Civilian Revolt in Albania: Rage Gives Rise to Militias
Organized takeover of cities in south boxes in the president
SARANDA, ALBANIA — Of the four southern towns currently under rebel control in Albania, Saranda is in a league of its own.
Six days after its enraged inhabitants took over the police station and raided Army warehouses, this resort town has organized a calm and disciplined resistance with civilian patrols at every street corner and along the roads coming into the city.
In contrast, Vlora is the southern coastal town that has become the symbol of Albania's insurgence against the government of President Sali Berisha. Rebel leaders are still struggling to restore order and channel the anger of Vlora's 70,000 inhabitants into a structured resistance.
But Saranda already has a leader, a defense council, and a surprisingly effective chain of command. Communication and supply channels have been established with the Greek island of Corfu less than two miles away, and there's ban on careless waste of ammunition.
"There is a very simple order: No one can shoot unless it is against Berisha's people," says Gjevat Koucia, the retired Army colonel who was called upon to organize the town's rebellion.
Schools and offices are closed, but the city continues to function. Bakeries provide bread, and food shops provide groceries.
And while Vlora at night echoes with the incessant sound of automatic fire, Saranda is quiet. More than 5,000 heavily armed men take turns enforcing the self-imposed 10 p.m. curfew and protecting roads into the city.
A beacon to other rebels
It is to this prosperous city of 25,000 that the nearby towns of Delvina and Gjirokaster are looking in their effort to hold their own in what might become a long standoff with the government.
"Vlora, Delvina, and other towns are starting to do now what we did from the very beginning," says Mr. Koucia. "People know that we are organized and ready to fight. We will not attack, but we are not letting anyone near here until Berisha resigns."
Reports of Mr. Berisha's offer to hold elections in 45 days - provided the rebels surrender their arms - were met here with open scorn. "We don't trust him," says Fuat Karalina, one of the seven members on the defense council. "First he has to step down and announce the formation of a new government. We want to know the names of the people who will be in the government to see whether we can trust them not to kill us when this is over."
Rage over the government's inability to salvage fraudulent financial schemes - in which a majority of Albanians lost enormous amounts of money - exploded in Gjirokaster Saturday, with armed citizens expelling government troops and reportedly capturing two helicopters.
In Saranda, news of Gjirokaster's fall to the rebels was greeted enthusiastically, with residents embracing and chanting in wild manifestations of joy.
Still, reigning in the many adolescents who are manning the roadblocks along the coastal roads from Vlora to Saranda is not an easy task. On Friday, rebel leader Koucia rushed to the hills around Saranda to prevent a gang of gunslinging youths from marching into Gjirokaster. "I had to beg them," he says. "I talked with them for hours with tears in my eyes."
Paradoxically, Koucia was managing director of Vefa, the largest and most conservative of the pyramid schemes in Saranda.
"I gave him $100,000 to invest for me," Pano Gickali, another defense council member. He told me it was risky, and I accepted the risk. Now he is the leader here, and I have nothing against him. We must fight for democracy, not to get our money back."
Should other cities in the south follow the Saranda's example and handle the transition from anarchy to an organized resistance, Berisha could be forced into a more radical political solution. "We are not afraid of the Army," said Bertie, a 20-year-old holding a Kalashnikov rifle at an intersection in Saranda. "They are not organized, and the soldiers don't want to shoot on their own brothers."
The Army has indeed offered little resistance. In Gjirokaster, soldiers apparently joined the rebels in the assault on the local police station.
There have also been reports of tank commanders simply refusing to open fire on women and children used as human shields by the population of a small village near here.
Secret police on the move
In Vlora, plainclothes policeman of the Shik secret police have infiltrated the city. Their tactics in recent days have brought back memories of Albania's dark authoritarian past. The summary execution of two civilians, a woman and her son, is attributed to the Shik by Vlora's residents.
The following morning a stunned crowd of thousands gathered in front of the victims' house for a funeral procession. "It was a message from Berisha," says one weeping member of the family who asked not to be identified. "We are a respected family here in Vlora. My father, my uncle, and my brother were jailed under communism for speaking English. Berisha killed my brother."
Also in Vlora, Shik agents apparently set fire to a military warehouse storing heavy machine guns next to a building holding a 150 tons of explosive materials.
The men who gathered in front of the compound the following morning set about clearing the warehouse for fear that a Shik agent might succeed in inducing an explosion. "They are everywhere," said one of the men. "I could be Shik, he could be Shik. We don't know."
During a morning rally in Vlora's central square, residents seethed with rage. "Berisha is not Albanian," shouted one demonstrator. "If he had Albanian blood in him, he would never have done this to us!"
No city in Albania has lost more money in the bankruptcy of the pyramid schemes than Vlora, a town that has prospered by smuggling petro-oil and arms into the former Yugoslavia and Albanians into Italy. While Saranda's loss to the get-rich-quick quick schemes is an estimated half a million dollars, Vlora's loss is a staggering half a billion dollars.
"We are a town of contraband," said one particularly candid Vlora inhabitant working as a paramedic in the squalor of the town's hospital. "I smuggled cigarettes for years, and put $15,000 in Berisha's pyramids." The average investor in Vlora put in $30,000 to $50,000 dollars and lost it all."