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"Kalashnikov Country"

Shouting seems to be the most effective way of communication. All the males wave their AKs around while blustering and shouting at each other.

 

 

March 13

 

Beautiful mountains, the Alps, especially viewed from the air. Mount Blanc, Monte Rosa, the Matterhorn, to name a few, stand out. Hale-Bopp. Wow! From 35,000 feet up, no distractions, just the glow from the cockpit lights; one can really see the twin tails glowing. I had my binocs, I passed them to the captain, we sat in awed silence. Nature is so cool.

 

More mountains, not as big or as sheer but, I would guess, infinitely more rugged. Greek mountains, legend has it that some angels were removing the rocks from Heaven and they set them down in the sea and that land became Greece. Snow-capped they plummet directly into the Adriatic. The sun-light filters gently through the valleys casting a bluish-light across the road.

 

I'm on my way up from Athens to the northern Greek border to cross into Albania and document, well, whatever is going to happen. What is going to happen is anyone's best guess. It's usually this way with anarchy; rumors flying wildly about, people saying one thing and believing another. One thing is for sure, though, most of the arms depots in the country have been looted and a ton of weapons have proliferated into the countryside.

As I drove with AP's Greek staff photographer Dimitri Messinis into the southern port city Sarande today, most of the young men casually strolling down the road were lugging a Kalashnikov rifle. This is Kalashnikov country now. We passed a couple of Chinese-made T-54 tanks, manned by "rebels" lounging on the side of the road. We saw ancient anti-aircraft guns pointed at the sky, ready for all 12 aircraft left in the Albanian air force to fly by and bomb.

 

This is a weird country. The former Stalinist dictator, Enver Hoxha, left some 700,000 bunkers behind. That's one bunker for every four and a half persons in this country. The bunkers are crazy, they look like cement igloos and there is one every ten meters, either along the road or off in a field, for the first 15 kilometers after crossing the border. It's the Albanian version of the Mangiot line.

 

It's a beautiful country as well. Rugged. Unspoiled. How else could it be? Trapped by the most rigid of all of Eastern Europe's former dictators it was on Europe's outer rim of consciousness before the fall of communism in the late 1980s. The roads are rough, paved, potholed tracks leading through the hills, past rocky fields, olive trees and the ubiquitous bunkers. The sea is unspoiled in Sarande, a deep blue with a clear view to the Greek Isle Corfu.

 

Since the people rose up against the government in the south last week, threw out the police and the army, there is no law, just anarchy. At first there was rejoicing and resolve; rejoicing because the people had empowered themselves, resolve to remain free from whatever President Sali Berisha would throw at them. As it turned out, Berisha threw nothing at them and some who had armed themselves turned to banditry.

 

Shouting seems to be the most effective way of communication. All the males wave their AKs around while blustering and shouting at each other. Occasionally the shouting leads to a burst of gunfire fired by one macho or another, emphasizing his point. To have a gun, of course, is the coolest thing now, in Albania. So Albania has descended from a semi-democracy with a semi-rule of law to thuggery and rule of the gun. It's like Somalia in 1992/3 except in Somalia there was a loyalty to the clan. Here there is no loyalty at all. Here it is every man for himself. I think it's kind of interesting.

 

All this being true, however, things are peaceful in the south. The people have managed to work out a respect for each other and despite the bursts of gunfire or the grenade fishing (toss a grenade into the ocean, wait ten seconds and the pick up the fish that have floated to the top) things are peaceful. Depending on what the president does, they could stay that way or they could get incredibly violent. But now it's quiet, so I'm headed into the middle of the country, near Feir, to check out the "confrontation" line between the "rebels" and the remains of the Albanian army.

 

March 15

 

We teetered along the road, putting northwards in our Mercedes Benz station wagon. It seems that most of the old Mercs from Europe have found their way into Albania. Jim Nachtwey, a Time photographer, his translator and I were heading north to see what was going on. I cut a deal with London, get into the middle of the country, set up the satphone to find out more about what was going on and then take a position somewhere. Jim was frantic to get to Tirana, as he put it, when the country is going down, you only want to be one place, the capital. I concurred.

 

We pulled in to Lushnje, a small city some 100 kms. south of Tirana. In the following car was Yannis Beharakis and Kurt Schork of Reuters. We were interested in finding a power source, plugging in the phone and getting instructions. On the main square most of the shops were closed. We had passed, leaving Fier, lots of young men carrying off rifles, RPGs and boxes of bullets. Our driver would slow from his 10 kms. per hour to five and shout at the looters to give him a pistol. None did.

 

A pool hall was open, lights on, radio playing. We asked if we could plug in our phone. Sure, they replied, except we don't have a phone, the lines are cut. They didn't understand, so we pulled the machine from the trunk of the Merc and proceeded to set it up. Kurt manned the compass, getting us pointed in the right direction. Yannis handled setting up the phone. Our driver refused to take us north of Lushnje because he was convinced that he would get robbed by the bandits manning checkpoints along the road. Jim and I thought that was absurd, there had been no checkpoints so far and we had already crossed into "government" territory. However, for neither love nor money could we get our guy to advance a kilometer further.

 

As the phone went up, young men gathered around, staring and pointing. There were five photographers and a reporter, trying to keep the people from standing in front of the microwave to stop them from being radiated and to make sure they didn't cut the signal. We didn't have much success, in order to get a better view of the caller, Yannis, folks kept standing right in front of the dish. I gave up trying to keep people clear and struck up a conversation with a guy who spoke German. Actually, it was the first time I had was able to talk to anyone alone, because most folks here speak Albanian and either Greek or Italian, neither one which I understand. So we talked about the situation and how awful it was. I asked if he knew anyone who would want to drive north with us to Tirana. He said he'd ask around.

 

He wandered off and as I turned, a grubby small man grabbed my camera hanging around my neck. I thought he wanted to look at it, so I said, hang on there buckwheat. But in one swift motion he pulled a pistol from his waistband and pointed it at my stomach. I thought this was mighty unsafe, I didn't want to look at his pistol and I certainly didn't want it pointing at me! So I grabbed his wrist and pointed the pistol downwards. Meanwhile he was still grasping my camera. I thought this was annoying, so I let go his wrist and grabbed my camera with both hands. He again brought up his gun and pointed it at me. Only at this point did I realize I was being robbed, in broad daylight with all of these other guys around. It was weird. I thought about further struggle and quickly concluded this would be a bad place to end up with a bullet in my stomach, leg or wherever. Besides, the camera wasn't that important. So I let him have it. He ran away like a hyena, hunched over and running in small weaves. Like I was going to chase him. As if.

 

Funny thing was, I wasn't mad, I wasn't shaken and I didn't feel like I had been raped. I wasn't even mildly annoyed. I guess with the breakdown of everything, I should have been more on my guard against exactly this sort of thing, but it hadn't even entered my mind that I would get heisted in broad daylight in a crowd. But it's a lesson I won't forget for the rest of the time I'm here.

 

Needless to say, we packed up the phone immediately and took off. One friendly guy said there would be more bandits back and they would want more than a camera. It was enough for us, we threw the phone in the car and took off.

 

Without instructions from London I decided that I didn't want to spend the night in the middle of Albania where anarchy ruled and where there was no other press, so I made the decision to go to Tirana with Jim. Yannis and Kurt decided to head south to the port Volre and see what was going on there. We said our good-byes, wished each other luck and split up. What a day.

 

March 16

 

The choppers buzzing around town are almost as noisy as the rumors they generate. The choppers fly off an American aircraft carrier out in the Adriatic. The rumors fly out of the hotels where reporters are staying, trapped by the seven to seven curfew. Because it's still light after seven, many of us would like to be outside working, but with the threat of being shot, well, it's not really worth it.

 

As the country remains basically in the throes of chaos, many interesting things are happening. Berisha has refused to resign until after elections, scheduled for either May or June. But the police don't really maintain order either. And, for that matter, the police don't really act like police. Some guys are wearing uniforms, others facemasks. They work together on checkpoints, looking for weapons or something, which they have set up at random on the road. If a checkpoint exists at nine in the morning, it's likely that it won't be there at noon. But these guys let us work, winking at us, smiling as they are being tough with the compatriots.

 

Yesterday, Chris Morris of Time Magazine, Robert King, a freelancer on assignment for US News and I were working this checkpoint with some cops and hooded men (cops in the hood?). A seedy looking Merc showed up and one of the cops let a long burst of AK fire off over the hood of the car. Other cops ran over. Chris, Robert and I thought we had a good situation going. The driver leaped out of his car, shouted a few words and then started kissing all the cops. Apparently, we concluded, if the cops shoot at you then you're in good shape. If they just talk to you, there may be problems.

 

With the confusion in the countryside, in the cities and on the roads, it's apparent that many, many people want to flee until the situation stabilizes. To do this they try to get to the port cities and wait for boats that come in to pick up the foreign diplomats fleeing. We followed a convoy of Chinese dips headed for Durres, on the coast just 40 kms west of Tirana to the port. When they arrived on the quay side, they were thronged by people. Tens of thousands had gathered in hopes of being able to jump on a foreign boat. The busses, realizing they had made a wrong turn somewhere, backtracked and fled. But we stopped, thousands of people looking for a way out looked like good pictures to us.

 

I hopped up on a piling to make some crowd pictures and immediately those who saw me started to shout and wave. I was thronged and uneasy, but managed to break out of the crowd and get back to Robert and Chris who were working the fringes of the crowd. In these crowd scenes it's easy for someone to try and grab a camera or take more. We decided, for safety's sake, to stick closely together.

 

All of the sudden the crowd surged towards the far side of the quay. People started to climb a cement wall, and go over a boat which would enable them to get around the wall. The wall was blocking the way to the rest of the quay and someone had figured out that the foreigners were going to embark on the ships at the very, very end of the quay. Robert broke from Chris and I, excited by the scene. I yelled at him to stay together, but he didn't hear me. Chris and I ran after him, but he had jumped onto the boat and was heading with the people over around the wall.

 

The scene that developed was amazing. It was like rats trying to get off of a sinking ship. Thousands of people were pouring over the wall, jumping on and off the derelict ship in order to circumvent the blockade to their freedom. Chris and I, backs to the sun, started to work the situation. It made nice pictures and the feeling was good. Then we heard shots, bursts of Kalashnikov fire. We decided it would be a good time to get around the wall, so we joined the people getting around. However, Yannis, who had also turned up, told us about a hole in the wall that was covered by a piece of sheet metal, so we ducked through that and started to run. We ran with the crowd, which must be like running with the bulls in Pampalona, Spain. We were trying to make it to the fore of the crowd because the cops were shooting in the air, trying to buy time for the dips who were now boarding the Greek Naval vessel that had pulled in to rescue them.

 

After a few minutes, we did indeed make it to the head of the crowd. Twenty meters away were about eight guys with guns, shooting off bursts of fire over the heads of the crowd. We stopped, wanting to get pictures of the cops and the crowd together. But a young man stepped from the crowd and grabbed Chris. The front of the crowd was tense and angry, wanting to reach the boat before it pulled away. They guy started to push Chris forward, using him as a shield if the cops started to shoot. Forget this, I shouted at Chris, let's go. So we put up our hands and cameras and jogged slowly to the cops. At first they thought we were Albanians, but then, realizing we were press, let us through. But they weren't going to let us stand there. They knew if they opened up on the crowd, they would be overrun and probably killed because eight guys with guns couldn't control say, 20,000 people. But they didn't want us to see that they were afraid, so they assigned a guy to escort us away.

 

We rounded a building near the gate of the port and decided it would be better to run away from the cop that was escorting us. Their communications with each other was bad, and with us, worse. As we broke away, at a quick run, the crowd had surged forward again, throwing stones at the cops. The cops broke and took off, firing over their shoulder. We sprinted to get back into the crowd and rolled along with it up the quay. The crowd now had momentum and raced along the pier like a brush fire. The rest of the cops, realizing they had no chance to stop the crowd, broke and let it pass. Their task was accomplished, they had bought enough time to let the dips board and the ship leave.

 

The crowd got about 100 meters away from the end of the pier when the boat pulled out. Tension eased out of the air and the desperate run slowed to a steady jog. People wanted to see the ship leaving but realized there was no way to gain refuge on it. I had gotten away from Chris because I am in pretty good shape after skiing in Colorado for the past few weeks. So I turned around and started back, looking for him, hoping there wouldn't be another looting incident.

 

As it turned out, after I joined Chris and we found Robert, we were marked by seven or eight young guys with headbands who recognized the dollars hanging around our necks, and they decided to see what they could get. But Yannis walked over to them and "friendlied" them, talking and chatting and defusing the scene. That's the best way to get around would-be thugs. I guess it's harder to rob the guy you know. Maybe it also infringes on the Balkan sense of manliness. Whatever.

 

Mar. 18

 

Thousands of people are looking to flee the violence and lawlessness. Again the European Community is stuck, unable or unwilling to act. Yesterday they sent a "fact finding" team. Wonder what facts they'll find out that aren't already being reported. Berisha won't resign? There is chaos in the countryside outside of Tirana where there's a semblance of normalcy? This country is dirt poor? The Mafia is in control now more than ever because of the proliferation of weapons? I reckon they'll throw one dull press conference.

 

On the beaches and quays in the port of Durres, Albania's main port which is about 40 kms. west of Tirana, Albania's suffering is playing itself out. Inside the port are thousands of desperate people hoping against hope that a boat foreign boat will land and they'll somehow be able to swarm up to it and clamber aboard. Keeping the crowds at pay are some uniformed police armed with Kalashnikovs and even more newly inducted police, not uniformed, armed with Kalashnikovs. Their job is to make sure if a boat does land that they hold off the crowd long enough for it to evacuate whoever is supposed to be evacuated and get off of the pier. Thousands are camping out in the port, burning whatever is available for heat against the chill of the early spring evenings, eating stale and dirty bread against the ever-present hunger and waiting, waiting, waiting.

 

When the press shows up the situation becomes tense. A cop who spoke to a colleague of mine said that when the photographers show up with their equipment, the young men get excited to do something to show that they are not going to take the situation mildly. So the young men start to agitate, rushing from one end of the area where they are being penned in by the police to the other, looking for any way out. The cops then unclick the safeties of their weapons and start to fire in the air, trying to keep the crowd at bay. The crowd then becomes more uneasy and perhaps the rush the cops, as they did a few days ago when the evacuation of the Chinese and Iranians was going on. What happens, ultimately, is because of the presence of photographers, reporters and TV crews, people get hurt, perhaps shot and killed. Here we are definitely antagonizing the situation. But I don't know what we can do about it because this is what happens.

 

Of course the folks in the port aren't exactly friendly. After they realize they aren't going to get out of the port, packs of young men start to follow us. Chris, Robert and I have a theory that we employ now, shoot and move, shoot and move, always keep moving, don't let a crowd build up. Of course that doesn't allow us to get in and really work a situation, but it does allow us to work and keep our cameras. Eventually, though, to escape the tension, we are forced to leave the port and seek refuge near the police. The young men aren't brave enough to force a confrontation with the cops over foreign reporters, yet.

 

On the beaches of Durres, thousands more wait, trying to buy passage out of Albania. This scene is controlled totally by the Mafia. They have commandeered many of the small launches and are charging people a fistful of money to get on them. Many of the gunmen are mentally unstable, though, firing at random over the heads of women, children and old men; people looking to escape exactly this kind of random violence. Jim was on the beach along with many other photographers when he was cold-cocked on the jaw by an angry man. The guy pulled a knife on him as he was down and was going to stab him, but was fortunately restrained by others. Tony Suau was photographing a gunman controlling the crowd when the thug threw his rifle over his shoulder where Tony was standing and let loose a burst of gunfire. The bullets literally flew through Tony's hair. Not a happy camper. Is telling this story, the unhappy plight of many Albanians, worth this kind of threat? Now yes, next week? Maybe it'd be better to be in Israel.

 

Cheers,

David

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