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
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