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...