SHKODER, ALBANIA — Albania may be the poorest country in Europe and one of the most isolated. But that hasn't kept it from being wired into the global village of satellite TV.
And that has made all the difference in how a two-month rebellion has spread in this Balkan nation of 3 million.
Take the remote village of Shkoder in northern Albania, a region that might otherwise have remained quiet as insurgency swept the south.
On Wednesday last week, many of Shkoder's 80,000 residents raided nearby Army barracks, taking thousands of automatic weapons. They went on a 48-hour rampage, burning down the court house and the bank. Armed gangs said to have descended like scavengers from the surrounding hills looted the town.
Why? Panic, spawned by TV reports of the revolt beamed in by foreign transmitters.
"We saw people in the south taking up arms," says Qemal Xhanko. "We heard people in the south were going to come up with guns and punish us for not having taken part in the initial revolt."
Mr. Xhanko, like most of his neighbors, has been sitting at home watching grossly exaggerated television reports on the chaos in southern hamlets such as Gjirokaster. "We were afraid."
Such looting throughout the north followed the takeover of several southern towns by rebels, who also armed themselves by looting Army depots. The collapse of several pyramid schemes sparked antigovernment riots in the south. But few northerners invested in the schemes and thus have been slow to support the rebellion. And most northerners still support President Sali Berisha, who comes from the north.
In a country where satellite dishes mushroom curiously out of squalid, ramshackle buildings, people have been anxiously glued to their TV sets listening to panicky reports from RAI, the Italian state TV, and watching images of burning and looting on CNN.
'They did what they saw on TV'
"We watch the news all day," says Xhanko. "We watch RAI first because most Albanians speak Italian, then we watch EuroNews, CNN, BBC World Report, and France2."
According to one resident, the rush toward Army barracks was as impulsive as it was disorganized. "No one knew what they were doing when they went," says Albana Gjyrezi, a student. "It wasn't organized. They did what everyone else was doing. They did what they saw on TV."
With Albanian state TV fueling rumors about a civil war between the north and the south, and all communication lines to places like Gjirokaster cut since early March, when parliament imposed a state of emergency, residents of Shkoder went for the guns. Unlike most places taken over by rebels in the south, however, people in this northern town keep their looted AK-47 rifles at home without a clear idea of why they have them to begin with.
Most are armed
"I am sorry to say that every family here in Shkoder is armed," says Elsham Sharra, the town's prefect.
"It happened very quickly and now there are all these guns. I talked to Prime Minister Bashkim Fino and he says the government will pass a law or an edict organizing the collection of guns," adds Mr. Sharra. "Once we can organize the collection, people will turn in their arms."
Given the lack of a political motive - people in the north seem indifferent to the south's request that Mr. Berisha step down - there seems to be no clear explanation for the damage Shkoder suffered in a mere 48 hours.
"Now the problem is what will happen to these arms," says Sharra. Shkoder's economy, almost entirely dependent on oil-smuggling to the former Yugoslavia via neighboring Montenegro, collapsed when the embargo was lifted after the end of the war in Bosnia. The trade was worth an estimated $1 billion a year to Shkoder.
The town is now eerily poor. Children sleep out on the street next to heaps of burning waste and women roam the countryside looking for edible greens. The fear is that weapons will be sold across the border for profit. "No one here has a job anymore," says Agim, Xhanko's neighbor. "I used to drive a car loaded with oil to Montenegro every week with my father, like everyone else. Now that's over."
"There is nothing to do here, and there are all these guns," adds Agim. "I did not take a gun because I hate them. But how long can I stay like this, the only one without a gun?"