The NI Interview
issue 317 - October 1999
Clare Harvey talks with the man at the
centre of Albania's refugee crisis.
There are several Albanians present when I meet the Mayor of Tirana, but I’m immediately aware, even before introductions, which one he is. This large figure with thick silver hair and a firm handshake has a natural authority. This is the man who, three months earlier, had to deal with the influx of 100,000 Kosovar refugees into Albania’s capital. I meet him a week after the peace agreement. Already half the refugees have left the city to go home. The Mayor explains he feels easier now, the worst is past. Outside, tractor-trailers piled high with children and mattresses manoeuvre through the dusty, pot-holed streets on the first leg back home to Kosovo. Inside, in the cool, leather-seated office, the Mayor reflects wearily on the biggest challenge of his career.
Mayor Albert Brojka has been in office since 1996. When his right-of-centre Democratic Party was in power nationally, his positions included minister of industry and minister of public works. The 1996 general election gave the Socialist Party overall control and Democrats like Brojka moved across into administrative jobs. Brojka says, however, that being mayor of Tirana has been harder than any ministerial position. In 1997 he had to cope with widespread civil unrest following the financial crisis resulting from collapsed pyramid saving schemes. And in 1999 he had the Kosovo crisis to deal with.
Brojka explains that he felt a personal responsibility to the refugees. In the first days of the crisis three thousand Kosovars were sleeping in Tirana’s sports stadium, which has a crowd capacity of two thousand. ‘It was March then, and it was very cold, and people were sleeping on the grass, and I was unable to do anything about it. All I could do was sit drinking coffee in a bar and watch,’ he says. This frustration, combined with genuine compassion, compelled him to act swiftly and decisively: ‘I was not forced to serve the Kosovars, but I am a citizen, and a powerful citizen, and I could not let these people suffer in this way.’
Half of his staff were immediately assigned to help the refugees. In the early stages the city authority acted like an aid organization, distributing food and blankets, until overseas aid organizations were alerted to the problem. His staff worked in shifts to give 24-hour cover, and within a month the situation had begun to stabilize. Brojka feels that he has had to sacrifice his city to the refugees. The infrastructure in Albania is poor; the ageing and poorly-maintained water pipes lose 70 per cent of the city’s water. Nevertheless, refugee camps had 24-hour water supply, whilst the rest of the city only had three hours a day.
The Albanian Government gave Brojka $15,000 to cover the needs of the 100,000 refugees. To date, he says, he’s spent 20 times that amount, over half his annual budget for the city. He’s going to try to get the Government to reimburse the money, but doesn’t seem hopeful. He’s a Democrat, it’s hard to get money from the Socialist government. He sighs, ‘I have to explain to the people of Tirana that I can’t invest money in the city because of the refugees. I hope they will understand and support me.’
At the height of the panic and chaos that ensued when the refugees started arriving, Brojka realized that there was a genuine threat of destabilization in the city. He appealed to the Tiranans to host refugees in their own homes. As many as three-quarters of Kosovar refugees were able to stay with Albanian families, a figure that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says is unprecedented in this kind of situation. ‘I appealed to the people. I said: “We cannot accommodate these refugees, but you can, in your own houses.” Albanians consider Kosovars our brothers, so we opened our homes.’ He leans forward to make the point: ‘In my city many families are on social assistance, they are unemployed and get only $20 per month to support their families. They are poor, but they are rich in their hearts. Everybody wants to help the refugees. These people have had relatives killed and houses burnt, we wanted to protect them and share our bread with them.’
Now the refugees are returning, and taking the world’s press and approximately 200 aid organizations along with them. I ask him what it’s like now the refugees are going home, and the West’s attention shifts focus to Kosovo. It will be hard, he says, because the foreign visitors brought money and employment to the city. During the crisis translators could command up to $500 per day, a fortune in comparison to the $100 per month salary for government workers in the city. The money’s gone, the attention’s gone and Tirana is left to pick up the pieces. I wonder if this makes him feel bitter at all. He is reassuringly philosophical: ‘We’ve lost some of the privileges that come with foreigners being here, but for us, solving the Kosovar crisis was the priority.’
Despite the cost and the disruption, Brojka feels something positive has come out of the situation, because it has brought Albania worldwide attention. ‘The international community is focussed on the region now, this is a real chance for Albania,’ he says. He feels that the crisis in the region stems from the breakdown of communism in 1990. Brojka thinks that the West, having seen how well Albania responded to the refugees, has a duty to help Albania in its transition to democracy. ‘The way we responded to the crisis is truly Albanian. We showed the world that we are tolerant and that we have real values. We belong to the West and the West must support us.’
His colleague sitting next to Brojka on the sofa chuckles at this impassioned plea. ‘Just you wait,’ he says, ‘after the elections next year this man will be President.’ Brojka shrugs noncommittally. He jokes that after the last few months he’s ready for a holiday.
Clare Harvey is a UK-based journalist who covered the Kosovar refugee crisis in Albania.