Armed to the Teeth
Disarming civilians in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia means making them see guns are a threat to security, not a guarantee.
Armed to the Teeth
Disarming civilians in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia means making them see guns are a threat to security, not a guarantee.
Sweat pours down Emin Limani's face as he picks up gun after gun - and then shovels them into a furnace. He's melting them down as part of a scheme to disarm Kosovo.
There's still a long way to go. There are hundreds of thousands of weapons held illegally in the area, and taking them out of circulation is a big task.
The real challenge is to convince people that giving them up is a good idea. People like Emin, in fact. Despite his job, he is no advocate of disarmament. His face darkened when IWPR asked him how he feels about melting down the weapons.
"I feel very sorry that I have to destroy them, but what can I do?" he mumbled, as if ashamed.
With Kosovo´s final status still up in the air, Emin, like many others, believes these weapons mean safety, not a threat to security, and would like more guns to replace the ones in his furnace. "These are old anyway. We'll buy new ones - better ones with any luck."
The wars in the southern Balkans may be over, but the region remains heavily saturated with weapons. Many people in Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania have a Kalashnikov or some other gun at home. Just in case, they say.
The thousands of firearms held illegally are in part the legacy of the 1998-99 conflict in Kosovo and the 2001 conflict between Macedonian troops and Albanian insurgents.
But if they are just the leftovers of finished conflicts, why are there still so many of them around?
IWPR has talked to some of the owners as well as the officials who are trying to take the guns out of society, and discovered that many people are worried about protecting their family or business in an atmosphere of high crime levels. For others, memories of past conflicts remain vivid. And the unresolved question of whether Kosovo will end up independent or part of Serbia, together with occasional acts of violence by the shadowy Albanian National Army, ANA, in Macedonia, as well as other extremist groups elsewhere, do nothing to encourage a bright view of the future.
Other people say gun ownership has a lot to do with cultural pride - our forefathers carried weapons, and so will we. And that feeling is just as rooted in Macedonian and Serb communities as it is among Albanians.
Efforts to remove these weapons, both international and local, have met with limited success because of the political problems and because people are so attached to their guns. And also because there are simply so many of them in circulation. Many of the firearms came from Albania, where military stockpiles were raided wholesale in 1997. But plenty also came from what used to be the Yugoslav army, as guns were stolen, sold, or simply handed out to paramilitaries.
To get a sense of the scale of the problem, IWPR teams spoke to government officials, non-government organizations (NGOs), peacekeepers, police, and men and women in towns and villages across Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania. It became rapidly clear that there are a lot of guns in private hands - and that apart from the political implications of this in such a volatile part of the world, a lot of people are getting killed or injured in deliberate shootings or accidents.
Finding out exactly how many weapons there are in these three places is problematic, as estimates may be manipulated to suit political agendas. And trying to pin down which community has more - Albanians or Macedonians, for example - is a contentious and prickly subject.
MACEDONIA'S GUNS - LEGACY OF A BRIEF CONFLICT
Macedonia faces a serious problem of over-armament. This is almost inevitable, given the small country's geography, sandwiched between Albania, Kosovo and Serbia.
The conflict of 2001 was clearly an important factor in the arming of civilian population - ethnic Macedonians as well as the Albanian rebels. Depending on your viewpoint, the war was the catalyst for so many firearms coming into the country, or a consequence.
A year and a half later, despite the best efforts of international disarmament programmes, the weapons are still there. This is due to a combination of persisting instability, large-scale unemployment and porous borders.
Data on gun ownership are hard to come by, and figures vary greatly. The London-based think tank Saferworld, in a report entitled Macedonia: Guns, Policing and Ethnic Division published in October 2003, quoted a local estimate of 80,000 to 100,000 illegally-held weapons and, for comparison, another official estimate of 700,000. Recent data collected by the Small Arms Survey, an NGO based in Geneva, suggests that between 100,000 and 170,000 people hold weapons illegally - some of them more than one.
Even the more conservative estimates are alarming for a population of just over two million.
In addition, as of the end of March 2003 there were another 156,000 licensed guns in legal ownership, most of them in private hands.
Weapons have always been present in Macedonian society, carried as a mark of manhood. Many more became available in the Nineties as military stores were plundered across the former Yugoslavia. In 1997, arms proliferation accelerated suddenly following the mass looting of gun depots in Albania.
The Kosovo war which began the following year sparked a further upsurge in availability, as weaponry was trafficked through Macedonia and in some cases stockpiled in secret dumps there.
In 2000, after that conflict had ended, NATO forces began disarming the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA. According to Saferworld, "Observers at the time reported that that many arms were brought into northern Albania and regions of Macedonia."
As a result of these various arms flows, there was no shortage of weapons when an Albanian guerrilla force calling itself the National Liberation Army, NLA, appeared and in January 2001 launched an insurgency in northern Macedonia. Government security forces struggled to regain control of these areas. In August 2001, the government signed what became known as the Ohrid Agreement with the NLA rebels, who agreed to stop fighting and disarm in return for political concessions. NATO deployed troops to oversee the peace.
Gezim Ostreni heads the Macedonian government's National Co-ordination Body, set up in 2003 to handle the voluntary surrender of weapons. He is one of a number of former rebels brought into mainstream Macedonian structures as a consequence of the Ohrid deal. IWPR asked him about the NLA's weapons because of his role as the organisation's chief of staff during the conflict, and before that a KLA commander in Kosovo. In the interview, he laughed off questions about how the rebels had armed themselves, saying the details were "still a military secret".
Ostreni was keen to draw a distinction between the rebels' armaments and the current situation, where weapons remain in civilian hands. The NLA weapons, he said, were all dealt with by the NATO peacekeepers' Essential Harvest disarmament operation following the Ohrid accord.
"All the weapons we used to own were handed over to NATO, and they have been destroyed," he said. "Now we need to collect the weapons that are in the hands of civilians, which is completely a different problem. These arms are not controlled by a hierarchy and are beyond anyone's control, so it is civilians who are the victims."
Ostreni's claim is likely to be based on the fact that NATO was able to collect approximately 3,800 small arms and light weapons - well above the target of 3,000 that the NLA had signed up to. But some observers believe that neither figure came close to the true number of guns the rebels held.
Nowadays, the main challenge to the government's monopoly of armed force comes from the ANA, which claims to have active guerrilla forces in Kosovo and the mainly Albanian Presevo valley region of southern Serbia, as well as Macedonia. It shot to fame in 2003 when it claimed responsibility for a number of small-scale attacks carried out in all three places. It is difficult to assess its strength, though the number in Macedonia is likely to run into the low hundreds rather than thousands. It claims to be pursuing the pan-Albanian agenda apparently abandoned by both the KLA and NLA, though analysts also suggest it is linked with organised criminals who exploit the poorly policed former crisis areas of Macedonia, where cross-border smuggling is rife.
The persistent presence of both ANA and armed criminals in predominantly Albanian parts of the country fuels Macedonian fears of a resurgence of violence, and reinforces the widespread view that the Albanian minority is much the greater offender when it comes to stockpiling and using illegal arms.
In Kumanovo, where some of the worst fighting in 2001 took place, some Macedonians are clear who is to blame.
"The Albanians in Kumanovo and the surrounding area are armed to the teeth," said one local man who was conscripted into the Macedonian army as a tank driver during the 2001 conflict. "There isn't a house that doesn't have a Kalashnikov. The police should go into their basements and confiscate the guns and rocket launchers."
Although it is hard to test this assumption, informed observers believe there are more weapons in Albanian hands. "It appears that illegal possession may be more common among members of the Albanian community," said the recent Saferworld report. "The high level of mistrust between the ethnic Albanian community and the state means that Albanians have had little incentive to register their weapons or acquire them legally, and a large number of weapons remain uncollected following the 2001 crisis."
Yet as the report points out, the view that the Albanians are the sole culprits is only partly accurate. Majority Macedonian areas in the south and east have not been immune to gun proliferation.
"There are arms among both Macedonians and Albanians," General Zehedin Tushi, the Macedonian army's deputy chief of staff, told IWPR. "It is part of the so-called gun culture that rules across the entire Balkans."
General Tushi, who is an ethic Albanian, believes that much of the arms smuggling trade has stopped because the market is now saturated. The small amount now coming in "mostly enters at the border crossings, where roads exist, and not across the mountains", he said.
Others agree that the problem cuts across the ethnic divide, and that the government should apply equal pressure for disarmament across the entire country. Boris Stojmenov, the outspoken leader of the VMRO-Macedonia party and owner of Channel 5 TV in Skopje, told IWPR that "disarmament should not be carried out only in northwestern Macedonia, but also in other parts of the country, where the Macedonians are in the majority.
"After the war, lots of weapons also accumulated in eastern, central and southern Macedonia. In Skopje, Stip, Bitola and Strumica, shootings are even more frequent than in Tetovo and Kumanovo."
In Kumanovo, where both groups still live in the same neighbourhoods, one young Albanian told IWPR, "It is not true that only the Albanians are armed. If you had visited Kumanovo on New Year's Eve, you'd have heard bursts of gunfire and you'd have thought you were in Baghdad. The shooting came from every building."
ETHNIC MACEDONIANS ALSO INVOLVED
On the ethnic Macedonian side, gun ownership isn't just a matter of arms left over from other Balkan conflicts. The nationalist VMRO government, which was ousted last year, was responsible for handing out weapons during the 2001 conflict.
Many of these were handed out to reserve policemen and soldiers, and to civilian units pulled together in ethnic Macedonian villages. One of the most controversial was the creation of the Lions , a paramilitary police force, in June 2001 by the then interior minister Ljube Boskovski. Formed around a core of professional police, the unit recruited reservists who were often VMRO members, and issued them with firearms. The Lions were disbanded in 2002.
After the conflict efforts were made to retrieve these weapons, but opinions differ as to how successful this has been. The current interior minister, Hari Kostov, claims that the operation to get the guns back is almost complete, "All the weapons that Ljube Boskovski handed over during the crisis, and which were in the hands of the police reservists, have been handed back. There are only three or four people who received about 500 automatic weapons [in all] and have not returned them."
Despite this upbeat assessment, a senior police officer in Kostov's ministry told IWPR that the issue is far from closed because it is hard to track how many guns were issued since there were so few checks at the time. "At the time, automatic weapons were handed over without the appropriate controls, and no strict records were kept on who was getting a Kalashnikov," the officer, who did not want to be identified, said. "Those arms which were recorded have been returned. But often the guns were handed out direct from the warehouses with no record at all."
What made things worse was that some of the reservists selected for the Lions had criminal records. Emin Salah, an expert at the interior ministry, recently said that between 1999 and 2002, when VMRO was in power, 2,425 gun licences were issued to people who had been through the penal system, most of them ethnic Macedonians.
CRIME AND POVERTY
While tensions between the Macedonian and Albanian communities have decreased since 2001, conflict has been replaced by an epidemic of gun crimes. Figures released in October by the Macedonian Institute for Arms show that 71 people had been killed in shootings so far in 2003, continuing the trend of 2002, when there were 84 such murders. That makes Macedonia one of Europe's most dangerous countries for gun-related crime.
Some of the victims may have been shot in personal disputes, but there is clearly a problem with gangland conflicts, especially in northern and western areas where smuggling is big business and policing still poor.
Dr Dragan Markovic, a surgeon in the central hospital in Tetovo, in north-west Macedonia, has seen his share of the consequences. A specialist in chest surgery, Dr Markovic is part of a small team who, despite pitifully low wages and outdated equipment, try to patch together the victims of gun crime.
If he looks tired, it's hardly surprising. He told IWPR that last year he performed between 100 and 150 operations, mainly on men aged from 15 to 30, with bullet wounds to the chest, arms, back and legs. Those shot in the head have to go to Skopje, 40 kilometres away. "There's nothing we can do for them here," said Markovic.
The surgeon says this crime wave is not really to do with ethnicity - he reckons he operates on roughly the same number of Albanians and Macedonians.
The root cause of the violence, he says, is poverty - unemployment, officially reported at 37 per cent, driving many men into organised crime.
MODEST RESULTS FROM DISARMAMENT EFFORTS
A year after it swept VMRO from power, the present current government - a coalition between the Socialist Democratic Union of Macedonia and the Democratic Union for Integration - began a major programme to encourage the voluntary surrender of weapons.
A media campaign which began in September advertised the nationwide amnesty from November 1, the emphasis being placed on changing the way weapons are viewed in both Albanian and Macedonian communities. As an incentive, the government announced that everyone who surrendered a firearm would be entered in a prize draw to win a car. Cynics joked that for many, a new Kalashnikov would have been a more attractive prize.
The 45-day amnesty involves 123 collection points where people can turn up with unlicensed guns - or legal ones that they no longer want. As of November 15 - two weeks into the amnesty - Blagoja Markovski, in charge of the scheme, said his officials had collected 389 weapons . The haul included rocket launchers, mines and explosives and thousands of rounds of ammunition, as well as an assortment of automatic rifles and pistols.
A third of the way through the process, these figures suggest that the final number collected will not exceed a small percentage of the tens of thousands of illegal firearms believed to be in circulation.
Before the campaign began, some in the international community voiced concerns that it was ill thought-out and premature. Diplomats had earlier urged the government to schedule the amnesty for next spring so that it would have more time to prepare. In September, a senior diplomatic source told IWPR, "They [the government] insisted they are ready but we have no information about how they are going to do it. What is not clear is why they do not want to assure success before they start such an action."
One major concern is that the process will be uneven, as Albanians remain more reluctant to let go of their guns given their continuing lack of confidence in the government's security forces.
"There is no way this action would produce significant results," an analyst, who asked not to be named, told IWPR before the amnesty got under way. "Albanians are not prepared to give in their weapons, and that is because they still have a need for them because the multi-ethnic police are not up to the task. They need them to protect themselves not only from Macedonians but from Albanians as well.
"They will hand up anything they have that is superfluous, but they'll always keep a firearm lying around the house."
The evidence so far tends to confirm this view. IWPR has learned that the amnesty has been most successful in Skopje and in some Macedonian-majority areas in the west and centre of the country. It has also been told off the record by several sources involved in the process that the Albanians in western Macedonia do appear to be better armed than most, and weapons here are not being surrendered as readily as elsewhere.
An added complication is that analysts fear that opposition parties - both Macedonian and Albanian - may oppose the process. So far the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, led by Arben Xhaferi, has refused to back the campaign, and has tried to block amnesty efforts in the north-west. And there are concerns that the VMRO may do the same among its ethnic Macedonian constituency.
The government has been reticent about what it would do if faced with such organised opposition. During the summer, the prime minister's national security adviser, Dr. Lazar Kitanovski, admitted that "we haven't prepared a strategy what to do if the DPA or VMRO block the disarmament campaign. The only thing that we could do is bring it out into the open, and show the international community who is hindering demilitarisation and reconciliation in our republic".
A second government strategy is to introduce tougher laws on gun registration, which are now in the process of approval. But General Tushi, the army's deputy chief of staff, believes that changes in legislation will not have much impact if the disarmament process is imposed from above.
"We are going to adopt a new disarmament law, but will it be worth anything if ordinary people refuse to accept it?" he said. "There is a significant degree of distrust of the authorities among the Albanian population. In addition, there is a great deal of ethnic intolerance and hatred. The Albanians have to be involved in this process so that it can be explained to them that arms pose a threat above all to them and their families."
Despite reservations over the way the campaign has been handled, the main concern for Saferworld is that it should be the start of a process where people increasingly feel secure enough to abandon guns as a way of life.
"The government has demonstrated the importance it attaches to disarmament by launching the amnesty, but this is only the first step," Saferworld director Paul Eavis said in a press release at the start of the amnesty. "The process must be supported by measures to improve the long-term security in the country and wider region, to ensure members of both ethnic communities feel sufficiently secure to give up their weapons."
KOSOVARS KEEP POWDER DRY
North of the border, in Kosovo, there are even more firearms left over from conflict. A report by Small Arms Survey in June 2003 estimated that there are between 330,000 and 460,000 small arms and light weapons in Kosovo, some 300,000 of them unlicensed. And a poll conducted by the group suggested that two out of three households in the area have a gun. Meanwhile, a survey by the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, produced startling evidence that one in five school students is armed.
As in Macedonia, the international community started its disarmament effort almost as soon as the conflict was over. In June 1999, NATO began the delicate task of collecting weapons from the KLA. The 20,000-strong force was told to surrender its weapons in preparation for being transformed into the civilian Kosovo Protection Corps, KPC. By the time the process ended in October 1999, the KLA had handed over more than 6,000 firearms to the NATO-led Kosovo Force, KFOR.
The new KPC was allowed to retain stocks of 2,000 rifles, of which 200 are used to guard military facilities and the rest are held in secure storage.
Legislation was tightened, with the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, taking charge of weapons registration and control, and threatening heavy fines and up to 10 years imprisonment for anyone caught without a proper license.
But this hand-over of arms was just the tip of the iceberg. Weapons keep on being discovered in their thousands. According to KFOR data seen by IWPR, the peacekeepers have seized and destroyed 18,000 illegally held weapons since entering Kosovo in June 1999. KFOR's Major Hans Lampalzer says the finds have included rifles, anti-tank weapons and six million rounds of ammunition.
One night in August this year, a team of KFOR soldiers netted three tonnes of ammunition packed into two boats floating on the river Drini on the border with Albania. There was no one on board, and it remains unclear what the story was behind this arms find, the largest since KFOR took charge in 1999.
UNMIK police have also played a significant role in confiscating weapons. From June 1999 until the end of February this year, they confiscated 3,361 illegal guns, including automatic and sniper rifles.
As in Macedonia, a large proportion of the weapons surrendered or seized originated in Albania, when arms depots were plundered in 1997.
There have been a number of small-scale schemes to promote and publicise disarmament. One joint project between KFOR, the UN, the Kosovo prime minister's office and the local women's group Jeta Ime has seen weapons melted down and turned into manhole covers and souvenirs, which are then sold across Kosovo. While the guns may be the result of confiscations rather than voluntary surrenders, it is still good propaganda for the latter.
This year, the UNDP launched a more ambitious surrender scheme that was linked to incentives, because people are so clearly reluctant to give their weapons up. Using money donated by the Japanese government, the UNDP promised to spend 675,000 US dollars on building schools, health and community centres in whichever three municipalities collected the most firearms.
But despite the publicity campaign surrounding it, the one-month amnesty which ended on October 1 was disappointing. Only 155 weapons were handed in. It should be added that many more were registered and became legal, thus contributing to greater public regulation of ownership.
The UNDP in Kosovo is still looking at where it goes from here. "We still don't know why we were unable to make a dent in the numbers of illegal weapons still in circulation," said Marie-France Desjardins, programme manager of the UNDP's Illicit Small Arms Control Project. "We have to think hard about it and discover where we went wrong."
The scheme followed the "weapons-for-development" model piloted and used with some success in Albania. Why, then, should it have been a failure?
Local people interviewed by IWPR gave a variety of reasons. As in Macedonia, general crime levels and lack of faith in the police make people concerned to protect their families by themselves. But the incentive scheme appears to have been ill-conceived given the widespread public distrust in local government, which meant people suspect that the community would never see any of the donor assistance. In Albania, by contrast, the UNDP remained in control of how the money was spent.
Guns are used for all sorts of things in Kosovo - settling scores in feuds and maintaining a sense of security at home. But a dominant theme among ethnic Albanians interviewed by IWPR was that holding onto weapons reflects a sense of unease about the future. Many are mistrustful of the international community's intentions for Kosovo's final status. As one man put it, "If they don't give us independence, that might mean that Serbian [security] forces are allowed to come back - and we don't want to be caught empty-handed when that happens."
Although preliminary talks between Belgrade and Pristina began in October, few Kosovo Albanians or Serbs feel that a peaceful resolution of the area's disputed status is likely soon.
In towns and villages across Kosovo fear of the future and memories of the past, combined with doubts over the effectiveness of police to protect them, means both Serbs and Albanians will keep their weapons.
Disarming Kosovo means convincing the residents of villages like Prekaz to hand in their weapons. This small village, 16 km north of Pristina, lies in the Drenica valley, the KLA's old heartland. It looks like many other Kosovo villages - insular, surrounded by neat fields and rolling hills, with farms built the old way with a towerhouse in one corner, and villagers getting on with rebuilding their lives after the war.
What marks Prekaz out is the key role it played in the start of the Kosovo conflict in 1998. The village is home to the Jashari clan, who were famed from Ottoman times, always armed and always fiercely independent. The last clan chieftain, Shaban Jashari, died side by side with his two sons - one of them, Adem, a founding member of the KLA - and 52 other relatives vainly fending off a three-day Serb attack, which ended after heavy artillery smashed the village to pieces.
The Jasharis' last stand has become legend among Kosovo Albanians, and is immortalised in popular songs and posters.
Here people laugh at the very idea of surrendering their guns. This is a place that believes in defending itself. With memories of war still fresh in people's minds, convincing them that anyone else can provide security will take a seismic shift in attitudes.
Sitting on his ancient tractor, 50-year old Gani Xhemajli stopped ploughing his field to talk to IWPR. He is adamant that disarming is a bad idea, "Even if I had weapons, I wouldn't hand them in, because I don't believe that either the police or KFOR can keep me safe at any time."
He said neither the local or international police forces, nor the peacekeepers are to be trusted because so few serious crimes are solved, "You need a weapon to protect yourself, as all we hear from police when there's a murder is that the investigation is ongoing. And in most cases nothing happens."
Figures from UNMIK police seem to back this assertion. Out of 44 murder cases recorded this year, 26 remain unresolved.
Mytaher Haskuka, a psychologist working for the UNDP, agrees that many people in Kosovo have little faith in the rule of law. And, he says, this mistrust goes back a long way before the recent war, and is rooted in the Albanians' historical reliance on self-defence because of the weak writ of central governments in this part of the world down through the years.
"The lack of a state, and of state institutions, leads people to take justice in their own hands," he told IWPR. "In this respect, weapons have become a sort of cult among Albanians, in particular in Kosovo and northern Albania, where historically there has been a lack of authority in imposing the rule of law. As long as people feel unsafe there will always be a tendency for them to carry weapons."
But as in Macedonia, it is not just the Albanians who are armed. The Serb minority appears to be no more willing to part with its weapons. "We believe that none of the security forces operating in Kosovo at the moment are able to fully protect the Serbs, so we have to look out for ourselves," said one man from the enclave of Gracanica.
Arms were distributed to the Kosovo Serbs throughout the Nineties by the interior ministry in Belgrade, and more were handed out by the Yugoslav army when it withdrew from the region in June 1999.
The already low level of trust between Serbs and Albanians was further damaged over the summer by a series of ethnically motivated attacks on both sides. One of the sadder incidents happened in August, when a gunmen fired at a group of teenagers swimming in a river near the Serb enclave of Gorazdevac, killing two of them, including an 11-year old Serb boy.
ALBANIA'S SUDDEN GLUT OF GUNS
Not all the guns used in the Kosovo and Macedonian conflicts came from Albania. But the sudden flood of weapons looted from 1,300 army depots across the country in 1997 meant there were more available at lower prices than ever before.
Civil disturbances broke out all over in Albania in March that year as angry crowds took to the streets to protest about the collapse of "pyramid" investment schemes. In poverty-stricken Albania, people had been willing to risk putting their money into private funds which promised high returns - but had no financial foundation and could pay out dividends only as long as new investments kept coming in. When the schemes collapsed, thousands were left penniless, and demanded compensation from the government - which was itself close to bankruptcy.
Mobs began looting shops, and swarmed over army stockpiles grabbing what they could. According to government data, the military lost 550,000 weapons, 31,000 hand grenades, at least 840 million rounds of ammunition, and large amounts of explosives. Other estimates put the number of weapons that went missing higher, at 650,000.
The government estimates that of the 550,000 guns it believes were stolen, 200,000 have since been recovered, and 150,000 were trafficked out of the country, leaving another 200,000 still in civilian hands.
Faced with such an unprecedented situation, the Albanian authorities responded with a nationwide initiative, organising operations to collect the firearms. It began in August 1997 by declaring an amnesty for the voluntary surrender of looted guns. A government commission was set up to oversee the collection process. In May 2000, the commission expanded its activity by recruiting around 250 police officers especially for the task. Although this force was subsequently reduced, officers have visited more than one million homes since 1997 asking people to hand over guns voluntarily or sign a declaration that they have none.
Parliament has twice extended the deadline for the surrender, and it will now end in spring 2005.
NOVEL INCENTIVE SCHEME
To reinforce the government's amnesty, the UNDP has run a series of programmes linking arms surrenders explicitly to funding for local development projects.
The first was a two-year pilot project which began in 1998 in the Gramsh district, chosen because it had a large army garrison from which large quantities of weapons had been stolen. By the time it finished in 2000, it had netted 5,000 guns and established a basic model for providing development projects in exchange for communal handovers of weapons.
It was followed by Weapons in Exchange for Development, WED, a project in the Elbasan and Diber districts which ended in 2002 after 6,000 firearms had been collected. The same basic approach was used but this time made provision for the elimination of weapons - 16,000 were destroyed.
The current programme is known as Small Arms and Light Weapons Control, SALWC. It picked up from WED but with limited funding available for the five areas it was aiming to help - Tirana, Shkodra, Lezha, Kukes and Vlora - it introduced an element of competition. Those villages, districts or municipalities which collect the most guns win funds for a previously-identified local development need. "We introduced a formula that figured the most successful villages, based on weapons handed in per head of the population," said Lawrence Doczy, UNDP Albania's programme manager for security sector reform, and previously manager of the SALWC project. "At village level, those who handed in the most weapons would receive a maximum 20,000 dollars, at municipality level 50,000 dollars. We announced from the very beginning that any community could participate."
The effect is multiplied through a publicity campaign telling people about the benefits of disarming. In 2003, a new component - security-sector reform, focusing on community-based policing - was added to SALWC.
The significance of these weapons-for-development schemes is not so much the number of guns they have turned up - around 18,000 have been handed over in all three UNDP projects - as their impact in gradually altering long-held preconceptions about weapon ownership.
Another important factor - and one that distinguishes these projects from the recent UNDP-funded amnesty month in Kosovo - is that in Albania, it was the UN that managed and disbursed the money, not the local authorities.
In private, UN sources have told IWPR that now gun ownership legislation has been tightened up, the Albanian government should not extend its amnesty any further than the current deadline, spring 2005. Instead, they said, the rule of law should be applied by the police's firearms collection force.
"If the Albanian government wants to help change attitudes, then national amnesties have to stop and police have to implement legislation on the ground," a UN source told IWPR.
CRIME AND TRAFFICKING
The huge trafficking business that sprang up in 1997 and helped feed the Kosovo and Macedonian conflicts began dying down as demand for guns receded when these wars ended.
The Albanian authorities' efforts to stem the trade were helped by the partnership they forged with UNMIK in Kosovo.
"You should bear in mind that our area [Kukes, northern Albania] borders on two regions which were engulfed in armed conflicts for some time, Kosovo and Macedonia," Medi Canga, the regional police chief in Kukes told IWPR. "But I am quite certain when I say that there is no longer any trafficking of arms going on in the region; there is zero trafficking. There are several reasons for this, but as far as Kosovo is concerned, the main one is that we have established very good collaboration with UNMIK. As for Macedonia, we are heavily patrolling the border area."
Canga warns that police have to remain alert, "We have information that many stashes of arms have been placed along the border. Criminal groups may not be trafficking these arms, but they have hidden them, maybe for later use."
Avni Jashellari, the head of the counter-trafficking unit established in the interior ministry in 2001, agrees that the general trend is downwards. He believes that organised criminals may have turned their attention to more profitable trades such as narcotics and human trafficking now that there is less demand for guns. "One of the reasons for the fall in arms trafficking is that the situation in neighbouring countries is now more stable and the chance of renewed armed conflict there is lower," he told IWPR. "Another reason might be that criminal groups which were involved in arms trafficking have now turned to other criminal activities."
In the central port city of Vlora, where the civil unrest began in 1997, local police chief Lieutenant-Colonel Neritan Nallbati says the real problem now is not international trafficking but local gangsters. "Many in the civilian population still have arms, but in most cases they are in the hands of criminal groups operating in the city, who use them to protect themselves from rival groups," he said. "As for trafficking to neighbouring countries, we have had no cases - and not even received any information about it."
The view from Albania is that this is going to be a long and slow process involving government, law enforcement officers and local communities - and one where everyone concerned has to buy into the concept of disarmament.
In each of the places IWPR visited - Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania - weapons proliferation has been closely associated with instability and conflict. But in each the political context has differed significantly, and this has determined the varying degrees of reluctance to give up weapons. The role the state and international community has played in encouraging or forcing disarmament has also differed from place to place, and so has the public's response to these measures.
The lessons from Kosovo and Macedonia suggest that changes in the law and one-off amnesties are not enough - the key is to alter public attitudes at grassroots level, which are rooted in tradition as well as in perceptions of political instability and crime. Unless this is achieved, the reluctance to give up private arsenals will remain insurmountable.
There's a need to invest disarmament with the same political and social importance that armament has traditionally held in these societies - by incentives, or other innovative schemes.
Xhavit Shala, the chief of police in Lezhe, a district in northern Albania, has invented his own system for persuading people to part with their beloved weapons, gradually and without alarming them too much.
He started by getting his own officers to hand over just one item from their family arsenal - for instance a vintage Austrian gun from the First World War. This bottom-up method worked, and it quickly snowballed - so far Shala has collected a large stockpile including 165 firearms, 12 anti-tank rockets, and he has received tip-offs of arms caches due to be trafficked
"I can see that the community believes in the arms collection programme. One less weapon means one less crime," said Shala.
In Macedonia, disarmament official Gezim Ostreni told IWPR that people still harbour misconceptions about the danger of firearm proliferation.
"These weapons do not pose a threat for the state, contrary to what is commonly believed," he said. "They pose a threat to people who live in the vicinity of the owners. They will be used not to start uprisings, but to shoot at one's own children or neighbours. I've been through two wars, and I know that well."
This investigative report was produced by David Quin, Co-ordinating Editor in Skopje; with material contributed by Ilir Aliaj and Lazar Semini in Albania, Naser Miftari, Artan Mustafa and Jeta Xharra in Kosovo, and Vladimir Jovanovski and Ana Petruseva in Macedonia.
The investigation formed part of Saferworld's small arms and light weapons project, as part of its efforts to develop civil-society capacity to work on small arms issues in South Eastern Europe, for which the UK Government provided funds. Saferworld (www.saferworld.org.uk) does not necessarily endorse the views expressed in this article.
Copyright © IWPR and Saferworld 2003. Please credit IWPR and Saferworld in any republication.