Taking Care Of Their Own

Despite their poverty, ordinary Albanians have rushed to help their ethnic kin who have fled ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. The generosity of the common people is in stark contrast with official complacency.

Taking Care Of Their Own

Despite their poverty, ordinary Albanians have rushed to help their ethnic kin who have fled ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. The generosity of the common people is in stark contrast with official complacency.

Fatmira Kruda is a cleaner with five children. Fatos Lubonja, is a writer and former dissident. Fatmira has taken in ten Kosovo refugees. Fatos has opened his home to 17 members of the Kryeziu family from Prizren.

Fatimara’s and Fatos’s generosity is typical of the way in which ordinary Albanians throughout Europe’s poorest country are rallying to help their ethnic kin fleeing Kosovo.

This "spontaneous solidarity" as Fatos calls it, contrasts with official complacency in the face of the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe, a state of affairs for which Albanians have a proverb: ‘Share your poverty but not your wealth.’ Fatmira lives in a two-bedroom house, no running water and an outhouse in the back. She earns about $150 per month. Her 15-year-old son saw the ten Kosovo refugees sleeping in the street and invited them in.

"I couldn’t turn them away," she said. She gave them a barrel to store water and put up a second laundry rope in the backyard. No more and no less than what she has herself.

Fatos, a 50-year-old newspaper columnist known for his forthright views, said: "I didn’t do much. I went to the sports stadium, gave them my telephone number and told them to call me if they needed anything."

Imprisoned for 17 years during the Hoxha era under for criticising the regime, he now directs his venom at both the government and the opposition who he says "see their positions more as an opportunity than a responsibility".

Fatos was earning $400 a month for writing a weekly column for Koha Ditore, the Pristina-based independent daily. Koha Ditore was burned down two weeks ago. Now he writes for a variety of local newspapers and magazines to make ends meet.

The Kryeziu family consists of two brothers, four women whose husbands stayed behind to fight with the Kosovo Liberation Army and nine children between the ages of two and fifteen. Fatos lent them his mobile phone to call relatives in Germany.

The Kryezius, like most of the refugees, have been moved to the army barracks, about 15 minutes car drive out of the centre of Tirana. "As soon as I find someone with a car, I plan to go see them," Fatos said.

For much of this century Albanians have been divided between several Balkan states, living principally in Albania and Kosovo, but also in Greece and Macedonia. Those in Albania proper were further cut off from their ethnic kin during close to half a century of self-inflicted isolation under the late dictator Enver Hoxha.

Albania’s isolation ended with the collapse of communism in 1991, since when Kosovo Albanians have visited the country freely. The two principal Albanian communities were united by the fact that they both lived under some form of oppression, but were divided as to who was the greater victim: Kosovo Albanians who lived under foreign tutelage or the Albanians from Albania proper whose oppression was home-grown.

Whatever differences may have existed between Albanian communities disappeared as Serbian forces began ethnically cleansing Kosovo. Although there are no official estimates of how many of the 300,000 Kosovo refugees in Albania have been put up in private homes, it is clear that ordinary people throughout the country, from Kukes in the north to Saranda in the south, have taken in refugees.

In the town of Kukes just over Albania’s border with Kosovo almost every family has turned over part of its home to refugees. Over morning coffee in Kukes’s Adriani hotel cafe, the police debate how to make ends meet with an extra 10 to 15 people on a $100-a-month salary. They wonder how long this will last.

One officer, who asked not to be named, said: "I am embarrassed to admit this but our own poverty will force us one day to turn them [the refugees] out on the street." Looking at his colleagues, he added, "I will endure until the end, but I hope to God that the end is not too far off."

Albania’s media have focused on the plight of the Kosovo Albanians.

State-run television runs recruitment advertisements for the Kosovo Liberation Army. "The KLA needs you now!" it urges. Radio and television programmes have been turned over to helping reunite Kosovo Albanians with missing family members.

The generosity shown by ordinary Albanians does not appear to be replicated by their political leaders, most of whom can be found during the day and evening with local business leaders drinking in the Western-style Tirana and Rogner hotels. Few if any of them, who each earn approximately $400 per month, have themselves taken any action to assist the refugees.

The politicians are, nevertheless, eager to speak out against Belgrade, demand deployment of NATO ground troops and call for international aid to any Western or local media willing to listen. Every interview ends with the sound bite: "We have very limited resources and are doing our best to accommodate our brothers and sisters".

Fron Nazi is a senior editor with the Institute of War and Peace Reporting.

Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo
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