Photojournalism Feature 
Crisis? What Crisis?
A Photographer's Diary
by David Brauchli
Page 2

Sali Berisha, a northerner from Tropoje, just five kilometers from the Albanian-Serbian border, enjoys the limitless support of the people in the region, and he employs, in the Democratic party, many northerners. He, as opposed to Nano, and promotes a free and independent Kosovo. It follows, therefore, that many of the Kosovars support Berisha instead of the prime minister. One of Berisha’s closest aides was a man named Azem Hajdari, also of Tropoje, who had come with Berisha to Tirana. But, northern Albania is lacking what most people would call "law and order," being ruled first and foremost by the gun, and second, by the Albanian version of honor.

Honor runs along these lines: A man’s wife was robbed and his daughter kidnapped by two men, so, according to his honor he had to avenge them-- meaning the death of the men who had wronged his family. He caught and killed one, was nabbed by the police and sentenced to five years in prison. Having served half his term, he was released on parole, for good behavior. However, he still had some avenging to do, and after finding the second man, dispatched him as well. Since he had violated parole, the police thought the man was a dangerous individual. They showed up with a bunch of men with guns. There was a shoot-out, and two policemen were killed. The man ended up receiving two death sentences for the two policemen who were killed in the shooting, but was let off the charges of murder for the man he had killed. Honor. There is an addendum to this story: the man, with two death sentences on his head, got out of jail when all the prisoners were released during the "troubles."

Anyway, apparently Azem Hajdari, top aide to Sali Berisha, had done some killing up in Tropoje, and he had people to deal with from that area. There had been two previous attempts to kill Hajdari. Finally, last Sunday, an assassin succeeded in snuffing out Hajdari life, and avenging the wrong done earlier, right in front of the DP headquarters. Also killed, was one of Hajdari’s body guards and another man. Now, Sali Berisha had been yearning for about a year to get back into power, because although running guns into Kosovo pays well, it doesn’t pay as well as skimming off the top of some serious IMF cash, or handing out contracts to builders, foreigners and aid organizations. So, Berisha had been extremely anxious to topple his arch rival, and get back into the swing of things. With the death of his friend, aide and confidante, he finally had a means to an end.

A masked policeman keeps an eye on drivers traveling into the capitol Tirana Thursday Sept. 17, 1998 after opposition leader Sali Berisha called on his northern supporters to come to Tirana and rally in his support. Tensions are high as Albania's parliament debates whether to revoke Berisha's parliamentary immunity and charge him with crimes against the state. (Photo by David Brauchli)
At left, supporters of former Albanian president Sali Berisha ride a motorcycle and wave the American and Albanian flags Saturday Sept. 19, 1998 in front of marchers in Tirana's Skanderberg Square.

At right, a young girl whose parents are supporters of former Albanian president Sali Berisha waves an Albanian flag Saturday Sept. 19, 1998 in front of marchers in front of Berisha's Democratic Party headquarters in Tirana It was the fifth straight day of peaceful demonstrations in the Albanian capitol. (Photos by David Brauchli)

Nano’s government had been losing support primarily because it had not been able to deliver on promises it had made during the elections. After Hajdari was shot, Berisha came out onto the DP’s balcony and said that government agents had killed Hajdari, and the faithful should gather and demonstrate. Rain stopped the protesters, however, on that Saturday evening.

Sunday morning saw a vast gathering of armed men at DP headquarters. The men were angry. Berisha had been spewing virulence against the government from his balcony, blasting it from huge loudspeakers into the early Sunday morning air. By eleven o'clock, the crowd had been whipped into a frenzy, and it marched away from the DP building into Skanderberg Square, then down the boulevard, Tirana’s main drag, towards the Interior Ministry, the Parliament, and prime minister’s offices. Rocks were hurled at the Interior Ministry, a few windows were broken, but rather than stopping, the crowd swelled and spread some 600 meters further, to the prime minister’s office building. There, the crowd stopped, and in full fury attacked the building, breaking through the front entrance way, looting and destroying everything in its path. Cars were set ablaze, and Berisha announced that the government had until Monday at eleven o'clock to resign.

Monday dawned, and Berisha’s crowd decided to pay public homage to the men assassinated on Saturday. Open coffins carrying the bodies of Hajdari and the two others were paraded from the DP headquarters to the Palace of Culture on Skanderberg Square. There, the crowd, some folks armed with assault rifles, paid their respects. Walking past the coffins, they kissed the dead and said prayers. It all ended peacefully, and the bodies were loaded into cars to be taken for burial.

Instead of heading out towards the cemetery, however, the funeral procession made its way, again, down the boulevard. It stopped at the looted prime minister’s office building, and the coffins were again placed on the steps leading up to the building. From somewhere in the crowd, instead of respect, came missiles. The people smashed their way, once more, into the building. This time, commandos, positioned on the third floor, opened fire. Shots flew [ital]over the heads of the demonstrators, dispersing the non-combatants. Apparently, the interior minister had been expecting trouble, and had placed his commandos in key positions overnight.

Chaos erupted--there was a huge firefight, grenades were tossed, bullets shredded the air, explosions rocked the city. The rebels broke into Parliament and ransacked the  building. The prime minister’s residence was also looted, and the rebels seized the television center. There, they broadcast the news that Nano had resigned, and Berisha, basking in apparent victory, gave an interview. Four or five tanks rumbled into view on the street but the crews quickly fled, giving the rioters even more effective weapons. But, instead of pressing their advantage, the tanks were filled with joyous Berisha supporters
who paraded up and down the road, atop the tanks, basking in the glow of their seeming victory.

The interior minister, the only government minister on the job that Monday, had planned for such an event, and his troops mounted a counterattack during the celebrations, recapturing three of the tanks, and leaving two in the possession of Berisha’s men near the DP headquarters. The special forces also attacked the TV center and recaptured it, forcing all of Berisha’s people back out on to the streets. At the end of two days of rioting, looting, burning and demonstrating, there were three people dead, 80 wounded, and a government's credibility seriously in doubt.

Berisha’s ambition got in the way of his smarts, and he wasn’t able to capitalize on the chaos his supporters had created in the capitol. By Tuesday, his people only controlled two roads leading to the DP headquarters, and the headquarters itself. Government snipers were posted on skyscrapers facing both sides of the building, making cover almost impossible. The cops were in the streets, wearing flak vests, sporting AK-47 assault rifles and heavy machine guns. Nano had come out of hiding and told Berisha to give the tanks back, which he did. But, Berisha believed he had the nation behind him, and the government on the run, so in exchange for the tanks, he demanded the government step down, and a new government of national reconciliation be set up until elections could be held. When he gave up the tanks, unfortunately for him, he gave up his trump card (except for the people, of course), and it became clear to the government that they didn’t have to negotiate.

So Berisha called for his followers to gather at the DP headquarters the following day at eleven o'clock, and they’d go for a march and show the government, and the world, how much support there was for change. By eleven, though, only around 1,500 people had shown up, and as much as Berisha shouted, cajoled, berated, screamed, talked and wheedled from his balcony, nobody else came. Of course, the government wasn’t standing idly by. They weren’t letting Berisha supporters into town. They were turning back cars that didn’t have Tirana number plates. They had setup  a series of checkpoints on the roads north of Tirana, and the police were searching vehicles for stolen weapons. The marchers went to Skanderberg Square, anyway, where more people stood by watching the demonstration rather than participating in it. Exasperated, Berisha held a press conference and announced that the government was losing credibility and was full of liars.

I thought, this is about the best political theater I’ve ever witnessed. On one hand, we have a guy so desperate for power, so hungry to get back to the top of the heap, so willing to bend the truth, to manipulate the media, to lie, that if the truth hit him in the face he would no longer know what to do with it. And on the other, we have a government defying the wishes of the international community, settling things in an "Albanian way," but ultimately a way acceptable to the West. The government, despite the demands of the OSCE’s ambassador, Daan Everts, went ahead and removed Berisha’s parliamentary immunity, making him vulnerable to arrest. That was a kick in Berisha’s pants, because up until that point Berisha couldn’t have been arrested for fomenting revolution (I believe the exact charge was "staging an attempted coup"). However, the government has no wish to make a martyr of him, so as yet, he has not been arrested. I heard that Nano said, "It is better to let a dog bark because soon he will stop barking."

The hundreds of press people getting off the plane on Tuesday, fully expected to see a revolution, coup, or at least a major crisis, but the government handled the situation skillfully and carefully. They didn’t give in to the taunts of the opposition, they didn’t let extremists take control, and they let the opposition demonstrations run their course. And, although the people around here still see chaos, squalor and desperation, I think an important page has been turned in Alabania’s book of democracy.

While America tries to impeach a president for having an affair and getting caught by a missionary man with a perjury trap--a real political struggle, involving guns, money, revolution and ideals, is being played out on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. Albania.


Click here to go to David Brauchli's
Kosovo Diary from July, 1998


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