A Thousand Secret Paths Lead From Albania

Desperate to escape grinding poverty and bleak futures, Albanians pay exorbitant prices for visas and undergo risky sea voyages to their mecca, the West

DAY and night, on a corner of Tirana's main square, men stand in tight clusters holding hushed conversations. This is where Albanians come to trade their family savings, and probably the savings of their relatives and friends, for a trip to the West.

A man holds a passport stolen from an Australian woman. Once he finds a buyer, he says, three different specialists will work in turn to change the photo, signature, and seal.

Falsified passports -- American, Canadian, and Australian are the most popular -- sell for about $5,000 at this black market. A visa to Italy can be bought for about $1,500 -- a staggering price in a country where the average income is less than $400 a year.

Last Stalinist country

Albania is the poorest country in Europe. The government admits to 30 percent unemployment, but with the economy at a halt, Albanians say the real figure is closer to 80 percent.

There is running water only three times a day and the electricity turns off every few hours. Toilet bowls are a rarity, and so are telephones. On the streets of the capital, donkey carts are still a common sight.

Albania was the last country in Europe to emerge from the grip of Stalinism. Enver Hoxha, who ruled as a communist dictator from 1944 until 1985, cut off the country from the world.

Hoxha first severed ties with the United States and then with the ''revisionist'' communist governments of the Soviet Union and China. His legacy: the estimated 750,000 dome-shaped concrete bunkers he built from the mountains to the sea to defend against an imagined US invasion.

Under communism, it was a crime just to speak to a foreigner. Today, under a democratically elected government, Albanians can have passports and the freedom to travel, but few countries will let them in.

According to a poll done by a professor at the university in Tirana in 1992, 82 percent of Albanians said they would leave if they could.

But of all the countries in the world, only Germany has an agreement to accept Albanian emigrants -- a few hundred so far, from a country of 3.3 million people.

Every day, people line up outside the Greek and Italian embassies in Tirana, but even temporary visas are rarely granted to Albanians since the embassies have little assurance that an Albanian tourist will go home again. Malaysia is the only country in the world where Albanians can travel without a visa.

So Albanians have discovered a thousand secret paths out of their country. Over 10 percent of them have fled since communism ended, nearly all illegally. An estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Albanians live abroad, the largest numbers in Greece and Italy. Most of the emigrants are single young men. The money they send home is the single biggest source of income in a country where industry has virtually collapsed and where foreign investors have shown little interest.

Arian, a construction worker, paid $1,000 for a black-market visa in 1991 and went to Italy with his wife, who worked as a nurse. They left their year-old son with his grandmother and didn't see him again until he was three. When the money they earned in Italy runs out, they say they will have to leave him again.

Albanians who cannot afford a black-market visa may head to Vlora on the southern coast, just 70 miles across the Adriatic Sea from the heel of Italy. It has become a center for refugees heading West from as far as China.

The lure of Vlora

Every night, soon after dark, a small flotilla of speedboats leaves the harbor without lights. In each boat, 15 to 20 refugees spend the three-hour journey crammed under a tarp. Each has paid from $500 to $1,000, more than two years' wages in Albania. Taxis wait at the Italian shore to take them to the train station.

This well-organized operation even comes with a guarantee: If you are caught by the Italian police and sent home, you can try again for free, as many times as it takes. Still, every week there's a report of a drowning.

No one is sure how many refugees arrive in Italy this way. The Italians only know how many they catch -- 1,000 to 1,500 a month.

Emigration is difficult to bring up with the Albanian police, who still retain some of the habits of the old regime and are feared by Albanians. Roadblocks and routine checks are still a fact of life here. When the question of bribery comes up in an interview with Vlora's police chief, the translator looks panicked. ''It's an impossible question,'' she says, and refuses to translate it.

One Albanian man, named Neutar, took the boats from Vlora in 1992. He's found a steady job as an electrician in Italy. He says his boss protects him from the Italian police, probably in part because he is cheaper than an Italian worker.

He went home to find a bigger apartment for his wife and two teenage daughters, who share a single tiny room. Once they have moved, he'll take the boat to Italy again.

Every family has its story. Lindita Sulioti was one of the handful of Albanians to get a legal visa to work in Germany. She worked a year and a half in a McDonald's in Munich.

''It was very hard at first, until I got used to the pace of work in Germany,'' she says. ''Now I know I can work anywhere.'' Her dream is to find a McDonald's in the US that will hire her on her good references from Germany.

Hasan Mucostepa is one of the rare Albanians who has the opportunity to emigrate, but decided to stay. A former communist, he held the No. 2 position at University of Tirana. He says he lost his post when he refused to sign a loyalty oath to the new democratic government. He works now for a printing company, laying out pages on a computer.

''I work here in Albania for $80 a month. I'm a professor. I could find work in Germany or France.... In Toulouse I was invited to sit on the jury judging doctoral theses, and here I'm excluded from the university.''

Mr. Mucostepa sees no signs that Albania is emerging from its inertia, but he stays anyway.

''If all the educated people leave, there will be no one to run the country if it ever gets back on its feet. To leave Albania is easy,'' he says. ''To stay, that's not so easy.''

Albanians say the most difficult thing about their lives is that now they know how other people live. Foreign television, legal now since 1990, brings them a sanitized picture of life in the West.

In 1991, when Albania was first emerging from its cocoon, those pictures created a hunger for the West that exploded into a massive exodus. Some 40,000 Albanians swarmed onto boats for Italy.

In August 1991, a commandeered freighter, the Vlora, anchored in the harbor at Bari, Italy. Ten thousand Albanians swam ashore, many wearing just their underwear. They were met by Italian riot squads who herded them into Bari's stadium. When a helicopter tried to drop water and food, it had to fly off after being attacked by the angry Albanians, leaving anarchy in the stadium.

Nearly all them were flown home three days later. Italians were shocked at the treatment, and Bari's mayor had to resign. Today, Albanians caught sneaking into Bari's port are sent home on the ship they arrived on.

The Albanian boat people had the world's spotlight in 1991. They even starred in a Benetton advertisement. But their celebrity was short-lived. An Italian blockade stopped the exodus.

Life in a rail station

Today, most Albanians know the West isn't paradise. But they come anyway. On one evening, three young Albanians have gathered to watch a public television in the plaza outside the train station in Bari, Italy. Two of them walked from Albania to Greece then hid inside a truck which boarded the ferry to Italy. A third paid fishermen $400 to bring him over.

All are illegal. After 18 months none has found real work. They are fed by a Catholic charity and sleep in the train station. But even this life, they say, is better than what they had in Albania.

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