Albania 1997 evacuation
Originally uploaded by kosova cajun
AK 47 stories: Albania 1997
Mary and I had been in Albania 2 years. Lydia was 10 months old. In the poverty and instability that followed the fall of Communism a number of pyramid schemes had been flourishing in Albania. Money was pouring into the country in the form of remittances from the hundreds of thousands of Albanians who had fled to Italy, Greece, and elsewhere. Their relatives on the receiving end of all that cash were “investing” it in the new “companies”. As people saw the neighbors getting rich, no one wanted to be left out. This capitalism thing was turning out to be lot easier than anyone had thought. Then in the spring of ’97 it all came crashing down, and the nation was enraged. Many accused the government of having stolen their money.
Unrest began in the South of the country and began spreading towards the capital Tirana where we lived. For some reason disgruntled citizens decided to express their discontent by looting the military arsenals. Suddenly the country was awash with weapons. Teenagers were taking tanks for joy rides. Children were playing with hand grenades. And of course, there were a lot of AK47s floating about – hundreds of thousands of them.
Our team leader Rodney Tilley had the foresight to get the moms and kids on our team out before things really got out of control. Mary, Lydia, and others flew to Greece and were taken in by AoG colleagues at a campground outside Athens. A few of us stayed behind hoping things would settle down.
March 12, 1997 was the most memorable birthday of my life so far – the day that the rising tide of anarchy engulfed Tirana. Instead of birthday candles I witnessed the terrible beauty tracer bullets arcing across the evening sky like bright red shooting stars in reverse as everyone in town tried out his new toy. It didn’t take long before the game turned deadly. During the weeks and months that followed there was widespread looting, rape and murder. However, there were many more victims of stray gunfire than of criminal intent.
Rodney decided that those of us who were still there needed to join our colleagues in Greece. Our passports were worth thousands of dollars on the black market; AK47s, by contrast, were selling on the street for $5, and ammo was free. Some of our Albanian brothers would probably give their lives to defend us if necessary, but it wasn’t fair to ask that of them when we could just leave. When Mary and Lydia had left they had taken only an overnight bag apiece. Not knowing when (if ever) we would be able to return, it was quite a challenge to whittle my luggage down to the airline’s allowance.
Then someone started taking potshots at airplanes coming and going from the Tirana airport, and the airport shut down. At this point the U.S. government decided to send the marines in to get Americans out. I was told that they would allow only a single carry-on bag per person. The airline's limit suddenly seemed generous. I stuffed my one bag with personal documents, photographs (This was before the digital era.) and a change of clothes.
Our team leader ordered me to move into the international church where I had been doing youth ministry. With a tall iron gate and a full-time security guard, he felt that the church was a lot more secure than my house. That evening the security guard called me to share his dinner. I politely declined at first. “You have to!” he insisted with a twinkle in his eye. “We’re fellow war veterans now.” We sat down together in the big empty church and ate bread; strong, white cheese; and a boiled egg apiece.
Later that evening some guy in California called to check on a friend of his who worked with the International Church. He was watching on CNN as the British navy was preparing to conduct an evacuation from the port city of Durres, about 45 minutes from Tirana. He urged me to make my way to Durres, assuring me that the Brits wouldn’t refuse to take an American passport holder. I declined, preferring to stay in Tirana and wait on my own government to get me out.
Not that I felt all that safe there. The church had computers and lots of musical equipment, so I was expecting looters to show up at any time. Eventually a young man with an AK47 did show up at the church, but he wasn’t a looter. He was the rebel of my youth group. (Anyone who’s ever done youth ministry knows that there’s a rebel in every group.) “Hey Mark, would you like to shoot my gun?” he asked. I refused. “Well why don’t you come home with me?" he said. "I’ll protect you!” Again, I refused. (The church was eventually looted, but it happened weeks after I left. Surprisingly, most of the stolen items were eventually recovered.)
I set up a cot in the attic, but I didn’t get much sleep. The chorus of AK47 fire swelled and fell but never ceased. It reminded me of a chorus of dogs barking all over the city, calling out to one another and answering. There on the attic I could hear the occasional bullet pinging off the roof. It occurred to me that it would be a terrible night for any poor bird trying to fly over the city.
This was before the era of cell phones (at least in Albania), and the missionary community relied on 2-way radios for communication. I listened in horror as a nightmare scenario unfolded on the dock in Durres for those who had participated in the British evacuation. The landing craft was overwhelmed by Albanians, who were just as desperate to get out as anyone else. It ended up being forced to pull back leaving a mix of frightened ex-pats and angry locals on the shore. The British government had organized a convoy of vehicles to transport its citizens from Tirana to the port, and all these vehicles were taken as a consolation prize by local thugs who had failed to get on board the ship. With their cars gone and their rescue boat unable to dock, the Brits and other foreigners spent the most terrifying night of their lives there on the dock. One missionary was grazed in the head by a stray bullet. I talked to others who had to be treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the experience.
(By the way, years later I hosted a short-term team from the States, and the team leader turned out to be the guy who had called from California and urged me to join the British evacuation. I had the chance to tell him in person what bad advice he had given and how thankful I was not to have taken it!)
The next day the rebel of the youth group showed up again and invited me for a coffee. Amazingly, we actually found a café open. We were sitting there under an awning sipping our cappuccinos when the American helicopters came flying over. They were enormous, very loud, and flying very low. They looked like ships crossing the sky, one after the other. Everyone stopped shooting and whatever else they were doing and stared at the sky. I turned to my friend and said, “I think my ride’s here. I’ll see you later.”
The evacuation was conducted from the US embassy housing compound, the perimeter of which was well secured by heavily armed young Marines. The order and discipline inside was in sharp contrast to the fiasco in Durres the evening before and the chaos all around us. Before loading us on the helicopters, the Marines offered us juice and doughnuts, diapers, and medical assistance for whomever needed it. They also put a stamp in our passports which required us to reimburse the government for the expense of airlifting us out. If we failed to do so, our passports would become invalid. All things considered, it wasn’t a lot of money – about $300 if my memory serves me correctly.
One of Marines was carrying a big rocket launcher or some such thing on his shoulder, and a fellow evacuee asked him, “What’s that?”
“Sir,” he deadpanned, “That’s in case we need a large hole in something.”
The helicopters dropped us off on the USS Nassau, which was waiting in the Adriatic. There was a table set up for registration and orientation, and there were even postcards for sale with a picture of the ship. Amazed, I asked the guy who was signing me in, “How many evacuations have you guys done?”
“This is the first one, sir, but we practice this all the time!” he replied.
The ship docked in Brindisi, Italy. From there my teammates and I made our way by ferry then bus to join the rest of the team near Athens. After waiting there a couple of weeks it became apparent that the situation was going to remain unsettled for some time. We decided to return to the States for fundraising a year earlier than we had planned. But before doing so, we made an exploratory trip to Macedonia, which would become our next place of service.