Port of Durres (Albania), Sunday, May 9th, 1999. A lead-grey sky mirrors the dreariness of an endless wait. The merchant ship Mario, of Maltese flag and friendly Spanish crew has been held up for more than 8 hours with its load of trailers, still waiting for the head customs officer's precious permission to unload. After this, Nando (the truck driver I’m accompanying) and I have only one last trial—to manage to get the truck onto the boat and cross the Adriatic once and for all, after three days that would challenge even Job’s patience.
I’m here on account of a note I received last Tuesday. The ESRIN Voluntary Group, which had gathered together a shipment of food and used clothes for a Kosovar refugee camp in Tirana, was urgently seeking a volunteer to accompany the truck driver who was to transport it--and to assure its safe arrival to destination. Inspired more by sheer curiosity than any altruistic sentiment, I answered the note, offering myself for this noble mission. I figured that in a workplace of over 500 employees my chances of going would be minimal among all the volunteers, though it would be fine if I were selected. Half an hour after replying I get a call informing me that after a fierce elimination process, I had been chosen for the task. In reality, nobody else had answered the note. My blessed naïveté …
The next day, in trying to see exactly what I was getting into, I sent e-mails to a couple of colleagues who might have had contacts in the region. At CEAR they told me not to even consider going on in an independent truck full of provisions, as the latest news was that the Albanian Mafia were swooping down like birds of prey on unsuspecting adventurers who dared travel the country’s winding roads. Paolo, ESRIN’s on-site volunteer in the refugee camp of our destination, had indicated that our first move when we arrived at the port should be to find an escort. These reports made me a little nervous, but I was assured that there was no cause for worry since we’d be going under the auspices of the Rainbow Mission, an enormous humanitarian aid deployment run by the Italian military. By the end of the day, all I knew was that I was to be picked up the next morning at work by a man who would then take me to the truck, and from there I would leave for Bari, where we’d board a military vessel which would dock in Durres on Friday morning.
And so it happened. At 9:30 in the morning on Wednesday I was leaving ESRIN behind, equipped with my new reporter’s vest (one of those kind with dozens of pocket where you can store hundreds of things and then spend half an hour looking for them) and my trusty all-season boots. Mr. Debezzi, the affable entrepreneur who kindly offered to make the first stretch of my journey more amenable by telling me stories of his tobacco plantations in Peru and his spiraling fall from his helicopter, left me an hour later in Frosinone, in a warehouse where the truck and I waited for Nando the driver until one in the afternoon. From there, it was truck-pace all the way to Bari, where we arrived after a little rest stop and some sandwiches washed down with some of Nando’s excellent sparkling wine. On the road I find out that Nando is the brother of Vicenzo Paglia, the head of Saint Egidio’s Christian community, who counts among his accomplishments the fact of having brought together the Mozambican government and guerrilla for negotiations in Rome, and more recently having got Rugova, the leader of moderate Kosovars, out of Serbia.. Nando himself is a chap worthy of admiration—he owns a fleet of trucks which grew out of nothing by the sweat of his own brow. Still he prefers to do this run personally (he’s carrying a load for a refugee camp where the Saint Egidians collaborate along with the load from ESRIN) instead of sending one of his employees. On the road I find out that we’re not crossing by military ship after all, but rather on the ferry, which means I have to buy a ticket. The good news is that this is no problem since I was given 300 bucks for expenses. The bad news is that when we get to the port, there are no more cabin tickets, and I am forced to spend the night in vigil on a lounge chair. In the end it wasn’t so bad—between whiffs of vintage Albanian sock, I actually managed to catch a few winks.
Friday at 7 a.m. we arrive on time in Durres, port city about 40 km from Tirana. What is striking, apart from the mosque near the port, is the devotion with which the inhabitants of this dingy place equip their cluttered balconies with gleaming parabolic antennas, all facing not Mecca but the Equator. An hour later our truck is off the boat and ready to run. Nando trusts that with his Rainbow Mission pass we will be allowed to carry on without passing through customs, as he had been assured. Nothing further from the truth. After nine hours of stop and go traffic, in which the only memorable event was the kilo of buffalo mozzarella which we downed to pacify our hunger, we finally decide to leave the port behind—along with our cargo of precious goods. It seems that a few days earlier a couple of trucks bearing the Caritas emblem had been discovered to be transporting arms—probably a shipment from the Mafia to the Kosovar guerrilla—and therefore the expected free port facilities had been eliminated. I knew that rainbow business sounded too nice to be true.
There’s a pirate taxi waiting for us at the port’s exit, with one of the Saint Egidio collaborators. I get into the backseat next to her and very shortly realize that she can barely dissimulate the displeasure that my axillary emanations are causing her—after 2 days I have indeed acquired a notorious bouquet. Fortunately we are soon out of the city, and our cruising speed of 40km/h (the road is full of potholes) mitigates the arousing effect. The countryside slipping by me is somehow familiar. As in Cuba, the cars we pass are older than grandpa's Ford; as in Guatemala, policemen abound --one of these stops us and we have to pay him off; as in India, people get around on bicycles or on animal-driven carts steered by peasants perched comfortably on the seat of a dismantled car; as in Mozambique, numerous vehicle carcasses can be seen by the side of the road, not because they were victims of some guerrilla ambush but because they’ve been abandoned on the spot once they’ve been stripped clean of all their useful parts. And finally, as in just about every country, and despite a few vestiges that persist like the scythe they use for harvesting the fields or the white scarf that women use to cover their hair, western cultural impact (if not as obvious as the impact of the bombs a bit further north) is on the rise: I manage to read "Someone loves me in Ohio" on the T-shirt of a young girl. The most picturesque detail of the countryside, in any case, are the numerous defense bunkers scattered throughout the fields, sown there by the former regime for fear of a parachute invasion—you’d have to be mad…
The taxi drops me off at the gate of the refugee camp, and I say goodbye to Nando, as he’s off with the folks from Saint Egidio. The day after he would try to get the truck out of customs with the help of the local logistics person, he’d unload their part of the goods and then he’d stop by here. Nando is an incurable optimist. The camp, as I suspected from the name (Don Bosko), is a Salesian school, which has set up 130 tents on its grounds, sheltering some 1000 people from various parts of Kosovo. I am told that some of the refugees arrive and immediately fall into tearful hysterics, upon finally having finished their flight. Some families manage to find lodging with distant relatives after a few days, so the population of the camp remains more or less stable.
The camp is well organized; it has a secretary, an infirmary, a kitchen and a depot. Besides a few rows caused by some individuals who booze too often, there are no major problems in the camp. In fact, once the initial shock has worn off, people soon start feeling the effects of the close quarters, and ask that evening activities be organized for the children so that their parents can have a rest. Time shall tell when and to where these people will return—the seed of hate will continue to bear its blood-red fruits for a long time. It’s hard to understand these Balkan people, especially when we are bombarded with simplistic information by the media. At the dinner for camp volunteers, I am told about how complicated their grammatical constructions are, how there is no word for "to love"—only "to want", of the little consciousness and respect that they hold for people outside of their clan—in other words, they give me some clues as to the Why behind this war. All I can say is that these Balkans don’t give me good vibes.
The next morning I get up a little later than everyone else, since all I have to do is wait for news of the truck. I have slept like a log on account of fatigue and last night’s raki (local spirit), completely unaware of the gun fire and distant explosions that I later find out had broken the silence of the night. Apparently the Albanian Mafia use the cover of the night to settle their differences. Or maybe it’s some drunk painting the night sky red with the racer bullets of his kalashnikov, as explains an Italian girl who’s been here for a few years and has more than once cleared bullet heads off her terrace—what goes up, must come down. My slight hangover keeps all desire to be useful in check, so I pass by the storehouse to give the logistics man a nominal hand and then retire to the shade to contemplate. I see a doctor transporting medicines to the infirmary in a wheelbarrow, I see a psychologist addressing the women of the camp with the help of an interpreter, I see someone else organizing games for the children. I ask myself why these volunteers are doing this. They seem happy, motivated, unburdened by the effort. I like to think that they do it not in search of some earthly or heavenly reward or out of some high sense of Kantian duty, or prestige or vanity, but rather that they do it for the simple pleasure of alleviating the suffering of another human being. Of helping, and giving some sort of sense to these modern lives of ours in which we, like greyhounds, run stupidly after goals which in the end are mere illusions. The very things that we work so hard to accumulate throughout the years, impoverish and poison our spirit. If life has any meaning beyond what Believers want to confer it, it can only be found in a universal consciousness, and that consciousness is reached when we see through the eyes of others, when we feel a part of a universal whole. In this way, only acts that create harmony for the whole give us a feeling of well-being, and thus what many would call a sacrifice is transformed into a joyful action. The only life worth living is an ethical life, and I don’t mean abiding the law and sacrificing oneself, but rather living with that universal consciousness that brings us joy and peace and fills our existence with meaning. Maybe this is what the volunteers are maybe involuntarily looking for. At least I’d like to think of it like that.
The morning is coming to an end and Paolo proposes to go to the market in Tirana to buy food for lunch. As we drive through, I discover a city much more interesting than I had imagined—a city of people wheeling and dealing in the streets, of grand, communist era plazas and monuments, with hundreds of restaurants and bars where BMWs and Mercedes of dubious origin convene, a lively city, full of contrast like any third world capital. When we get to the marketplace, an exotic scene unfolds to the music of the imam’s call to prayer. There are more sellers than buyers here, the point of interest being a well-dressed Mafioso supervising his flashy blond wife as she shops. The putrefying smell of meat and fish hounded by flies together with the smells from the vegetable and spice stands makes for an interesting aromatic mix. We buy some tomatoes from a beautiful and friendly vendor, with big blue eyes, who speaks a little Italian (many people speak a little here, not because of any link with Mussolini’s invasion, but because of TV via satellite) whose only defect are her pointy, plaque-covered teeth—it seems that dental hygiene is not a priority among these people. In the afternoon I accompany a volunteer with a funny accent from Veneto (the Venetian accent is to Italian what Scottish is to English) to take some boxes of milk to a Salesian social center in the outskirts of Tirana. When we arrive, the children jump all over us like a crazed pack of hounds, although in the end they turn out to be relatively harmless. I make a mental note to re-read "Lord of the Flies". The rest of the day passes quickly, and the news I finally get from Nando isn’t good: they still haven’t been able to get the truck out of customs. So, after dinner, I go out with some others from the camp to have a few drinks and forget the uncertainty of the moment—which I manage to do quite well after a few whiskeys in a couple of Tirana’s chic night-spots. I try to convince the others to find some wilder locales, but my company doesn’t dare—they say their embassy has prohibited it. These Italians are nice, but a little spineless.
I’m wakened by the sound of my name outside the bedroom door. It’s 8:30 in the morning on Sunday, and Paolo is telling me that the truck has arrived. Later Nando will tell me that he finally managed to get the truck out of customs on Saturday night and that he had woken up at 4:00 a.m. this morning to unload Saint Egidio’s part. I quickly dress and begin to check over the inventory. Everything looks alright, so I turn it all over to the logistics person and help unload the goods. Nando says we have to rush off, that it will be difficult to find a return passage from the port. I gather my belongings, get a signature on the letter of receipt, say good-bye to everyone, and we hit the road to Durres. There’s no room for the truck on the 11 p.m. ferry to Bari, so our only chance is to send it on the merchant ship Mario which is carrying cargo for the Rainbow Mission, arriving and departing on the same day. We leave the truck’s data in the co-ordination center with the hope that they’ll include it on the boarding list, and we go to watch the docking of the Mario. As they’re tying her up I hear voices speaking Spanish—coming from, as it turns out, a weather-worn Galician crew, including a very friendly cook and assistant chief of operations. The latter invites me to a drink on board, and confesses to me, after downing a carajillo, that he’s more burnt out than an old coal. He hasn’t seen home for three months, and in Italy the call girls work off the country roads, and how on earth is he supposed to get his hands on a car?
The hours pass and the unloading still hasn’t been cleared—the Albanians are beating around the bush to see if they can get a bribe out of someone. The only good news is that the truck has been put on the boarding list. At 10 p.m. they finally get permission to unload, so the Mario may even be able to take off in the early morning. Once everything has been arranged, I say good-bye to Nando--who of course prefers to stay by his truck—and the crew, and run off to the commercial zone of the port to catch the 11:00 ferry. I manage to get my ticket with relatively little difficulty, but find there’s a line as long as the boat itself for passport control. I assume that the ferry will not depart without the passengers, and armed with what little patience I have left, I find my place at the end of the line. Then, as if a divine hand were testing my ability to emulate Job, it begins to rain, no—it begins to pour. I have a raincoat, but the intensity of the downpour penetrates the cloth so that in the end I’m as soaked as everyone else in line. To top it off, it begins to thunder. The fear that we’ll get struck by a bolt of lightning is nothing compared to the despair we feel when the electricity goes at the passport booth. Fortunately the blackout lasts only a few minutes, and shortly thereafter I am finally on the boat. When she actually takes off, I can’t help but let out a whoop of joy, impossible to reproduce in these lines. For the next shipment I think they’ll have to look for another volunteer—one trip is enough to calm my curiosity.
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