An Aid Mission to Albania
This story was written by the late Armand Charest in May, 2001, recalling his experiences performing relief work in Albania. This is Part 1 of a two part story. This story was edited for format and obvious spelling errors, but is otherwise exactly as written by the author.
In June, 1992, I joined a group of American military personnel, who were stationed at the NATO base in Southern Italy, to do humanitarian work in two state run orphanages and a missionary hospital in Albania. An air force officer, Major Harvey Leister and his wife Maureen, a dedicated couple who had collected a sum of money through donations and fund raising activities to buy tools and hardware needed to modernize those institutions were the prime movers in that enterprise. Our desire was to help, in some way, the citizens of that stricken country after the overthrow of their oppressive dictatorship in 1989.
My account of that trip is not only a travelogue, though it may appear to be at times; it was rather a chronicle of what I saw, what I heard, what I learned from the people with whom I came in contact, what we accomplished and failed to accomplish. In short, that was a dispatch from a new type of war zone where a newly independent people confronted the traumas and joys of freedom and where that same unschooled body politic struggled with its travails and ordeals as it came to grips with the mysteries and pitfalls of democracy for the first time in its long history. In no way was that report meant to belittle, derogate or humiliate the Albanian people. For over forty years they were oppressed and victimized by one of the most brutal of post WW 2 communist regimes.
Whereas Russia and other countries of Eastern Europe were exposed to some kind of western influence, albeit restricted and censored, Albania was totally closed to the outside world. Its only commercial and educational channels were through the USSR and communist China. But after the ideological break with the Soviet Union only the latter country, itself not exactly the paragon of glasnost, maintained any contacts with Albania.
As a sop to the people the party allowed tightly censored Italian television. In 1975 a university was established which, in spite of rigid government control, turned out well educated people who spoke English, French, Italian and Russian besides their native language. In many homes I saw books of western and Russian writers: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, a young socialist London.
Throughout their centuries of captivity and misrule, first by the Romans, then the Byzantines, followed by the Ottomans, their own warring tribal chiefs, Mussolini’s Italians and finally the communists, the one unifying trait the people clung to was their pride, not a misplaced or an overweening pride, but that pride peculiar to mountain people who have developed the instincts and strengths necessary to not only endure, but to persevere in their determination to outlast and overthrow all tyrants and oppressors. We were perplexed and frustrated during our stay there by that great virtue when the Albanians declined to accept gifts of money or food. What is not a “big deal” to us is not necessarily so elsewhere in the world. Nonetheless, in time we understood and admired that special characteristic.
This, then, is my analysis and commentary about a journey into another world, a strange, singular and sad society, startling to an outsider. I do not know of any similar culture anywhere else in the world. I could not help but compare the situation to George Orwell’s masterpiece about total government control. As a spoiled and pampered member of an indulgent social order, it was a shock to me both economically and culturally. I realized for the first time in my life how fortunate I was to be living in a developed country with a level of sophistication that is mind boggling when juxtaposed against most societies. The experience humbled me and seared itself in my mind. Never again will I take American democracy for granted and neither, I hope and pray, will any reader.
Come, join me in a voyage back in time, back to 1984 and try to comprehend what Orwell only imagined.
“How does one man assert his power over another, Winston.”
Winston replied: “By making him suffer.”
“Exactly,” retorted O’Brien.
George Orwell, 1984
Part One: The First Visit