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Albania: Third World Misery in Europe

April 13, 1991 GMT

TIRANA, Albania (AP) _ Violeta Muco waits through the night for milk, the scarcest of scarce commodities in this poorest of Europe’s poor countries.

About 80 people usually are in line at her neighborhood dairy store on Qemal Stafa street by dawn, not even knowing whether the store will open.

″Milk comes at most for 60,″ she said. ″We are never sure how much milk will come. To be sure″ of getting some, ″we must be here early.″

If the shop still has not opened at 4 a.m. Mrs. Muco, 29, gets someone to save her place in line and goes home to wake her 10-year-old daughter, who takes up the vigil while her mother goes to her work as a hotel cook.

″What else can I do to feed my family?″ she said. ″I have two daughters, the father has gone abroad. What should I do, with my 400 lek ($40) a month - steal, rob?″

Tasteless bread is the staple diet. Obsolete factories stand idle. There is no glass in the windows of schools, homes, buses and trains. Urchins beg or steal.

A drought last year, the worst in decades, ruined crops and reduced power supplies from hydroelectric plants.

Mrs. Muco’s estranged husband was among at least 20,000 Albanians who fled to Italy to escape the grinding poverty.

″It is a tragedy what is happening to this country,″ Mrs. Muco said, gazing at old women in the milk line and at cats scavenging in the alleys. ″All hopes are dead because the Democratic Party didn’t win the elections.″ Most city dwellers under 40 are thought to have voted for the democratic opposition in the recent elections. Astrit Canko, a 36-year-old mechanic at a mine near Tirana, said they were willing to work hard to improve Albania’s economy, but not if the Communists stayed in power.

″We are poor, very poor,″ he said ″We feel how every day life is passing us by. Our work has earned us very, very little.″

Abdyl Backa, a Communist Party official, estimated Albania needs up to $400 million in loans to carry it through the immediate economic crisis, and about $5 billion over a decade to rebuild.

No Communist government is likely to get anything close to that. Western diplomats in Tirana agree the most the Communists can hope for is humanitarian aid: powdered milk, syringes and other basics to save lives.

Dr. Pierre Fouillant, a French doctor trying to set up a branch of Pharmacists Without Borders, expressed horror at what he saw on an eight-day tour.

Drugstores have nothing but a few aspirin, he said, and polio vaccine for 60,000 children is urgently needed. Albanian doctors told him all surgery had stopped for lack of materials.

″In some medical centers, they don’t even have equipment to do first aid, or have no running water,″ he said.

″In a way, this is worse than Africa. In Africa, there is a lack of European medicine, but they have their traditional medicine as a support. Here, you don’t even have that.″

Albania’s traditional Stalinist pride in going it alone prevented the Communists from appealing for aid before, and Fouillant said it soon may be too late.

″If international aid does not come to Albania at least for the medical sector, that would be passive genocide,″ he declared.

Hopelessness engendered by the Communist election victory adds to a general despair among this small Balkan nation’s 3.2 million people.

Little help can be expected from other East European countries, Albania’s main trading partners, and the government does not have the hard currency or exportable products necessary for beneficial trade.

Economic pressure and the political changes elsewhere in former Communist Europe forced the ruling party in December to permit a measure of freedom. As in Bulgaria, Romania and the Soviet Union, partial relaxation of control has fed often unrealistic visions of political freedom and caused economic chaos.

Milk always was hard to find, and the shortage has grown worse. Anyone with a child less than a year old is guaranteed milk, but still must wait in line.

Fears are magnified by rumors - the one, for example that says peasants who voted Communist are afraid to deliver produce to urban strongholds of the opposition.

One of the greatest scarcities is of statistics, necessary information to determine how to make life better.

Even the per capita income is a mystery, but social scientist Fatos Tarifa, one of the few Albanians who has conducted surveys, suspects it is far below suggested figure of $800 a year.

Ms. Muco knows how desperate the situation is.

″We are in the hands of God,″ she said. ″No one else can save us now.″