Albania diary: from hermit state to haven

Exiled Afghan journalists Mujib Mehrdad, left, and Elyas Nawandish by the Rafaelo hotel, in the Albanian seaside town of Shëngjin © Florion Goga/FT

Elyas Nawandish, the 29-year-old chief online editor of one of Afghanistan’s most respected newspapers, has the eyes of a journalist who has already witnessed a lifetime of tragedies. Until the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul last August, Etilaatroz (“The Information of the Day”) proudly sought to hold the western-backed government of Ashraf Ghani to account. It had advertisers, reporters who asked awkward questions and a number of ministerial scalps.

Now its staff are scattered around the world and Nawandish and half a dozen other of its journalists are in a resort on Albania’s Adriatic coast — thousands of miles from the stories they are endeavouring to cover.

The Rafaelo luxury beach hotel is one of a string of Albanian resorts hosting several thousand Afghans after the government offered sanctuary pending their application for refugee status in the US. Surrounding a giant kidney-shaped pool and a plaster replica of the Statue of Liberty, it looks out over a pristine beach. As Nawandish speaks, the sun sets over the Adriatic behind him, casting its last rays on young Afghans playing in the hotel courtyard. It is hard to imagine a greater contrast between the serenity of their new home and the turmoil back home.

It is also hard for me to imagine a greater contrast between now and when I was last in Albania, 30 years ago this March. Then it was the basket case of Europe. Its Stalinist regime had recently imploded, exposing a country in ruins. I had come to report on the exodus of its impoverished people. Now, inspiringly, Albania has inverted that narrative and become a haven.

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A Tirana scene from 1992: children play among sheep in a grassy vacant lot © Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Etilaatroz shares a “newsroom” with the exiles from 8AM, another respected newspaper. It is housed in the one-time casino of the Rafaelo resort. Just above the entrance is the half-scrubbed-out image of a roulette wheel. It seems rather appropriate as a logo: the wheel of fortune spun remorselessly against these journalists last year when they and thousands of other Afghans fled into exile. And yet their work continues. Both newspapers still have reporters in Kabul; while their papers closed in August, their websites are updated round the clock.

“We started investigative reporting in Afghanistan,” Mujib Mehrdad, the 36-year-old editor-in-chief of 8AM, tells me. “We forced the resignation of ministers under Hamid Karzai and Ghani [the civilian presidents between the Taliban’s overthrow in 2001 and their return]. We created the culture of a trusted media asking questions.”

Mehrdad is a journalist/poet — that rare breed. Every day he hosts an online news meeting for his dispersed staff. “Covid prepared us well,” he says. But these are perilous times for the media in Afghanistan. “We are under pressure. Our representative to the Taliban in Kabul has been summoned nine times. They say we are part of a propaganda mission. They don’t know how to deal with democratic values like freedom of speech.”

The Afghans now in Albania mainly worked in civil society. The exiles are supported by a range of organisations, including the National Endowment for Democracy, the Yalda Hakim Foundation, named after the BBC presenter, and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. But for how long? The American bureaucracy for the Afghans’ visas is glacially slow. The donors fear that as the months pass and other priorities rise, America’s sense of collective responsibility for the exiles is waning. They also worry that the Biden administration may accept only those who left Afghanistan on or before August 31, the original date for the departure of US forces.

Afghan refugees in Shëngjin earlier this month © Florion Goga/FT

“You could end up with 2,000 people with nowhere else to go,” says one of the co-ordinators. “Initially it was so sexy: everyone wanted to sponsor an evacuation. But there is a long term need to finance food and healthcare, and fundraising has dried up. The US has a moral responsibility. The Afghans here all participated in their projects because the US was there.”

A classic case is Zainab Hashimi, a 33-year-old activist. A former adviser for the Afghan Ministry of Labour, she previously led the recruitment of policewomen, a role she feared marked her out for reprisals when the Taliban took over. Her father was taken by the Taliban on November 11 and her family do not know if he is still alive. Now they are desperately trying to get papers so they can join her in exile. When the passport office briefly reopened in Kabul, she says, there was such a melee that the Taliban used electric prods to make people disperse.

Nawandish, the journalist, also has a sundered family. One of his brothers was waiting to graduate at Bamiyan University in agriculture. “He says there is nothing left in the university. Everything has gone, papers, furniture, taken maybe by the Taliban.” His eldest sister was studying economics at university. “Now she is at home. She did just one semester.”

For now, the pressure of co-ordinating his dispersed reporters is a distraction from his personal stresses. The Taliban recently went to their offices and demanded to know why they were not styling the Taliban as the government. “We still just say the Taliban group,” he says with pride.

As I head back to Tirana the old journalistic mantra “the daily miracle” comes to mind. I have always loved this line. It’s how journalists have long liked to describe the crazy race to get out a paper. But there are metaphorical miracles — and then there are the real miracles, of the journalists who defy quite extraordinary odds to deliver the news.

The man who made the decision to take in the Afghans is sitting behind a vast wooden desk in Tirana covered in hundreds, literally hundreds, of crayons and pens. His office walls are festooned with his sketches and abstract cartoons. Edi Rama, Albania’s Renaissance prime minister, is a former art professor, who remarkably has continued to exhibit his work even while serving as prime minister.

When I ask why he led the way in volunteering to take in Afghans — at a Nato meeting several months before the fall of Kabul — he looks a little exasperated over my implicit suggestion that he did something special.

“Why? Why what? It’s not about giving shelter to people in general. It’s about this particular people, the people of Afghanistan, and not all of them, but those who engaged in [building] a better Afghanistan.” More precisely, he says, he told the Nato meeting that they had to make plans for the Afghans who would be considered “traitors” by the Taliban.

Albanian prime minister Edi Rama at his desk, replete with artist’s tools

“We have been there. For us war, escaping butcher regimes, is not Netflix,” he says, recalling the Kosovo war of 1999 when half a million Kosovars fled into Albania. He had just been enticed back from his burgeoning career as an artist in Paris to become minister of culture — his entrée into politics.

Now he is in his third term in office. Since the late 1990s, when Albania was a byword for disorder, it has become a node of stability in the western Balkans. In recent months Rama has been outspoken in urging the region to resist overtures from Russia and China. Rather he believes in keeping faith in the idea of joining the EU, despite endless delays in the accession process.

“We have consumed all the love stories before, and the marriages,” he says in an implicit reference to Albania’s communist-era alliances with Russia and China, both of whom were ultimately rejected as insufficiently hardline. “So we are looking for a new marriage.”

When I ask how he finds time to paint while running a country, again he raises an eyebrow. “I don’t find time,” he says. “I never paint separately from what I do every day, which is my work, at this table. When I am in international meetings, I draw while participating. People sometimes have the impression I’m not listening, or I’m not interested in what they are saying, which is not true. People that draw during meetings, they have more focus on what is discussed — and they are less stressed by what is discussed.”

If there was one word on his tombstone, would he like it to be painter or prime minister? “It would be the best painter among prime ministers — and the best prime minister among painters.”

When I was last in Albania there were all but no cars. Now the brightly painted centre of Tirana is humming. At the fall of communism in 1991, Tirana had about 170,000 people; now it has more than half a million. Mayor Erion Veliaj takes me on to the roof of City Hall and gestures over the trees sprouting from the central Skanderbeg square, which was pedestrianised under his mandate. He has had them transplanted via an Italian company as part of his vision of modernising the city. Tirana has to be the most magically transformed city in Europe of the past three decades. “We wasted so much time under communism and then under casino capitalism,” laments the mayor.

The Tirana Pyramid, built as a monument to former dictator Enver Hoxha, is set to become a training centre for young people © AFP via Getty Images

The nadir of the latter period was in 1997, when pyramid schemes led to economic collapse and near civil war. Now the only pyramid in the news is the building known as the Tirana Pyramid. It was finished in the late 1980s as a museum for Enver Hoxha, the ultra-totalitarian leader who ruled from the end of the second world war until his death in 1985. Now, after an uncertain three decades when it has often been on the brink of demolition, it is being refashioned as a youth digital training centre — to coincide with Tirana’s role as European Youth Capital for 2022.

Just a few streets away is an elegant villa dubbed the House of Leaves. So known because of the creepers shrouding the exterior, it was Tirana’s first private obstetrics centre, then the Gestapo HQ, and then the interrogation centre of the communist secret police. The names of their 5,000-plus known victims line one of the walls. Room after room is filled with the surveillance equipment of surely the most paranoid state of the Cold War — a record for which it faced stiff competition. I then disappear underground for an equally chilling tour of the tunnels built for Hoxha’s elite in the event of a nuclear attack.

“This was the Pyongyang of Europe,” says the mayor, who laughs when we realise he had just escaped to Greece when I was reporting from the Greek-Albanian frontier on that very exodus. “For some change is happening too fast, for me it’s too slow.”

Albanian strategists are rightly concerned that against the backdrop of Covid, western leaders are not paying sufficient attention to the western Balkans. To the north, Bosnia is facing its most serious political crisis in 25 years. But out of the spotlight, Albania, for all its problems, has reimagined itself radically for the better — and that, like the dedication of the Afghan journalists in exile, is stunning to behold.

Alec Russell is the editor of FT Weekend

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