Skip to main content

by Robert Baker

In the chilly, cloudy morning, skinny little kids stood barefoot on the roadside in Albania’s capital, Tirana. Their bellies stuck out and their blond hair was reddish from kwashiorkor, hunger and lack of protein. I had seen poor little African kids look like that. Albanian women barefoot and in light summer dresses despite the cold trudged, along the roadside leading into town and along the empty streets.

In 1991 our new United States Information Agency post in Tirana was beset by problems and asked my shop in Vienna for help. I flew the only available route via Rome to Tirana with two of my best staffers. There was still gunfire in the capital after dark. My Austrian experts would try to straighten out the post’s administrative and computer problems. I would figure out how we might help set up their new offices and library in a building that had been Communist headquarters before Albania’s cruel, Stalinist dictator, Enver Hoxa, died in 1985 after ruling almost a half century. His communist successor was soon overthrown.

My shop in Vienna helped all the new posts in former Communist countries by sending publications in local languages, small exhibits, training for new staff, books and furnishings for new American public libraries, setting up budgets and computer operations, help with student/scholar exchanges, etc., whatever needed to be done.

The acting Public Affairs Officer met us at Tirana airport. He was a harassed, incredibly hard working, friendly and bright guy. He was dressed fittingly for the local scene, baggy khakis and a rumpled jacket. He had a warm, crooked smile, a crooked back and a bad limp. He was to stay in Albania just a few months before going off to his regular posting in China where his Mandarin would be useful.

The Albanians debarking ahead of us yelled to relatives and friends beyond the airport’s barrier gates. Those were just improvised, high chain link fences. The all male crowds (most Albanians are Muslims, a third are Christians) waiting for arrivals yelled greetings to the passengers who yelled back to them. When Albanian passengers got past the customs guards, they were overwhelmed with hugs and kisses. The airport was tiny and dusty, like the airports I saw in small African capitals.

As we drove through the chilly afternoon, I noticed tree stumps about a foot high. They regularly lined both sides of the road into town. My host told me the trees, planted by Italians, had been cut down by people for firewood after standing for decades.  Italy had invaded Albania in 1939 and was driven out in 1945. The two countries still had close ties. Many Albanians illegally entered Italy.  Big Italian army trucks rumbled on the road ahead of us, carrying food to feed hungry Albanians and armed Italian soldiers to keep off Albanian bandits. They had earlier robbed food trucks. The chaos in Tirana was tinged with sinister shadows.

Albania’s vicious, petty tyrant had ruled Albania for decades. Enver Hoxza (pronounced Hoja) had ruined the already poor country, isolating it from everywhere except Communist China. Eventually he even rejected the Chinese as too liberal. He had maintained order. It was the usual order of secret police, prison camps, revenge on entire families of protestors, but it was order. He made everyone build little concrete pillboxes across the countryside against possible invaders. After he died, his communist successors were voted out and a shaky democracy was just beginning to emerge amid Albania’s numerous  ancient family and clan rivalries.

After the last communist regime fell, rioting Albanians had broken most windows in trains and buses and had destroyed schools and public buildings. Theft, a universal black market, robbery and even murder were rampant.

At my hotel I found that Hoxa’s secret police still had great power and were widespread, even after the confused democratic revolution.

My host drove me to the best hotel in town, where he had lived in a single room for six months. There was no other housing for him. He had booked for me the last room for rent in Tirana. We dropped off my two young Austrian staffers to stay at the newly opened U.S. Embassy on cots. I went with my host to check into the hotel.

Upon our arrival, the desk clerk told us there was no room for me, all booked up. My host said he had confirmed the reservation just that morning and had made it weeks ago. The clerk again denied he had a reservation. My host grabbed the reservation book, turned it toward us and pointed to his name, my name and the reservation date, which had lines drawn through them. He demanded the room and was again refused.

By this time, we had a small circle of men with the faces of wolves surrounding us at the desk. They had been hanging around in the dim, lobby, lolling in the broken chairs, chain smoking and talking secretively in the corners. They were secret police from the old regime.

My friend looked around uneasily. He said he would give me his room in the hotel and camp out on a cot in the Embassy. I objected, but he insisted. I carried my bag behind as he led me up the almost dark stairs and halls to a broken door. He swung it open to a very dirty, dim room. A huge black, oily stain ran down the wall alongside the single bed. The toilet had no seat. The shower, no curtain. The toilet, like the tub, was dirty and stained. Happily, the window opened onto a large, bare field and there was a blanket for the sagging single bed.

My friend told me we would have to get cash tomorrow from the Embassy safe and pay in advance for my week (there was only one flight a week to Rome, the connection for Vienna). The hotel took only cash and refused any currency except dollars. The men in the hotel lounge included secret police and criminals. The hotel had been built under Hoxa for the secret police, especially to spy on foreigners. Each room was bugged. Under Hoxa, it was the only hotel where foreigners could stay.

The secret police watched in the lobby to make sure they collected the dollars paid into the hotel. They grabbed the dollars and exchanged them at the black market rate for almost worthless Albanian Leks. Then they paid the new hotel owner, the democratically appointed Tourist Ministry, in the Leks. They kept a profit of more than 100%. Beside dollars, the universal currency for goods and services in Albania were Kent cigarettes, smuggled in and traded like money by the single cigarette, the pack or the carton. In every other former Communist country I visited, Marlboros were the currency of choice. No idea why Kents dominated Albania’s black market.

The only people in the hotel who seemed to work were the poor maids, exhausted looking older women in smocks. They came every day to mop listlessly, the dusty halls and to make the beds. There was no heat in my pal’s room. It was cold at night with only the one thin blanket. There were no more blankets in the hotel. The second afternoon, I was passing a poor maid in the hall and remembered the thirty bucks in Italian Lire I had in my pocket and would not need. My return flight to Vienna went via Geneva. Thinking it might be of use to her, I handed them to her. She pocketed the gift silently. That night, there was heat in my hotel room. The heat stayed on in that room until I left. When my pal moved back in, it stopped, he later told me by phone.

The first night at supper, the shabby but elegant waiter handed each of us dozen hotel guests a beautifully printed menu about 18 inches high and two feet wide. It offered in Albanian and Italian, an enormous range of dishes. But only lamb meatballs, potatoes and carrots were available. The menu and the reality never changed all week. The coffee was not bad, nor the custard for desert. Breakfast was stale bread, fried eggs and coffee. Lunch repeated supper. However, there was hot water and the toilet flushed, all to the good.

The darkened field outside my second story window at night was punctuated with occasional flashes and the crack of rifles. I also heard more distant shots fired randomly in the night. Special police in snappy black Italian fascist-looking uniforms with highly polished black knee-length boots had been hired by the government to put down robbery. They patrolled the main streets ceaselessly daytimes and carried pistols. They may have accounted for some of the night time gun shots.

My hotel was on the main square with its few trees and sparse grass. A big, four foot high black marble plinth was just across from the hotel. Hoxa’s statue had been torn down from it. I was amazed to see on it, in white paint, a couple feet high, “BUSH!” The first President Bush was seen as a liberator who fought Communism.

I walked to the nearby Ministry of Education and to the National Library. The latter was utterly deserted. All the books were gone except a handful that lay scattered on the floor. The book cases were thrown down and lying on the floor. I had hoped we could help supply it with books about America, but not a single librarian was to be found.

Nobody was guarding the front door of the Ministry of Education, so I wandered around the mostly empty, dusty, silent offices until I found on the second floor one with someone at a desk. He was the national chief for geographic studies and spoke excellent English. We agreed I would send him via our diplomatic bag, donated American books on world and American geography for use in Albanian schools.

He was delighted and invited me to supper at his house the next night. The Embassy told me not to try to take a taxi or to walk as both were too dangerous. An Embassy hired car took me to his detached house in the near suburbs. It was really cold, but he had in my honor made a little fire in the front room where the supper table was set. When I was a kid I made fires like that. It was made of a handful of little sticks in a teepee shape. It was clearly all the wood he could find. His wife and daughter were both professionals and also spoke English animatedly. He served lots of vodka and delicious Albanian meatballs, peppers and rice. I felt guilty eating his food, but had to be polite.

As the evening wore on, I had to take a leak and asked him aside, twice, where the bathroom was. He ignored my request. I finally told him firmly I really had to use the bathroom. He reluctantly led me to the stairs in back of the house and pointed up the almost dark stairway. At the top was a bathroom with a window the moon shone into. I was astonished to see something knobby that filled the big, old, white porcelain tub to the very brim. I looked closely. It was full of olives curing in brine, no doubt a main food for the winter. I thanked him and left not long after.

I sent him several cases of books. My shop printed for him in Albanian and English a map of Albania pointing out historical and tourist spots. We hoped the map would serve in Albanian schools and maybe even one day help to encourage tourism. The Italian Mafia had close connections with Albania’s beautiful Adriatic coastline. The then Italian Foreign Minister was as an investor in a mafia owned luxury hotel Italians liked.

On the weekend, an Embassy car drove us to see Albania’s greatest historic memorial. It lay about an hour inland just off a rutted, twisting road that passed through poor farming villages. It was dedicated to Skanderberg (named after Alexander the Great). Skanderberg was  the 15th century Albanian general who had deserted the Turkish army to lead the fight to expel the Turks who occupied his homeland. They came back after twenty years.

The dictator Hoxa had used Albanian nationalism to support his regime and spent a fortune to erect a great marble museum inside Skanderberg Castle. It was beautifully kept with polished brown marble floors and steps, but was utterly empty of tourists. The guard tore off a ticket for each of us from a huge and almost unused roll of yellow tickets like those used in American movie houses in the 1950’s. The castle and museum were the only well maintained buildings I saw in all Albania. That one shining time in the past when Albania kept the Turks at bay for twenty years stopped the rampaging crowds out of respect for their great hero. It was one of the few things that brought together all Albanians. Its isolation probably helped, too.

We left Tirana at the end of the week, having set up the administrative apparatus for the post, its computer connections to the outside world, and had trained several new Albanian employees in computers and administration. I had sent in a telegram with detailed requests for books and furniture for the new U.S. Information Service public library and a request for Washington to send out an architect to draw up detailed plans. Our library was to be installed in the very modern former Communist cultural center. I had paced it off and had sent in rough outlines of the space available and the offices needed. They  included a performance space and 16mm film and video  projection for a small theatre.

During a visit to Radio Albania I arranged for our expert to install a computer hookup so the station could receive the daily American  Wireless File of  U.S. and world  news in English.  The Voice of America dropped Albanian language broadcasts years ago, but one hopes the “wireless file” still reaches Radio Albania.

Back in Vienna some months later, I hosted in my home, the new boss of the American cultural center in Albania. She was the daughter of Christian missionaries who had worked in Albania before the communists expelled them. She spoke Albanian and was very tough. After she had been in my large house a week, I carried her bag downstairs for her departure. I remarked that she seemed not to have used the towels I had laid out for her. She replied, she had simply “air dried”. The Albanian staff groaned about her when they came to visit Vienna for more computer training. It was chilly in my big house and must have been hard to air dry between her room and our shared bathroom. However, it took a tough Public Affairs Officer to work in the rough conditions of Albania. She did a good job.

My Vienna shop did a real service to democracy in Albania. We printed and sent to Tirana several million ballots for Albania’s first democratic election. Locally, there was not paper nor equipment at the time to print the ballots. Corruption and clan strife still hurt poor Albania, but progress is being made slowly.End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

Robert Baker
Robert Baker

Bob Baker: 5 years intelligence analyst (USIA IRS); passed FSO exam; A-100 class; French language training; first post: Kampala, Uganda; next: Bamako, Mali; a year as a producer trainee, WETA; posted to London, Bonn, Berlin, Sydney, Los Angeles (Foreign Media Center), Vienna Regional Programs Office; retired in 1992; currently writing memoirs in LA.

Comments are closed.