In the Athens neighbourhood of Metaxourgeio buses leave every evening for Albania. The passengers carry with them boundless amounts of luggage and cardboard boxes that resemble moving home rather than going on holiday or for a short visit. Their tickets are one-way.
The following article was written by Constantine Callaghan and Maria Karathanos and featured on the Athens news site. It is an interesting account of today’s Albania, the Greek minority in its southern region as well as the ethnic tensions that still exist in this area after so many years.
Petros, who runs a travel agency specialising in bus travel to Albania, said that business was going well for his company for two reasons. Firstly, Albanians are returning to Albania because of the crisis in Greece. Secondly, tourism is a growing market in Albania and bus travel is the cheapest way to get there. This opinion was shared by a second travel agent, Aphrodite, who claimed that many Albanians were making their way back to seek opportunities in their home country.
From 1948 to 1991, Albania was isolated from the rest of the world. Only two decades ago, it was almost impossible for a foreigner to enter the former hermit communist state, nor was anyone permitted to leave. Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship lasted 45 years and cost two generations their right to individualism through the banning of religion, private property and freedom of movement. The extensive network of informers and secret police meant that bands of people vanished into Albania’s many prisons.
When communism eventually collapsed in 1992, seven years after Hoxha’s death, vast amounts of people left a country which had to make the difficult adjustment from a communist dictatorship to a modern democracy in what became known as the democratisation period.
Today, many of those who left behind a struggling depressed country are beginning to see a future in Albania as the global economic crisis stagnates European economies. In contrast to Greece, where the economy deflated by 4.5 percent in 2010, Albania witnessed a 3.5 percent growth rate.
Albanian migrant workers who left for Greece sent back 2.2 billion euros between January 2003 and May 2011, making a substantial impact upon the Albanian economy.
Albania managed to avoid being plunged into the global recession but, as Aphrodite warned, it is still a poor country with a lot of poor people. As both ethnic Greeks and migrant Albanian workers return to Albania, tensions remain high in the northern Epirus region between the indigenous Greek com¬munity and Albanians.
Clean-shaven and simply dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, Leonidas from Saranda is a likeable, modest, softly-spoken charismatic individual with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the region, its history and contemporary politics. Together we drove to the highest vista in Saranda, location of the Ottoman Likursi Castle. From this vantage point Leonidas could point out the designated Greek minority zone and each village that it encompassed in what was a flat green valley, a marshland until a canal was built to create better agricultural conditions.
Leonidas said it was impossible to know exact figures, but he estimated that out of the Greek community who used to live in Albania about 80 percent had left for Greece; many of them were now returning. Between 1991 and 2001 the indigenous Greek community in Saranda shrank by almost half, whereas the Albanian community increased.
In February 1995, the Human Rights Watch released a report which focused on the treatment experienced by the Greek minority in Albania. The NGO’s report claimed that, on the whole, relations between indigenous Greeks of northern Epirus, a term used by Greeks but rejected by Albanians, and Albanians had been peaceful, but many serious problems remained concerning freedom of expression and religion.
The Greeks of southern Albania are indigenous to the region and recognised by the government in Tirana as a national minority. As I travelled with Leonidas around the city of Saranda he explained to me that the difficulties faced by the Greek minority in Albania were still mostly regarding education. The main problem is that the designated zone which gives rights to minorities only covers a small part of where the Greeks live. Furthermore, it doesn’t include Himare, where the majority of inhabitants are Greeks.
What’s striking is how connected the Greek minority in Albania is to the Greek state. Leonidas, an example of the Greek minority of Albania, enjoyed the same services as others did across the border – Greek mobile phones, internet service providers operating from Corfu, cuisine, music, flags, Greek Orthodox churches and, most importantly, the ability to speak Greek. When walking along the streets of central Saranda, apart from the extraordinary numbers of Mercedes cars, it is easy to forget that you are outside Greece.
Leonidas lived through the final years of the Hoxha years and was able to leave Albania after the fall of communism to study in Thessaloniki. Once he had completed his master’s, he returned to Saranda, where he runs a successful business and is raising a family. He is typical of many indigenous Greeks from the region. His mother tongue is Greek, but he can also speak Albanian and uses it for official purposes.
That same evening as day turned to dusk we drove along some precarious rural roads to the Greek-inhabited village of Aliko inside the designated Greek minority zone. Posters printed in Greek announcing the recent August 15 celebrations were attached to lampposts advertising musicians that were to perform in the religious celebrations.
Aliko boasts a new church which was designed by Leonidas. In contrast to the pristine new church, the dilapidated town hall sits in the village square, with Greek, Albanian and European Union flags handing outside.
Leonidas took me to a statue at the far end of the square to explain the brutality of the communist regime.
The statue portrayed four young men. They were ethnic Greeks from Aliko who in 1990 tried to cross the border into Greece but were caught by Albanian soldiers. They were executed to be made an example of and as a warning to others wishing to attempt escaping. Leonidas had made this statue in memory of the victims.
As well as people trying to cross over the mountains into Greece, others tried to swim the channel between the Albanian coast and Corfu. As one local told me, “not only could the naval patrol pick you up, which almost certainly meant execution at worst and longterm imprisonment at best, but if you were not a strong swimmer you had no chance with those currents and the distance.”
Without doubt, life in Aliko today is much better and basic rights are guaranteed, as an official minority zone. Yet there are native Greeks beyond this designated zone. Sixty kilometres north lies the town of Himare, whose population is 85 percent Greek. After we returned to Saranda, I took a minibus north along the coastal road to Himare.
The town is populated by roughly 11,000 inhabitants, predominantly Greek – over 85 percent speak Greek as their native language. A university professor from Ioannina explained that in the 1970s under Hoxha’s regime, Greek-inhabited coastal towns such as Himare and Saranda had something of a demographic transformation. At that time, military officers, secret service personnel and other state officials were posted to the coastal towns, paving the way for a shift in demographics.
Leonidas had arranged for me to meet and stay with some of his friends who live in a hamlet just outside Himare. Bar the children of the family, most had lived through the difficulties of Hoxha’s communist Albania. To add to their hardship, they had started feeling vulnerable after a string of disastrous events – uneasy democratisation process in the early 1990s, the collapse of the Ponzi pyramid scheme which destroyed the economy, let alone many people’s livelihoods, resulting in a near-civil war in 1997 and the rising anti-Greek Albanian nationalism.
Eleni, a teacher of Greek theology in Himare, whose name was changed for this article, told me how the Greek community was afraid to speak Greek and felt discriminated against by the Albanian state. Eleni spoke elegantly about her friend Aristotelis Goumas, who made headlines in Greece last August after he was murdered by an Albanian nationalist from the town of Vlore.
It was reported that three Albanians had demanded that Goumas not speak Greek in his own shop.
An argument broke out and some hours later the three Albanians followed him and murdered him in a hit-and-run attack. Goumas, a native of Himare, was a victim of a racially motivated murder which prompted a strong response from Athens. Prime Minister George Papandreou stated that “the rise of nationalism among extremist groups targeting the Greek minority in Albania is a very serious matter”. The attack was also condemned by Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha.
Eleni took me to a shrine set up in memory of Goumas that sits in the castle village just outside the town. The significance of the murder is that it made the minority feel even more insecure and served as a benchmark in increasing ethnic tensions.
As we drove up to Goumas’ memorial shrine one noticed the graffiti sprayed across roadside barriers, showing the elevated tension between indigenous Greeks and Albanians: “Himare=Greece” is painted in blue on the walls of the Greek Orthodox cemetery, while on the opposite side of the road startling red letters read “We love Chams” in reference to ethnic Albanians that inhabit northwestern Greece and parts of southern Albania.
It is impossible to calculate the exact numbers of the Greek minority, as the last time a census was conducted in Albania was in 1989. A census was scheduled to take place this year, but it has been the source of much controversy and was postponed.
Ethnic Greek organisations are pushing for the right to declare their ethnicity on the census, whereas large swathes of Albanian society fear this might support any irredentist claims of northern Epirus.
According to a SETimes.com report, the Greek consul in Korca, Theodoros Ikonomou, triggered a wave of controversy in February when he called on all people to declare their ethnicity.”Yes, Greeks exist in Korca. Yes, Vlachs are Greeks. Greeks, don’t be afraid of the census, proclaim your real origin,” Ikonomou urged in a speech later aired by Albanian media.”If in doubt, go and check the names and the language on the graves of your predecessors.”
The Vlachs’ priest in Korca immediately rejected the statement as irresponsible.
The imam of Dine Hoxha Mosque in Tirana has been vocal about his opposition to the census in line with Albanian nationalist sentiment alleging that the census poses a threat to Albanian territorial integrity and would not be in the interest of the Muslim community.
In line with Albania’s ambitions to eventually join the European Union, it is important for the country to be able to define itself demographically through a census.
But at the moment there is no solution, as economic uncertainty continues in Europe as a whole and busloads of people keep returning to Albania on one-way tickets.