As Political Rebellion Boils in the South, Banditry Breaks Out in Albania's North
TIRANA AND LEZHA, ALBANIA — Close to nine decades ago, the German statesman Otto Von Bismarck said, "If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some ... silly thing in the Balkans."
In 1914, his words proved prophetic: The assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in Sarajevo by a fringe Serbian nationalist group was the spark that ignited World War I. While the recent war in Bosnia did not start another worldwide conflict, it drew in NATO, Russia, the United Nations, and even Iran.
Now comes another Balkan crisis - in Albania.
The collapse of several government-endorsed pyramid schemes last month, in which a majority of Albanians lost their life savings, has triggered a popular reaction against the government of President Sali Berisha. Raids on military depots in the south have armed the rebels to the point that a Kalashnikov rifle can be bought on the street for a mere $1. And the towns that have fallen to rebel control are getting closer to the capital, Tirana.
The formation late Tuesday of an interim "Government of National Reconciliation," which includes members of the opposition Socialist Party, has done little to nothing to stem rebel violence.
The city of Shkoder has seen the worst violence so far in the northern half of the country, when protesters attacked a military garrison there Wednesday night.
Citizens of Tirana woke up yesterday morning to the sound of heavy automatic weapons fire. Overnight there were several loud explosions, believed to be ammunition depots exploding.
"If you want to help Albania, you need to pray," said one man as he passed out photocopied prayers in the city center.
The government appeared to have almost no authority in Tirana, although police had closed the airport. The move stranded thousands of foreign citizens who were on orders from their embassies to leave. The US, British, and other embassies planned to begin airlifting their citizens out of Albania.
Airline offices in the city were packed with hundreds of foreigners and locals trying to get tickets out of what increasingly looks like a civil war. But airline offices locked their doors and put up signs saying there would be no information until the airport reopened.
A US Navy battle group has been put on standby in the Adriatic Sea. If the situation worsens, troops may be used to evacuate the more than 2,000 Americans living in Albania.
A steady flow of arms is now falling into the hands of destitute civilians in the north. Following the south's example, Albanians in the north are raiding Army warehouses and then taking to the streets, looting shops and torching banks and government offices.
But while similar episodes in the south appear to be aimed at securing the resignation of Mr. Berisha, civilians in the north appear to be taking up arms without a clear motive or purpose.
"We are afraid," said one inhabitant of Lezha, a town of some 20,000 that is 50 miles north of Tirana. "We are taking these arms to defend ourselves because everyone else is armed, and there are bandits everywhere. I don't want a bandit to come into my home."
"These people don't care about Berisha," says Mark, a young man who now owns three Kalashnikovs. "What you see is a herd instinct: One person does one thing, and everyone follows. Yesterday, when we ran inside the Army depot, I was thinking: 'What am I doing?' But something was pushing me, and it was that instinct."
As disorder spreads, the sense is that there may be a crucial difference between the insurgency south of Tirana and the erratic, uncontrolled violence in the north. "In the south, they have a cause. They fight against Sali Berisha. Here the situation is simply out of control," Mark says.
In Tirana, thousands of citizens reacted to the mayhem by stockpiling food. On the road between Tirana and Ballsh, to the south, citizens used wheelbarrows, donkeys, trucks, cars, and bicycles to cart off sacks of flour - Swiss humanitarian aid - from a looted warehouse. People looted stores for food and supplies. Many stores have closed in the capital.
"I am taking this flour because it is chaos here. We may need it. Who's to blame? I don't know. Berisha, or the people who lost money in pyramid schemes [the rebels]. I am afraid it is going to be a civil war," said one resident.
To the people in Lezha, the debate over the north-south divide and the possibility of a civil war appeared ludicrous. "What civil war?" said one man. "What will happen here is that bandits will go at each other for greed, for money, for personal reasons. It will be one armed gang against the other, one armed man against his neighbor."