Category: Rumelia Land of Albania

November 19, 2016

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — A former top-secret nuclear bunker reopened Saturday as a museum in Albania’s capital to show visitors how Communist-era police persecuted the regime’s opponents. The 1,000-square-meter (1,077-square-foot) bunker with reinforced concrete walls up to 2.4 meters (8-feet) thick was built between 1981 and 1986 to shelter elite police and interior ministry staff in the event of a nuclear attack.

The museum that opened in Tirana now holds photographs and equipment that illustrate the political persecution of some 100,000 Albanians from 1945 until 1991. The “Pillar” museum, as the nuclear bunker was codenamed, is one of several former hideouts the Albanian government has repurposed for the public since it came to power three years ago.

Both an island fortress and another underground bunker designed for Albania’s army command are now open to tourists, as is a leaf-covered villa that once housed the former communist country’s secret police, known as Sigurimi.

More may come from the scores of military installations erected during the paranoid, isolationist regime of the late dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled with an iron fist after the end of World War II until December 1990.

Hoxha’s regime, with an imaginary fear of invasion by the “imperialist United States and social-imperialist Soviet Union,” built concrete bunkers of all sizes around the country. At one time there were rumored to be as many as 700,000, but the government says 175,000 were built.

Prime Minister Edi Rama said the new museum reflects his Cabinet’s “will to pay back a debt to the memory of the former political persecuted, forgotten in the last 25 years.” Located downtown, it was designed to attract visitors from Albania and beyond “to learn about the ways that the former communist police persecuted their opponents,” curator Carlo Bollino said.

“This is the first memorial for the victims of the communist terror,” Bollino said. Twenty rooms in the new museum show Albania’s police history from 1912 until 1991, as well as the names of 6,027 people executed during the communist regime, the 34,000 imprisoned and the more than 50,000 sent to isolated internment camps.

The bunker was never used, “though it has always been operational,” according to Mehdi Sulo, 70, a museum guide. It also has been a focus of political demonstrations. In an anti-government rally a year ago, supporters of the main opposition Democratic Party destroyed part of a replica bunker built as the museum’s entrance. They complained that Rama’s governing Socialist Party was trying to glorify the country’s dark past.

The holes the demonstrators made in the entrance purposely were not repaired. “Bunkers once aimed at putting the enemy away, now they serve to attract people to remember the difficult past,” Rama said.

November 08, 2016

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Heavy rain in the Balkans caused swollen rivers to overflow Tuesday, flooding some homes and cutting electricity to remote areas. Authorities in Albania reported two deaths. Serbia’s state TV said surging waters cut a regional road in the southwest of the country and forced a dozen people to leave their homes.

A second day of rain caused floods in northern Montenegro, near the border with Serbia. Authorities in the town of Berane warned residents not to drink tap water. Albanian authorities said a body was found in a river in Tirana, the capital, while another man died while trying to cross a stream with his car, and there were unconfirmed reports of other deaths as the country struggled to cope with up to 100 millimeters (4 inches) of rain in some areas.

About 3,500 soldiers and emergency personnel have spread across the country to evacuate residents, more than 100 families, mainly ones living near rivers. The Defense Ministry said more than 200 troops and many specialized vehicles have been sent mainly to the northern Lezha district.

Speaking at an emergency meeting, Prime Minister Edi Rama said he expected rain to continue and that “the situation will be extremely grave.” Some 200,000 people were reported to be without power, and the Education Ministry called on all schools to suspend classes. Schools will be closed on Wednesday too.

October 19, 2016

SHKODRA, Albania (AP) — Where most people, even police, fear to set foot, Liljana Luani takes books, household supplies, and a lifetime of experience helping families marked for death. The 56-year-old school teacher from Shkodra in northern Albania uses her spare time to travel to remote hillside villages where children trapped in a centuries-old tradition of blood feuds are hidden by their families.

The feuds, often related to criminal rivalry, stem from an ancient code of conduct known as the Kanun, a detailed but primitive form of self-administration. A cycle of reciprocal killings that lasts for generations may start from an incident as serious as murder or as minor as a land dispute.

When Luani visits a village, the guard dogs recognize her and the people who live there barely react as she opens the metal gate and steps into a house. But the sense of danger is constant. “I am aware that my job is like walking through land mines. If I slip somewhere my family will pay for it,” Luani told The Associated Press, speaking in the home of a young boy hidden away to protect him from a vendetta. She gave him a lesson in math, grammar and the ancient Greek tale of “The Odyssey.”

“I am a teacher and teaching is not a profession for me. It’s a mission.” Typically only men are targeted in blood feuds. The feuds were largely suppressed during communism, but have been revived mainly in remote areas where the rule of law is perceived as weak. Victims are typically pursued over years and eventually ambushed, gunned down in the street, in a country awash with unlicensed weapons.

Police don’t report figures on the motives for murders, but revenge killings are blamed for dozens of deaths every year. Women are generally exempt, allowing Luani to travel without being targeted or followed. But post-communist revenge killings have occasionally strayed from traditional rules and the male bloodline to include women, minors, multiple killings and the use of assassins.

Luani says she is still haunted by the memory of a teenage boy who insisted on attending school and was shot dead in an ambush. For that reason, she doesn’t give specifics about the students she visits or why they are embroiled in blood feuds, because she’s scared that they will be identified. AP journalists also met with some blood feud targets who asked not to be identified for fear they would be found and killed.

On a typical weekday, Luani finishes classes, cooks at home for her family, and then sets off into what locals call the “accursed mountains,” steep and inhospitable, traveling by taxi van for up to an hour to reach the stranded children.

Several years ago, she helped start and support a pioneer shelter school in southern Albania, in some cases taking additional risks to persuade parents to let their children travel. “The school was a miracle, but it closed after three years due to corruption in public administration,” she said.

She fought in court to have it reopened, insisting that private donations were squandered through mismanagement by regional authorities. She won the case, but no action was taken. Groups that track blood feuds estimate that several thousand people, including young children, live in isolation because of them. Treated by many as outcasts, they often only venture out at night to get firewood, food and other supplies.

“Confined children do not grow up the way normal children do,” Luani said. “They miss everything. They miss freedom. They grow up fearing they will be killed or are focused on how to kill … Imagine that life.”

One recent visit was to a rundown house where a 40-year-old woman lives with her three sons, ages 14 to 19. They use a small yard to grow vegetables, and keep chickens and a cow. Neighbors and relatives provided some assistance, while Luani persuaded the power company to offer electricity at a discount.

The woman’s husband is in jail for murder and the family is unaccustomed to visitors. The mother cried frequently, while the two older boys disappeared into another room. Luani teaches the youngest son, in the hope it will help him escape the cycle of violence.

“I believe that when people are educated they usually do not fall prey to the blood feud phenomenon,” she said. Much of her effort, Luani says, is now focused on trying to persuade mothers not to bring up their sons to continue the vendettas. She accompanies them to municipal classes to that teach basic cooking, hygiene and personal care skills.

“Many say ‘well done’ to me, and make me out to be a hero. I don’t want that. I want much, much more to be done for these people,” she says. “As long as I am physically able to walk and talk, I will be with my students, my children.”

Llazar Semini in Tirana contributed to this report.

July 20, 2016

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Responding to international pressure, Albania’s main opposition Democratic Party agreed Wednesday to accept the final draft of a judicial reform package, considered key to convincing the European Union to launch membership negotiations with the Balkan country.

Albania, already a member of NATO, has been working to reform its judicial system, which has been criticized as corrupt and lacking professionalism. Changes being sought in the reform package include checking the incomes and property holdings of judges and prosecutors, a step seen as helping to root out bribery.

Following a letter from the EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn on remaining issues, Prime Minister Edi Rama of the ruling Socialist Party and Democrats’ leader Lulzim Basha confirmed their disagreement was resolved and the draft would be passed on Thursday.

Hailing their response, Hahn tweeted: “This agreement shows leadership and responsibility for Albania on its EU path.” Basha also spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to confirm his party’s approval of the draft.

The opposition’s response, however, did not please Washington, a key player in the process. The U.S. embassy in Tirana said it was continuing talks with both sides “to bring them back to support for the hybrid proposal discussed by Assistant Secretary (Victoria) Nuland” who visited Tirana earlier this month. Details of the contested issues are not available.

The 18-month-old reform effort has been the main focus of talks of many Western diplomats, including Merkel, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and others, who visited Tirana this year.

The draft has been prepared by local, EU and U.S. experts and it has also been reviewed by the Venice Commission, a body of legal experts with the Council of Europe. The Thursday vote is designed to allow the European Commission to decide whether full membership negotiations can begin this year.

June 06, 2016

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Protesters in the Albanian capital scuffled with police Monday ahead of a visit by Greece’s foreign minister, as members of Cham community, which was expelled from northwestern Greece during World War II after Athens claimed they had collaborated with the Nazis, demanded their property back.

A few hundred supporters of the small Party for Justice, Integration and Unity, which represents the Cham community, tried block the entrance of the Foreign Ministry in Tirana as Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias was to arrive. Kotzias delayed his arrival briefly and his Albanian host, Ditmir Bushati, came out to meet PDIU leader Shpetim Idrizi to clear the road.

Four issues have soured bilateral ties between the two neighbors: the Chams’ claims on their confiscated property; the technical state of war still in place since then-fascist Italy attacked Greece through Albania in 1940; an unresolved maritime dispute and Greek claims of discrimination against the ethnic Greek minority in Albania.

Hundreds of thousands of Albanians poured to Greece after the communist regime fell in 1990. Both ministers said dialogue will be the best way to resolve any disputes, insisting there is no territorial claim from both sides. They have agreed to create a joint mechanism that will convene periodically and also a road map for how to resolve the issues.

“Good neighborliness and the respect of the neighbor’s territorial integrity dominate above everything,” said Bushati at a news conference, adding that on the Cham issue, Tirana’s stand was “on the respect of the fundamental freedom and rights of that population.”

“We should resolve the existing problems and look forward to big future projects,” said Kotzias. Bushati reiterated Monday that Greece was an important neighbor. “Relations with Greece are strategic ones and with a high potential that we should exploit to the best,” he said.

Kotzias, the Greek minister, said at the news conference Monday that Athens believed a 1987 government statement and the 1996 bilateral friendship treaty mean the two countries were not in war now. “Albania’s integration into NATO and its EU prospects makes us not only friends but partners too,” he said.

Nicholas Paphitis in Athens, Greece, contributed to this report.

June 21, 2015

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albanians on Sunday voted in local municipal elections, a key step in their efforts to launch membership negotiations with the European Union.

Last year, Albania was granted EU candidate status and now Tirana is expecting to get approval for the launch of full membership negotiations. Besides tangible results in the rule of law, the justice system and the fight against crime and corruption, Brussels also expects free and fair elections in post-communist Albania, where they have always suffered from violence or manipulation and political squabbling.

“The June 21 election test, almost a year after getting the country’s candidate status, should serve as our main investment in launching the membership negotiations with the European Union,” President Bujar Nishani said Friday in a call for participation.

About 3.4 million voters were eligible to cast their ballots in the country’s seventh local elections since the fall of communism in 1990 to elect 61 mayors and 1,595 municipal counsellors. There were no immediate official figures on the turnout.

Voting started Sunday at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and ended at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT), although some stations remained open after that to allow people waiting in line to cast their ballots. About 6,000 police officers were deployed near 5,300 polling stations and hundreds of army special troops were guarding government buildings and embassies. Initial reports suggested the voting had proceeded peacefully in most places with only a few minor acts of violence.

Officials from the governing Socialists and the opposition Democrats called on counting commissioners to be careful and fair in the process, which has previously been marred by differences and efforts of manipulation.

The focus is on the mayor of Tirana, where a 37-party coalition led by Prime Minister Edi Rama’s Socialists has nominated former social affairs minister Erion Veliaj, while the 15-party opposition led by outgoing Mayor Lulzim Basha’s Democrats tapped parliamentarian Halim Kosova as its candidate.

Following the polls, the country will change its local governance to only 61 town halls instead of the previous 373 town halls and communes in an effort to cut expenses and increase the independence of local authorities.

Around 200 international observers are monitoring the polls. They will report preliminary findings on Monday. The law says results must be revealed no later than three days after the vote.

May 20, 2015

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama warned on Wednesday that his country could block Macedonia’s bid to join NATO unless it improves its record on respecting the rights of the country’s ethnic Albanian minority.

The tiny republic’s accession has already been blocked by neighbor Greece because of a dispute over the republic’s name. Rama gave the warning while speaking an anti-terrorism conference in the capital, Tirana.

Relations between to the two Balkan neighbors have further soured following a shootout in northern Macedonia this month between police and suspected ethnic Albanian militants that left eight officers and 10 others dead.

Rama accused Macedonia’s government of using the attack to try to tarnish the entire Albanian minority. “Unfortunately the word ‘terrorism’ and the word ‘Albanian’ have been combined in a reckless attempt to give terrorism an ethnic label,” he said.

Macedonia, in one of its deepest political crises since gaining independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, has a sizeable ethnic Albanian minority which has been decisive in forming governing coalitions. Albania became a NATO member in 2009.

November 11, 2014

PRESEVO, Serbia (AP) — Albania’s prime minister has struck a conciliatory tone as he wrapped up a two-day trip to Serbia with a visit to the ethnic Albanian-dominated south.

Edi Rama said Tuesday the two countries need to overcome a troubled past and work toward EU membership. Relations between Albania and Serbia hit a low during the 1998-99 Kosovo war. Soon after that conflict, ethnic Albanians in Serbia’s Presevo Valley staged an insurgency. The conflict ended in 2001 with a deal granting the ethnic Albanian minority more rights.

Rama’s visit, the first by an Albanian official in 68 years, was underlined with tensions as he remarked that Serbia has to come to terms with losing its former province. Kosovo’s 2008 secession is fiercely rejected by Serbia.

October 03, 2014

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania’s foreign minister says Prime Minister Edi Rama will visit Belgrade later this month in the first visit to Serbia by an Albanian premier in 68 years.

Ditmir Bushati said Friday that the situation of the ethnic Albanian minority in the southern Serbian province of Presevo and the recognition of Kosovo’s independence would be part of the talks in the Oct. 22 visit.

Belgrade has not recognized the 2008 independence of Kosovo, formerly a province of Serbia but with an ethnic Albanian majority population. The last time an Albanian head of state visited Belgrade was in 1946, when late communist dictator Enver Hoxha met with Yugoslavia’s then-leader, Josip Broz Tito, after World War II. The former allies’ relations soured in 1949.

Now both countries aim to join the European Union.

June 23, 2014

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albanian police say they have so far destroyed some 43 tons of marijuana and 133,000 cannabis plants in a lawless southern village that they fought their way into last week.

In a statement they said searches of more than 500 homes in Lazarat also turned up 26 heavy guns, 218 light weapons, ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades, explosives and other weapons. Police also destroyed five drug-processing laboratories and made 23 arrests. The operation is continuing.

Last week, about 800 police come under sustained gunfire from automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars for four days. One policeman and three villagers were injured during the operation.

Lazarat, 230 kilometers (140 miles) south of Tirana, has been the center of marijuana production in Albania, which is also a transit country for hard drugs.