21 / 1 / 2011

The Unofficial View of Tirana (3)


Burning cars in front of the pyramid (AP Photo/Hektor Pustina)

A few days ago, when looking down from my balcony, I saw a guy walking between the building blocks with an air gun shooting at pigeons. A few boys, playing around, saw him, and, running toward him, asked whether they could try shooting as well. To my surprise, the guy handed over his gun to one of the boys. They then walked out of sight.

Yesterday evening I received an email from the Dutch embassy in Tirana, where I’m registered:

“You will be familiar with the fact that the opposition parties have called upon all Albanians to participate in a demonstration tomorrow, January 21, in front of the PM’s office (next to the Rogner hotel). According to our information, the demonstration will start at 14:00, but we expect that participants will come from all over the country from 12:00 onward to the main boulevard [of the Martyrs]. Although we have no information that would point at the possible occurrence of violence, this cannot be fully ruled out. Therefore, the embassy advises to all Dutch citizens to avoid the center of Tirana from 12:00.”

The socialist opposition had called for the demonstration because of a corruption scandal which had erupted over the weekend, and the alleged election fraud during the previous elections. The latter cannot be proved anymore, as I witnessed the burning of the “stolen” votes live on television. Plastic containers filled with people’s votes were emptied on an anonymous dump after which they were and set alight. Personally, I don’t recall having seen images that were symbolically more disturbing than the public burning of contested votes by a government. The act, and its national dissemination communicated nothing but contempt for any type of “democratic spirit.”

Around 14:00, an Albanian friend sent me the following text message: “Stay in your house or to your friend. Dont go in the cemter, is mess, am at the train stacion is full with freak people.” Obviously, I couldn’t resist.

I left home around 14:30 and arriving behind the PM’s office I met some friends on the street who said that it was a “coup d’état,” “just like in ’97.”  We walked to the main boulevard together, but had to return because of the tear gas, which, blown toward us by the wind, burned in our throats and eyes. I climbed onto the Pyramid to have an overview of the situation and within half an hour I could see five cars going up into flames. People on the square in front of the pyramid destroyed the pavement to throw stones at the Military Police guarding the PM’s office. Several explosions could be heard.

I was surprised how well cars can burn, they make hissing and exploding sounds as they slowly die, and usually after two or three minutes, their horns and lights switch on until the circuits are burned through, its like their dying lament. The protesters aligned the cars to form a barricade in front of the Pyramid.

A few organizers, wielding megaphones tried to calm down the crowd, which seemed impossible. One guy climbed into the monument in front of the Pyramid, ringing its heavy metal bell. The whole scene, thousands of Albanians, the tear gas mixed with the black smoke of the burning cars and the ringing of the bell created a truly apocalyptic atmosphere. The protesters chanted “iku!” (“he left!”) and “bjeri!” (if I understood correctly).

After about an hour of throwing stones and basically destroying the two police vans next to the PM’s office, the protesters launched a full attack on the Military Police around 15:30, forcing them to retreat inside the gates of the PM’s office. The two police vans were set alight. Subsequently the police started shooting, supposedly with rubber bullets, but by then I was forced to leave my position on the Pyramid. As I was walking to meet some friends in a cafe, I could hear (semi-automatic) gun fire coming from the direction of the main boulevard. On the television of the cafe I saw that the protesters had breached one of the gates of the PM’s office.

At the moment (17:30), the protest seems to be more or less over. According to 24 News, the boulevard has been cleaned of demonstrators but the “Twin Tower” buildings seem to have been looted.

If the demonstration today shows anything, it is that the population is willing and ready to throw over this government the moment it has wasted all its credit. The fact that today three protesters were killed (the last time protesters were killed, if I understand correctly, was during the big uprising in 1997-98), will in no way contribute to any feeling of passivity from the population’s side.

One Response to The Unofficial View of Tirana (3)

  1. [...] posted this first-hand account, far more compelling than any news story I read: I was surprised how well cars can burn, they make [...]

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