Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 25 1999 9:30 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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"I think all the roads in Albania were built by Mussolini," said Bedri, the man with whose family I traveled from Montenegro. "The roads are very bad." This is Albania's tragedy as well as a bit of a PR issue. The last time someone really invested in Albania was when it was a protectorate of fascist Italy, which formed a Greater Albania out of Albania, Kosovo, and the Albanian-dominated part of Macedonia. This was also the last and only time that Albanians lived in one country, which makes some of them uncomfortably wistful.

In Moscow, where I live, last year a street in the center of town opened up and swallowed a Jeep Cherokee as well as most of a two-story building. Moscow has bad roads. Albania's roads are beyond bad. It would be better if they had never been paved, because then they would not be able to attack vehicles quite so viciously. But now that Albania has appeared on the map of the world again, the locals hope things will improve. "NATO--Albania," said a cab driver, motioning upward with his hands. Meaning, "NATO lifts us up." What a way to improve a country's fortunes. Along the road entering Tirana, which feels like entering a long-abandoned and only ever half-finished industrial suburb, someone has hung a U.S. flag upside down. It seems like the perfect symbol.

From what I can tell, prewar, the visible international presence in Tirana was limited to things like a billboard advertising, in plain black type on a white background, "Pierre Cardin. French's fashion come to Albania," and a genuine, from all appearances, Coca-Cola plant that also displayed flags: U.S., Albanian, Italian, and Coca-Cola. Sure, there had been a little emerging-markets activity here earlier, but when the country rebelled in the spring of 1997, after giant private pyramid schemes toppled, everyone evacuated amid gunfire. A few U.S. programs returned but evacuated again, this time for good, in September of last year, after the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya: There were reports that an Iraqi-funded terrorist organization was operating here. Actually, these reports had been knocking around since at least 1995, but these things can take time.

And now Tirana greets the returning foreigners. The opera house sports a giant banner: "NATO in Kosova." Hotels have jacked up their prices, and private houses have refashioned themselves as hotels, and still, as in any place where there is an army of journalists, there are no rooms. Shortly after arriving, I end up in someone's uncle's house, then in another gated private house I am assured is a hotel, and so forth until I luck into a place where the rooms are available and clean and the staff speaks Russian. Moreover, it turns out the owner speaks Russian.

His name is Noz. He is 42, and he runs a couple of small casinos and an eight-room hotel. This time is good for business, he says. The poker joints are pulling in money, and the hotel is always full, and he has been able to raise the price from $35 to $50 a night. Over dinner he asks me what I think of his hotel. "Very nice," I assure him. He says softly, importantly, "You have seen the hotels in Yugoslavia. What do you think?" I say the only thing I can say: "Yours is better. Much better. Cleaner." So what if there are no phones--there are few phones in Tirana, period--the plumbing seems all but nonexistent, and there is a constant, high-pitched whistling sound throughout the hotel? It really is clean, and Noz needs to hear it. Because Noz, as he has explained to me, pointing at his heart, has a problem: He loves Russians, likes Serbs, and hates Albanians. He has internalized Albanophobia. At midnight he reopens the bar downstairs so he can pour us a couple of shots of Ukrainian pepper vodka, play a tape of tacky Russian music, and, when he is not singing along, dream aloud of how one day Albania will be a civilized country with good roads and phones that work.

The next morning, I go to the Tirana airport, which NATO forces are using as a base. This has reduced the number of operating civilian airlines to one, Albanian Airlines, which has used this opportunity to double prices on flights to Bologna and Athens. Along the road leading to the airport, frogs are croaking, cows grazing, and one woman who is probably younger than she looks is using a hand-held contraption to spin yarn while she shepherds her one cow. Operation Allied Force is not accepting visitors until 4 p.m., but operation Shining Hope, the humanitarian effort, is open all day, so I go there. Captain Robert Riggle, a U.S. Marines public affairs officer, tells me this is an unprecedented cooperative effort, involving the United States, Britain, France, United Arab Emirates, Greece, Austria and, he thinks, probably other countries he can't recall. All of them are running supplies, delivered by large transport planes from all over the world, up to Kukes, the town near the border with Kosovo.

On the runway, the crews stand around their various helicopters in their various uniforms playing out their various national stereotypes. The U.S. crews are not flying at the moment because, it turns out, the United States sent helicopters that are so big and powerful that if they landed anywhere near the refugee camps, the tents would turn over. Somehow it makes perfect sense that the United States would send choppers that are too big. The French crew makes a show of enthusiasm as I walk by. I walk up to them and ask if I could catch a ride. "No," one of the pilots says. "It's a security concern. If there were an accident we'd be responsible. Sorry." I approach the United Arab Emirates officers, who tell me to take a place alongside other journalists and assorted others waiting by the tarmac. Onboard, they hand us a form to sign, saying that we are responsible for our own safety and security, and that's all the bureaucracy they are going to indulge in.

The trip, which takes about 10 hours by the bad road, lasts a half hour. The helicopters--there are three of them flying at one time--climb steadily, staying just one step ahead of the mountains. Albania passing below us looks like a video game from when I last played a video game: schematic. The houses are just white boxes with roofs, the roads faceless and empty, and the rivers uninterrupted save for a couple of bridges and a couple of simple dams. All the power in Albania, if my knowledgeable relief-worker acquaintance is to be believed, comes from hydroelectric plants, so in the summer, when there is less water, the water pressure drops and the lights dim. Actually, the lights dim frequently even now.

We land by a big orange windsock with the words "UAE Air Force" sticking out of a neat camp of green tents. The crew quickly unloads whatever it is we brought--probably medical supplies for the hospital that's being set up here--and rushes back to the helicopter 15 minutes later: It's getting late, and the weather is getting bad. The camp is set up by the Red Crescent Society with the UAE Air Force and about 60 volunteers from the UAE. I talk with Mohamed, a personnel manager who works for the city of Abu Dabi, who says the phrase "The weather is not helping" at least 10 times in as many minutes. He came here for two weeks three weeks ago to help build the camp, but the weather hasn't helped, so it has taken longer. The camp, which can house as many as 5,000 people, wasn't meant to open for another two or three days, but refugees coming last night did not have any place to go, so they let them in, about 200 people in all. Mohamed has six kids, but they understand he needs to stay longer. "When you see this on TV, you want to help--like this here," he points to a girl in a red sweater sitting on a blue box or canister or some such thing in front of tent, watching us with that absent expression so many refugees seem to have. Experts have told me this is probably from shock, and they have also explained to me that post-traumatic stress cannot be properly dealt with until people feel safe and secure, which they don't. Ths tidy camp is surrounded by a chicken-wire fence with barbed wire on top: There have been incidents of local Albanians robbing Kosovar refugees.

Mohamed, like other volunteers, does not get paid for being here, but, he says, "the government provides the flight and the accommodations"--which are tents in the mud, and, Mohamed notes, the weather does not help. In fact, it is beginning to rain, so our helicopter rushes off, and on the way back I discover that helicopters have windshield wipers and what it is like literally to fly over a rainbow. Soon after we hit the ground, a hailstorm begins, and balls of hail the size of very large peas cover the ground with a white blanket. The UAE guys, like other military men here, are also living in tents, amid the singing frogs and the unhelpful weather of Tirana. "But we are happy to be here," says Lt. Colonel Salem Mohamed Zakmi, the commander of the 42-person UAE contingent. "The people want to work all the time. We had 10 flights today. We are very happy, very happy to help the refugees." I try hard, but I can't get anything more substantive out of him, and I actually think this is because he means it.

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who is the author of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot and co-editor of Gay Propaganda: Russian Love Stories.