plan: to find a taxi to Shkodra, call his brother, get a car to wherever his parents are. But the police are not letting the refugees out of the border zone to hire taxis. Bedri says this is a sign of concern on the part of the Albanian government, which does not want anyone to profit from the refugees’ desperation. One taxi driver does somehow get in; he wants 40 marks to go to Shkodra, but he says there are no rooms available there and no hotels, and he wants 150 marks to Tirana. At the same time, a 19-year-old named Agron comes over to kill time by telling me his story, and he says his father is in the KLA, and so is he, and he is just taking the women of the family out and then he’ll go back and fight. I think everyone is lying.

In short order, I will be presented with the proof of everyone’s words. Agron will show me his KLA identification medallion. I will have to plead pathetically to get the last hotel room in Shkodra. And the next day, the head of the UN high commissioner for refugees’ Shkodra field office, an inexplicably cheerful Pakistani man named Mubashir Akhmad, will tell me that the taxi drivers and the refugees are kept apart for the express purpose of preventing profiteering and assuring the refugees’ security–not, as I had suspected, to limit their freedom of movement. Plus, he says, “maybe they’ll wait an extra hour at the border, but they will be delivered all together to a specific place.”

We were. We squeezed into a bus where I literally hung off the bar for half the journey, until a woman took pity on me and pulled a bag out of the way long enough for me to squeeze one foot through down to the floor. A woman balanced herself against some sacks and started breast-feeding, and this was just one less crying child; the rest were screaming in panic and pain. As the bus pulled out, people both inside and outside screamed, “Familia!” but the bus could not be any fuller. There are as many opportunities for separating families as there are segments in a refugee’s journey.

The bus stopped in a compound of what looked like abandoned military buildings. “This is very bad,” said Bedri, “but now this is just a question of surviving.” There was no chance to try to call his brother: He was told to get his family in a column to walk to a place where they could spend the night. “I’ll come here in the morning,” Bedri said, by way of setting a time and a place to meet. The next day, I realized that neither of us knew where “here” was. Mubashir Akhmad told me there were several dozen temporary centers for the 18,700 refugees who are currently in Shkodra. Of them, 2,500 came yesterday across the border from Montenegro.