KUKES, Albania, April 1999 – More than 25,000 refugees stream across the Albanian border on a cold, rainy night in late April. Terrified families are crammed together on makeshift wagons pulled by decrepit old tractors, on the run from Kosovo. Old grandmothers moan in pain and hunger, while the little ones dangle their bare feet precariously off the back of the wagons; personal belongings and wet blankets surround them as they trundle past the overworked border guards. As the Serbs continue their merciless ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, the women and children are left to fend for themselves while their husbands, sons and brothers face an unknown fate on the other side of the border. Young men are suspiciously few and far between; many of those that do appear as drivers of this endless convoy of refugees have fresh bruises from what they claim are beatings by Serb soldiers along the way.
The refugees cross the border after days of perilous travels, and relief workers on the Albanian side at last can meet their most immediate needs for food, water, and shelter. But only hours after their arrival in safety the newcomers are faced with the challenge of finding a place to settle among the thousands of fellow Kosovars already packed together in the severely congested town of Kukes, some 20 miles inside Albania. The small town of 15,000 inhabitants is currently home to some 80,000 refugees. Many are staying in private homes, some in tent camps established by NATO, but most are camped out on the muddy fields that surround the city. Cold rain whips down from the mountains, the supply of food and other commodities is hampered by bad roads, and the relief efforts are overwhelmed by the sheer number of refugees that have arrived over a very short period. It is a sad, sad sight to behold.
A poor, troubled country
Albania already had enough problems to deal with before the influx of several hundred thousand refugees from Kosovo. The poorest country in Europe by far, Albania emerged less than ten years ago from an era of draconian dictatorship; the infrastructure was antiquated and the entire society in great need of development. A few years later the Albanians saw their nascent democracy go up in flames as the demise of pyramid investment scams in the late nineties brought the government of Sali Berisha to a fall. People fled from Albania, and for a while humanitarian aid had to be provided to a country that was in turmoil, on the verge of civil war. Law and order has since been re-established and free and fair elections held, but the average Albanian family still lives at or below the poverty line, many surviving on remittances from relatives working in Northern Europe. Unemployment is rampant, and there is little to be had in the way of social security or support from a weak government that is trying to attract development support and foreign investments.
For a country of approximately 3.3 million inhabitants the influx of 370,000 refugees represents a sudden growth of over 10 percent. The refugee crisis has placed a huge strain on the infrastructure and the country as a whole as it tries to house, feed, and care for the new arrivals. The Albanian ports are backlogged with ships unloading commodities, the airport has NATO and civilian relief flights arriving around the clock, and thousands of relief workers have arrived to provide assistance where it is needed. And yet, surprisingly, there are very few signs of the refugees themselves in the streets of the Albanian cities and villages. Albanian host families have generously taken in the majority of the refugees, and while the Kosovars to some extent "look like" the Albanians in Albania, many are too frightened to venture out, and most are women and children who traditionally stay indoors. But they are there, by the thousands, throughout Albania.