Page 12, 28th March 1997

28th March 1997
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Page 12, 28th March 1997 — Life among Europe's new boat people
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Locations: Brindisi, Lezha

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Life among Europe's new boat people

T THE HEA of the Aa D

queue of new arrivals in Brindisi, fat policeman barked at a young Albanian in Italian: "What is the name of this relative of yours in Italy, then?"

The Albanian looked blank. There was no interpreter, and he spoke no Italian. The question was then repeated many times until the young man, helped by a friend, hazarded a reply.

"Piro," he said at last. The policeman wrote the name on a form. "Spelt like that?" he asked without turning the form around for the Albanian to see. "Right, sign here." There then followed the mugstyle shot with a polaroid, and the taking of fingerprints.

From that moment the Albanian was free. His only problem was that he had no money to go to his relative. Later, the barking policeman, apologising for his frayed nerves, told me how this form, which is in triplicate, was a "safeguard for security."

The document, based on information taken on -trust since manyAlbanians have no passports, guarantees a stay in Italy of up to 90 days because of unrest at home. But only those with a relative already legally resident in Italy, or who have an offer of a job, can use it to leave new-arrivals camps, and hence to circulate. The rest will have to continue to live in more permanent, temporary camps elsewhere. Unless, of course, they escape. And already many have.

In the current crisis, s6me 12,000 Albanians have made the perilous journey in leaking boats over the Adriatic. Some are criminals and undesirables with pockets stuffed with dollars, and even mobile phones.

They quickly disappear into

e big clues, W-hre there is already a well-established Albanian network of crime. There are already some 63,000 Albanians in Italy, many from previous crises, and Italian public opinion is swinging firmly aginst them.

But many of them are genuinely escaping the chaos and breakdown of law and order at home while Italy is taking the view that all boat

people are merely immigrants, and wants to send them all back.

Like all would-be refugees being put up in an old police barracks in central Brindisi in conditions verging on squalor, Rozina Preka left Albania because she had felt threatened.

But she is terrified by more than the anarchy gripping her country. Shortly before she decided to leave everything and risk her rife aboard a cramped fishing boat with her husband and two young sons, an anonymous phone caller told her she was to die.

Rozina, an electronics engineer who ran the telephone company in the northern town of Lezha, was threatened because of her loyalty and political ties to President Sali Berisha, a northerner, most of whose gun-toting enemies

are in the south. A woman who speaks three languages and dresses fashionably, she fights back the tears as she tells me how she did not want to leave her country.

"I don't think I will ever be able to live there again," she says. "Even if there are elections, I am afraid the communists will take over power by intimidating people to vote for them."

Her main concern is for her two sons, Enian, 11, and Ledian, 8, who with their freckles and polite behaviour could come from anywhere in Britain. "All of the schools in Lezha have been burnt down," she said. "The extremist terrorist forces have burnt the banks and destroyed the warehouses."

Until a few weeks ago, even with all the problems Albania now has, she and her husband Gjergi led the good life. 'Money was no problem," she said. Now she has traded in her lovely house stuffed with fine things for a grim life in an old police barracks that is beginning to smell like a farmyard.

When I arrived at the barracks there were already 250 people, the absolute maximum for this makeshift centre; yet half an hour later a grey haired policeman came in and groaned to his mates: "You won't believe this, but they're sending another 50."

Although Rozina has little in common with the backwardness and poverty which is partly at the root of the current unrest in her country, she is also a typical example of the huge mix of people who have spilled ashore in Italy since Friday as a result.

Contrary to Italy's beliefs that many are only "immigrants", many others like Rozina told me of their fear of the anarchy and violence at home, and how they wanted a peaceful, and not only a "good life". The best proof, however, that Albania is not only poor, but also highly dangerous, is to visit Albania itself.

Ask any Albanian and he will tell you that all Albanians seem to be waiting with weapons to defend themselves against others who may feel tempted to use their new found weapons to settle old scores.

Clocks and watches have been superseded by the gun in Tirana. The reason is that there are few appointments that need to be kept since the breakdown of law and order. And, to learn the time, it is enough to listen.

At midday in Tirana, the telltale sound is the intermittent rattle of automatic weapons being fired into the air. The outlying hills echo the rumbling of guns. But if you look hard, you will see people jogging. The anarchy of the south is beginning to press on the capital, however.

It is a strange thing for a country teetering on the brink of revolution: as a rule, people begin firing their guns early on in the afternoon, but soon break off for lunch. Later they resume. But later still, when the shooting really begins, you can be sure it is after 7pm, when, ironically, the curfew begins. Then, people begin to fire everything they have into the air, but especially tracers, for their firework effect.

"The media keeps going on about the advancing rebels," said a key US Embassy officer, shaking his head last week: "but there is no such thing. If anything, it is an advancing anarchy."

'ST AS NO ONE really knows what is going on

in Albania, no one in Italy has a firm understanding of how the authorities are confronting the problem of would-be refugees pouring onto its shores, in boats often containing arms. All have been "processed" in much the same way as in the episode featuring the barking policeman which I witnessed last week.

Yet while Italy must be praised for the caring and concern of many of its individuals, services, and voluntary organisations for the plight of Albania's "boat

people," it is also true that in many cases the first thing with which they are greeting the asylum-seekers with is more chaos.

Italy's failure to ensure adequate reception arrangements has been strongly criticised by Apulia's bishops, and Caritas organisations; while even the Health Under-secretary, Maria Pia Saravaglia, said during a visit: "We have done well in terms of meeting the demands of law and order, but the humanitarian effort has yet to begin."

The bleak, prison-like arrangements awaiting asylum-seekers may also partly explain why there are so many reports of Albanians escaping from the camps, or even from the boats as soon as they dock.

They often manage to slip away amid all the confusion. Yet others, said to be criminals, have been summarily deported in a move which has drawn up sharp criticism from Amnesty International; others still have been allowed to stay because they claim (without having to prove) they are related to a fellow countryman who is living and working legally in Italy.

The proof of just how easy it was to slip though the net is the fact that I had done it myself. Dirty, tired and a little the worse for wear after spending four hours at sea; I walked off a quayside in Brindisi where I had arrived with 40 Albanian boat-people, convincing the carabinieri to let me through by saying. "I am a journalist." Without further ado, I was through.

The 33-ft Coast Guard boat on to which I had earlier jumped as it left the harbour, spent all night bobbing like a cork in force-four winds, coordinating the rescue of 858 Albanians, whose pirated, 160-foot military patrol boat had run aground four miles south of Brindisi while being escorted by the Finance Guard police.

The Finance Guard are supposed to have then virtually abandoned it to the poorerequipped C oast Guard, who had to be called out from Brindisi. They bravely fought through th night to rescue everyone, in cluding a 10-dayold baby, but next day publicly denounced the other force. It was a miracle that the rivalry and once again, the confusion between tile two forces had not cost any lives.

As our bo at came up to the quayside a fw minutes before, Bentian, a l9D-year-old student from Vlore, student ("I am not now a student, since they have burnt 11 the schools"), murmured ion seeing all the police: "I re ally did not want to come, not like this. Italians don't like Albanians any more. I want to know how I am going to be treated. I want consistency."




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