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The Symbol of Albania Shifts--to Car Wrecks : Eastern Europe: After 40 years of isolation, nation’s new openness is best represented by instant junkyards.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

This time, the war in Albania pits people against the automobile.

The sight of a car, other than government limousines, used to be a strange phenomenon for Albania’s 3 million inhabitants. But today, just three years after the last--and cruelest--of Eastern Europe’s Communist countries crumbled, Albania is overrun with dented Mercedes and battered Volvos. They roar through the streets and careen down alleyways, oblivious to slower modes of transportation such as bicycles and donkey carts.

“It’s a jungle out there,” U.S. Ambassador William Ryerson said of the once tranquil streets here in the capital city.

If the military bunker was the symbol of Albania’s 40 years of isolation under the late dictator, Enver Hoxha, the car wreck is the icon of the country’s new openness under President Sali Berisha. Heaps of twisted metal line roads from one end of Albania to the other, creating instant junkyards that blight the landscape in every direction.

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“In the old days, if you owned anything mechanical, you would repair it again and again because it was impossible to get anything new,” said Argon Shapati, a cameraman for state television, as he wheeled his bicycle through a twisted mass of Mercedes and Fiat steel outside Tirana. “But the people who own cars have enough money to buy another one when they trash the last, so they just leave them where they got wrecked.”

It is not only smashed cars that litter the land, but all other “modern” disposable items now available to consumers--from Coca-Cola cans to the plastic wrapping of soft-pornographic magazines.

“Not long ago, it was illegal for peasants to own their own chickens, because everything--everything--belonged to the state,” explained Nuchi Gegprifti, a former Albanian diplomat in Cuba who now works as the night clerk in a shabby hotel in Pogradec. “Now, the people almost delight in trashing the country itself, because they remember it as the symbol of the state that oppressed them for so long.”

Concrete warts on the landscape, an estimated 1 million bunkers survive as dramatic icons to Enver Hoxha’s paranoia about foreign invasions, which never happened. The bunkers line lovely beaches, guard high mountain passes and stand sentry on land that otherwise could be tilled. Each one cost the equivalent of an apartment.

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Hoxha’s less visible attempts to make Albania an unassailable fortress also survive: extra bends and curves in roads to prevent enemy aircraft from using them as landing strips, and sharp stakes protruding from vineyard posts to impale enemy paratroopers.

Protests against all this oppression began in early 1990, fueled by events in some of Eastern Europe’s other Communist countries. Thousands of Albanians fled over the mountainous frontier to neighboring Yugoslavia or Greece. Boatloads of refugees flooded southern Italy. And in towns and villages throughout their homeland, people began attacking symbols of the state: police offices, bread shops, Communist Youth League buildings--even museums.

In 1991, chaos and violence forced Hoxha’s successors to call the first multi-party elections in Albanian history. The Communists easily won. But the country was spinning out of control. Continued violence and social upheaval forced them to hold new, internationally monitored elections a year later. This time they lost, and a democratic coalition took power, led by Berisha.

“Correcting a 40-year-long disaster would be a tough row for anyone to hoe, and I think the new government has done about as well as anyone could possibly hope for,” Ambassador Ryerson said.

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Topping the list of reforms was the decision by the Berisha government to give local people more power, including ownership of property. Since privatization, agricultural production has soared.

In the cities, people are putting new facades on the hideous, old, unfinished-brick apartment buildings. They’re opening small restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques in garages. They’re even finding uses for the bunkers. The smaller ones have been turned into public toilets. The larger units, built to hold artillery guns, have become depots and barns. On a beach near the mountain village of Vuno, three bunkers have been transformed into changing rooms--with daisies painted over the cement bubbles.

But openness has led to serious smuggling problems. Some 8,000 trucks “disappeared” in southern Italy in 1993. Much of the merchandise they carried, from ice cream to fax machines, may have crossed the Adriatic Sea to the Albanian port of Fier, ultimately stocking shelves in Tirana’s new shops.

Humans are being smuggled in the other direction--to work illegally in fields in Greece, for example. Albania’s relationship with Greece is particularly problematic. Northern Greece has become the promised land, but Athens lays tacit claim to all Orthodox Christians in predominantly Muslim Albania as “ethnic Greeks.”

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When Albania tried five members of the Greek political-cultural organization, Omonia, this fall, the Greek government expelled some 60,000 illegal Albanian day laborers, who returned home penniless, bitter and blaming their own government for their fate.

Those who have emigrated to America have not forgotten their roots. The Massachusetts-based New England Albania Relief Organization (NEARO) shipped 300,000 books to create the first free, open-stack public library in Albanian history.

The chief librarian is New York-born Mary Andre Hunter. She is now in Eastern Albania setting up the NEARO library. “Giving books in any number is not charity,” she said. “We American Albanians are still part of the family, and we call it sharing.”

Local Albanians agree. “The library project is incredibly important for us,” said Lorenc Nolini, a successful young businessman from Pogradec, where the NEARO library is to be located. “It is there to open up the bunker in our minds.”

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Rather than emigrate to find work, Nolini opened a seafood restaurant and bar in the one-room abode that his grandmother used to share with her cow. Situated near the shore of Lake Ohrid, the restaurant expected to take in $100,000 in 1994.

Nolini is very careful about how he drives his new BMW--so far, no dents or scratches.


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