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May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
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As bad as Hoxha was, democracy hasn't treated Albania much better. Two years ago, just when the country seemed to be staggering to its feet, a nationwide pyramid investment scheme collapsed. The scam had been endorsed by the democratically elected government of President Sali Berisha, who was rumored to have taken campaign funds from its organizers. Tens of thousands of people lost their life savings, and hundreds of thousands took to the streets, calling for Berisha's downfall. The protests turned into a nationwide riot. Shops and factories across Albania were gutted. Panicky soldiers fled their posts and left the doors to the weapons depots wide open. Kalashnikov assault rifles, pistols, and grenades were free for the taking. The Kosovo Liberation Army's strength surged as a result of the new influx of weapons.

At noon we arrived in the industrial town of Lac, once a showcase of the Communist revolution. Now Lac's huge chemical fertilizer plant, rising above the Drin River, is a decrepit, decaying ruin. Albanian men squatted idly in the mud, staring vacant-eyed at the occasional traffic.

"C'est comme la guerre," Lahcene observed, shaking his head. Looks like war.

Genc, who was used to the devastation, had his mind on other subjects.

"Do you know Christiane Amanpour?" he interrupted, turning around in his seat.

"A little," I said, having met the CNN reporter once or twice on the road.

"I'd like to make love to that woman," Genc announced. "I want to get a blow job from her. That's all I've been able to think about since the war began."

Just north of Lac, we crossed a steel bridge and began climbing into the Accursed Mountains. The hills became more jagged, the hairpin turns tighter, the road a narrow ledge blasted out of the mountainsides.

It was after six o'clock when we pulled into Kukes, a dreary place perched on a promontory overlooking Lake Fierza and surrounded by basalt crags dappled with thick veins of snow. The city is quite new, having been established in 1976 to replace its classical precursor, Gubuleum, which was drowned by the rising waters of the newly dammed lake. Kukes has the distinction of having once been "totally socialist," which is to say it was completely devoid of private homes. Its citizens were forced to stack themselves like cordwood into concrete blocks of communal apartment buildings.

It had been raining for days, and the sidewalks and muddy, potholed streets of the town were jammed with Kosovar refugees, more than 300,000 of whom had crossed the nearby border at Morine during the previous ten days. While the Albanian government was trying to keep the masses moving, the majority of the Kosovars were staying put in Kukes.

Genc and I rented an apartment from a friend of Tani's, on the top floor of a building just behind the Gjalica Hotel, the main lodging spot for the Western press and humanitarian aid agencies. After lugging our stuff up six flights of stairs, I went up to the roof, pointed a small satellite dish to the east, and dangled the connector cable down to Genc, who was leaning out the bedroom window. No landlines worked in Kukes; the satellite phone would be the only link to the outside world.

The sun was setting. I could hear barking dogs, the wail of a muezzin from the mosque by the lake, the shouts of children, and the vague, distant hubbub of thousands of refugees in the streets. Genc joined me on the roof. "Welcome to Kukes," he boomed. "The center of the world."


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