TIRANA, Albania (May. 9)
It did not take long for Jewish Agency for Israel relief workers in Albania to find out just how desperately ethnic Albanian Kosovars needed their aid.
In early April, the first trucks carrying Jewish Agency relief chugged down Albania’s dilapidated, single-lane roads toward a dozen isolated camps in the southern Fier and Berat regions, a 50-mile journey that took more than four hours. They knew conditions were poor, but had no idea to what extent the 30,000 refugees there were suffering.
“It was horrible,” says Ziva Ohayon, managing director of Latet, an independent Israeli humanitarian organization working with the Jewish Agency to distribute aid in Albania. “They were sleeping on plastic sheets. They had no food. Two babies had just died, and we had baby food in the back of the truck.”
Planeloads of relief from across the world are unloaded each day at Tirana airport. Most of it is distributed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is overwhelmed by the logistics of handling such massive quantities of aid.
Israeli field workers say their group is one of a few to take the complicated task of physically distributing supplies upon itself. In addition, the group is the only relief agency to reach the detached southern camps.
By their own accounts, Israeli ingenuity, Jewish compassion, political shrewdness and a dose of sabra “chutzpah” has made the agency’s relief work in the field swift and effective since its inception in early April.
It was during the Passover seder on March 31 that Salai Meridor, Jewish Agency chairman, first pondered a response to the crisis. Two days later, Jewish Agency officials were setting up a hotline for Israeli donations and planning to dispatch a relief team.
On Sunday, April 4, Carl Unger, head of the Eastern European division of the Jewish Agency’s aliyah department, got a telephone call from Shimshon Shoshani, Jewish Agency director general and coordinator of the relief logistics. “I want to send you to Albania,” Shoshani said.
Unger could not resist the challenge. The former Israeli colonel thrived out in the field. He carried out Jewish Agency rescue missions in Chechnya, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova, and coordinated the mass emigration of Russian Jews to Israel via Budapest between 1989 and 1991.
The next day, Unger, and his Jewish Agency/Latet team were en route to Tirana. “We were determined to do everything ourselves,” Unger said. “We are not the only people distributing, but what is unique is that every day we phoned Israel to tell them what the refugees need.”
With some $30,000 in cash strapped to their bodies, the team began laying the groundwork for distribution. While the first Israeli planes landed, senior Jewish Agency officials met top Albanian officials, including President Rexhep Mejdani.
The first task was to secure free access to Tirana’s airport. Approval from officials was secured with the help of small, but effective, Israeli “gifts” of chocolates, cigarettes and perfume to junior airport employees.
“We are not shy,” says Unger, explaining why the mission was successful. “If I have to call the Albanian deputy prime minister to get something done, I’ll do it. And if we had to make an offer that they couldn’t refuse, we knew how to do that too.”
Each morning for the next week, the Jewish Agency team boarded three or four trucks at 6 a.m. Halfway through the dangerous countryside — where armed gangs roam — a police escort joined them.
Refugee leaders rewarded the Israelis by crowning them “honorary presidents” of the southern camps. By the time they returned to their Tirana hotel rooms, it was 4 a.m. the next day. After sleeping for two hours, they boarded the trucks again.
“There is a rush of adrenaline that keeps us going,” says Ohayon, 30, who grew up in the town of Sderot and started working for Latet last year while completing her master’s degree in political science at Hebrew University. “Humanitarian work takes you to places you would never believe.”
In a separate effort, Dr. Richard Hodes, a veteran of 10 years in Ethiopia, was summoned from Africa by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in a Passover telephone call.
Hodes, 45, an Orthodox Jew originally from Long Island, packed his bags, flew to Frankfurt, took a train to Rome, headed for the Italian coast and boarded a boat to Albania. Since landing, Hodes has been scouring the country to pinpoint refugee needs and provide quick responses.
After finding thousands of refugees sleeping on dirty floors or plastic sheets, Hodes approached Albania’s only bedding company and ordered several thousand mattresses.
Hodes is now coordinating repairs of leaky roofs in several structures that are becoming makeshift refugee shelters. The expert in emergency medicine and infectious diseases is also negotiating a “takeover” of several medical clinics to upgrade services for some additional refugees in Albania.
JDC has been in Albania for five years, providing Jewish education for the tiny, aging community of 50 Jews — one a member of the Albanian Parliament. “He enables us to get a foot in the door and to speed things up,” Hodes says.
The efforts of these Jewish field workers are becoming increasingly important as the number of refugees swells. There are more than 400,000 Kosovar refugees in Albania today, and the country of 3 million expects at least 200,000 more in the coming weeks.
The influx of refugees is further complicating the logistical challenge facing the UNHCR. In addition, the Albanian government is holding back some supplies in storehouses. Some relief workers fear that supplies are being siphoned off to the local black market.
As the war drags on, say field workers, the international media will probably lose interest in yet another prolonged Balkan tragedy.
“We are already seeing this happen, and we are worried,” warns Ohayon of Latet, itself a cash-strapped organization. “We know that when the coverage stops, so will the money and the aid.”