Volume 4 Number 2
A few days after his May graduation from Princeton Seminary, Kent Annan boarded a plane for Albania, where he served with the mission organization International Teams as they work to feed, shelter, and resettle Kosovar refugees. He wrote this story shortly after he arrived in Albania.
Saturday, June 12th in Shkodra, Albania
Even the post-communist gray of Shkodra, Albania's second largest city, looks brighter after a decent sleep. Too tired last night to be awakened by either military planes or local gang machine-gun fire. Not having any running water is inconvenient, but I wash away two days of dust and sweat with a shower at the church, a ten-minute walk from my apartment.
During the communist era, Albania apparently broke ties with both the Soviet Union and China because they were too soft. Since communist rule toppled in 1991 and the country opened to religious freedom, five small evangelical churches have sprouted to join Shkodra's mosques and cathedrals. I'm serving alongside one of these churches as it responds with warmth and generosity to the tidal wave of Kosovar refugees who crashed into their city two months ago.
The Tower of Babel struck a blow to international relief efforts, but we manage to make today's plan with three Albanians, an Italian, four Brits, and me. Four of us pile into the truck; I drive. In Shkodra driving is not especially dangerous for the driver, but constant is the possibility of killing someone else. It is sometimes exhausting, sometimes exhilarating to drive here: avoiding enormous potholes, speeding (stolen) Mercedeses, oblivious pedestrians, swerving bicyclists, and trotting horse carts - all with no apparent instinct for self-preservation. This morning the drive to the warehouse through the outdoor market is chaos punctuated by the shrill tortured-baby screams of young goats being carried upside down by their sellers and buyers.
We stock our truck with canned meat, flour, rice, one-size-fits-all bras, toothpaste, and mattresses at the emergency warehouse organized by the churches. The Red Cross provides refugees with basic monthly food packages that the churches supplement.
After bringing the supplies from the warehouse back to the church, we load the truck with the mattresses and black plastic garbage bags that we packed with supplies the night before. The basic procedure is this: we visit a Kosovar family, take off our shoes and shake hands, decline a cigarette, accept a Turkish coffee that's as thick as mud, listen to a tragic story, ask about their physical needs, shake hands, and say “Mirupafshim” (goodbye). Then that night we pack a black plastic bag with the requested clothes and food stuffs. In the morning we deliver the bags of supplies and mattresses to the families. This morning four of us are delivering.
We drive to an apartment block, approach the first door, and knock. Thirty people, all ages, move toward us in slow motion. Many handshakes. “Si jene?” (How are you?) is the standard greeting; “Mire” (Good) is the rote response. Culture glosses impossible moments like this. Could I dare ask “How are you?” in search of a truthful response; if I expected a truthful response how could they respond with anything but, “How the **** do you think I am?” Several young women are sprinkled through this overcrowded apartment. When I see Kosovar women in their teens or twenties I can't help but wonder if or how many times they've been raped.
The men follow us back to the truck to collect the goods we've brought; they are thankful and eager. We kick a ball with kids on the filthy, garbage-strewn, dusty lots between apartment blocks while adults toss around Albanian syllables nearby. When I interact with the young Kosovar boys I wonder how the seeds of hatred and fear that have been sown in their lives will come to fruition. What will these boys be like when they are young men? Will they avenge what happened to their fathers, mothers, and sisters? Love and forgive your enemies?
We repeat the delivery process several times and deliver mattresses and bags to nine families. At one stop an ancient woman dressed in black (as are all widows here) walks around the fray of the delivery chaos with the toothless smile of a newborn.
After finishing the day's deliveries, we pack more bags. This is a humbling experience: choosing what to give a family. Among other things we put in two cans of meat, a three-pack of soap, and each man gets one of the donated Beavis and Butthead T-shirts. We allocate three mattresses for a family of ten. Everyone asks for laundry detergent because they have so few clothes. We don't give enough (whatever that would be), but it's something. Amazing that what we give to them they would not otherwise get. We put a Gospel of John in the bag, praying that the Word will speak to their lives since we are often left speechless. We invite the families to the church for games on Wednesday and Friday evenings and a worship service on Sunday morning.
Though it's awkward to claim hunger after hearing families tell you that they walked for four days and four nights eating only snow, it is late in the afternoon and I have not yet eaten today. Lunch is fish and vegetables at a shaded patio restaurant, though food never tastes as good with gypsy kids reaching out their dirty hands while staring at you with their carefully calibrated hungry eyes.
In the early evening we visit an abandoned tobacco factory that has been transformed into a community of about 4,000 refugees. The conditions are relatively good, and each family gets its own room about the size of a room in Brown Hall. A small crowd gathers around us; we ask questions and listen. President Clinton could get work in Kosovo after his White House career is finished; a few days ago Serbia began withdrawal from Kosovo - Clinton's approval ratings here are through the roof.
We walk back from the refugee camp for a meeting at the church. We pray. I have trouble praying tonight. The theodicies that I recently studied seem as far away as Princeton. But any theology that can't survive the journey from the academy to the war zone isn't worth packing.
I buy a sandwich on the way home and try not to notice the restaurant owner's cat walking around behind the counter. Every night my stomach tightens slightly as the sun sets. My first night here an Albanian pastor and I walked home too late and met two teenagers around a dark corner who yelled caustically at us while waving a very large (and what, from my perspective, appeared to be a very sharp) knife. The pastor convinced them to let us go; after ten hours of driving, I was almost too tired to be scared. I'm told this or worse would happen most nights if I walked home after dark. Albania is the poorest country in Europe and is riddled with problems, though the ubiquitous mini-satellite dishes and platform shoes show that its citizens are not completely left behind. Even the refugees remark about the extent of the problems in Albania.
I walk home briskly as the light evaporates. On my way I pass a large heap of garbage where every night a herd of eight ragged sheep and goats feed on the trash, a recycling program of sorts. At home I eat and then read from Psalms, listening closely to the plea for God's vengeance and for God's comfort.
The pain inflicted on the refugees won't vanish as the world's attention shifts elsewhere, as Kosovo is resettled and reconstructed. Self-rule and new houses rising from the smoldering ruins won't resolve the deepest damage done during this crisis. Shkodra is considerably different from Princeton, but the same in its utter need for God's healing touch and transforming redemption. I hear Kalashnikovs shooting in the distance and military planes rumbling overhead as I fall asleep. z
Readers can contribute to Kosovar relief through International Teams, attn. Kosovar Relief Project, 411 West River Road, Elgin, IL 60123-1570.
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