Eyewitness to 1984, Part Two


By the end of the afternoon we reached Skrodra. With some difficulty we found Odetta’s house. I use the word difficulty because there are no street signs in any city that I could see. How the mailman finds his around is a mystery, at least to me. I had been sure that my reception would be cordial, sincere and warm-hearted. I was not disappointed. I felt at home. It was the beginning of a wonderful two-week stay in which I would meet many family members, friends and acquaintances. After dinner I gave out news about the other members of the original party. But I was extremely anxious to find out about the unfinished projects.

So the next morning after a hasty breakfast, the doctor and I took the bus for the hospital. Once again I was treated deferentially and given the best seat. The road was crowded with pedestrians, bicyclists, horse drawn carts carrying produce, goods and people. I marveled once again at the ability of the people to survive, to make the best of things. And so we arrived at Bushat.

After a quick greeting with the missionaries, I hurried to the hospital. I was not really surprised at what I found. The contractor had finally dug the well, but had stopped there. It then dawned on me that we had might have miscalculated. There was no reservoir tank. I could not imagine that the Major would have forgotten that. Perhaps he knew that one was in the area. I was baffled. At our recent meeting he explained that there was no room on the van. It would have been acquired locally. The pump had not been installed since the fuse box was not in place and the reason: it had been stolen. Of course no other electrical work had been done. Furthermore, the “patriotic” custodian had absconded with most of the materials we had left behind. It was a fine “kettle of fish” indeed.

That was bad. But in the rest room someone had dropped a heavy object on the fragile porcelain basin that served as a human waste receptacle, totally annihilating it. The sewer pipe was blocked of course. I did not ask why no one had fixed the problem. We had installed a flush box, but with no running water it was useless. With a sinking heart I felt that we were back to square one.

I put those problems aside as I joined Odetta in the dispensary. Most of the people suffered from the same causes: malnutrition, lack of vitamins, ignorance of basic hygienic concepts, inadequate pre natal and post natal care, unavailability of modern sanitary facilities. The doctor dispensed whatever she had in the way of medicines and drugs, counseled her patients and instructed them in the proper ways of boiling the water before drinking it. The water came from a ditch since someone had stolen the pump from the village well. She was surprised no epidemic had as yet broken out. At times she was sympathetic; at times she scolded the patients for not following her instructions.

But what really set her off was the refusal of many villagers to accept modern medical procedures and their determination to cling to the old ways. One cannot change these mountain people, she once lashed out angrily. People are slow to change; they will see things your way, I said, once they adjust to their new status of independence and learn to think for themselves. I counseled a bit of patience. What exacerbated an already difficult medical situation was that from time to time someone would break into the dispensary and steal medicines. The missionaries warned the villagers to be patient and share whatever was available. Greed, being universal, carried the day and one morning the dispensary was closed. It remained closed for a week. I have no way of knowing whether or not the people dealt with the thieves.

Every morning I accompanied the doctor on her calls to the home based patients. The villagers were quite friendly and curious about the stranger in their midst. I drank strong local coffee till I felt as if I floated on air. The homes were sparsely furnished but clean. We lunched in some of them. Odetta was paid with vegetables and fruits, especially melons.

I must digress here and talk about melons, to try and make the reader understand a bit about politics, Balkan style.

In the summer of 1991, the first full summer of Albanian independence, the neighboring countries of Yugoslavia and Greece had bought up surplus fruits such as melons. Consequently, and with sound economic reasoning I believe, the Albanian agricultural ministry had encouraged the farmers to increase their production of fruits for 1992, especially melons since the buyers had snapped them up so quickly. In the interval politics interfered, ruined a perfectly good decision and dealt the Albanians another economic blow. Greece became petulant and querulous about the unmanageable illegal influx of job seeking Albanians and its petty quarrel with neighboring Macedonia concerning a name change.

It seems that Greece wanted and, still does at this time, that the latter country drops the last two letters from its official name and call itself Macedon for two reasons. The first reason for that somewhat imperious demand was the idea that the country (Macedonia) would one day lay claim to the northern Greek province of the same name in the spirit of reunification. The second (reason) was that because Alexander the Great was born there, there should be only one Macedonia. Macedon (ia) denies that. It says that it is too busy worrying about the spillover of the Bosnian fighting to do as Greece claims it will do and besides, say the Macedonians, Alexander was a Macedonian and not a Greek making Greek objections totally moot at this time. Consequently, Greece forbade any importation of produce from Albania and so did Yugoslavia for unexplained reasons.

The Albanians could not logically understand why they should suffer from that petty quarrel. In any case Albania was awash in unsold melons. As I write this article, Greece is again for some reason or other in the news with its warnings that it will vote against western development money going to Albania. The birthplace of democracy is not covering itself with glory in its anti-people behavior. It is impossible for a westerner to understand Greek politics. It escapes rational explanation. The real victims of this criminal chicanery were the peasants of Albania, again. One day I hit political pay dirt: I met a bona fide commissar, an ex- really.

Odetta and I had traveled to a neighboring village driven there by an interesting Muslim named Hassan whom we will meet again. The patient was an elderly woman; the other occupants of the house being an old gent sporting a long, white, elegant, true Balkan style handle bar moustache and a younger man who gave off an aura of arrogance characteristic of people in power. I remember thinking to myself that the old boy had not been someone to step aside in any situation. My own moustache looked out of place.

The commissar and the doctor were not friends as that became obvious when they engaged in a debate after she returned to the living room from treating her patient. The argument was of a political nature; anyone could see that by the tone of the doctor’s voice and ferocity of her arm movements and the flushed face of her opponent. She proved to be a formidable adversary, not giving much ground. I took it all in while quietly sipping the ubiquitous thick coffee. Hassan had a wide grin on his face. It was pay back time for him and the doctor, I guessed. When the debate became quite loud and meaningless, the patriarch said one word while looking at me. The forensics ceased. Shortly afterwards we took our leave. Both men said goodbye to me in a gracious manner, but the good doctor kept muttering all the way home about that terrible Albanian, that dreadful man. I gave her the fight on points: she had shown a combative trait that bode well for her future.

If I had been incarcerated anywhere, I would have wanted Hassan as a bunk mate. He was garrulous, outgoing, humorous, a born “scrounger” and quite intelligent. He and the Major would have been quite a team. Even though he knew nothing about the language, I had the funny feeling that he got the gist of every English word spoken by the doctor and myself. I could never figure out (among other unfathomable oddities) how he and Odetta communicated. He lived in a different town; there was no telephone, no obvious way to get in touch. In a country full of question marks, Hassan represented the $64,000 query: where and how did he have the means of acquiring a car in the first place since private ownership had been banned for such a long time; where did he get gasoline and spare parts in a country with few gasoline stations; finally, what income did he have to maintain a car? Please do not misunderstand me. It really was none of my business, but I was puzzled, perplexed and mystified by the way he lived; by the way everyone survived in this strange land for that matter.

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