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angle-left null An Albanian summer
Arrière plan de l'événement
13 September 2019

An Albanian summer


Claudia Luciani

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 brought about the collapse of communist regimes and extended the field of democracy across the European continent. This peaceful revolution, which spread at a speed one could not imagine, caused a number of dramatic humanitarian situations. One of the most striking examples was, without doubt, Albania in the years 1991 to 1993, when the Council of Europe found itself facing a situation without precedent.

Who can forget those images of 1991? The big Vlora ship assaulted by tens of thousands fleeing misery and hunger trying to reach the port of Bari on the other side of the Adriatic. A year later, Albania would apply for membership of the Council of Europe, but the path seemed at that time endless.
At the end of 1992, with the typical enthusiasm of a recent recruit and with the mutual encouragement of a group of equally enthusiastic friends/colleagues, we created “Task Force Albania” in order to assist the authorities to build the very basic tenets of the rule of law. Though scarcely experienced at the time, we each volunteered to spend long stints in the country working in an office just opposite that of the new minister of justice. Our hierarchy was no picnic: there were no provisions for staff to be living and working in a non-member state, let alone any material or security arrangements. But this is how the first ever Council of Europe field presence was born and how I ended up spending a long summer in Tirana, as a member of Task Force Albania.
The year 1993 was definitely a very hot summer, even by Albanian standards. Water shortages were the norm, rubbish collection a rare occurrence. Corridors of carefully piled house waste were lined up in front of apartment buildings, providing the pedestrians with narrow alleys of unbearable stench. It was my turn in Tirana and, as the arrangement foresaw, the other three members of the task force remained in Strasbourg for backup. Luckily for us, the authorities had decided to grant us accommodation free of charge in Villa No. 6, the government guest house. We had been given a spacious room in a large house with a clean bathroom and very kind personnel. Food was scarce, but for the foreign guests there was always a piece of hard cheese and a couple of eggs we could count on when coming home in the evening. No water though, not even in Villa No. 6.
Although there was always plenty to do for the young staff of the Ministry of Justice, the rhythm inevitably slowed down during the summer months. And so, I decided to ask my fiancé to join me for a few days to travel around the country. I wanted him to finally see for himself what it was like here. Indeed, no matter how hard I tried to describe to him in endless night phone calls what I was seeing and experiencing in this country – the destitution of the people, the total collapse of public infrastructure, the search for food and the tremendous pride that had to be swallowed in the face of the outside world – I was convinced that he would be in for a shock when landing at Rinas airport. Yes, I thought, even an accomplished traveller like him would surely be taken aback by the reality here.
The Pelican Operation
My task force colleague abruptly interrupted my planning by informing me that a cargo of humanitarian aid from a member state was due at the port of Vlorë shortly, and that a high-level civil servant and prison head would be travelling to Albania with it to ensure that the parcels were safely delivered to the nine Albanian prisons for which they were destined. The authorities wanted to send their aid “through the Council of Europe” – as part of the Pelican Operation. My colleague was very specific about this; she left me in no doubt that I would have to accompany the civil servant, and should personally deliver the parcels to each prison with him.
Talk of a change in plan! I had to sort out the customs at the port without further delay, rent a minivan immediately, and get ready to travel across the country in order to escort the lorry loaded with humanitarian aid cargo to each prison. All of which meant, of course, that I had to cancel my private holiday plans! But since the tickets were already purchased, my fiancé would simply have to join me, and come along for the ride.
The trouble was, I was not at all an expert on prisons. I had never even been to one in my life! My colleague tried to reassure me. My job would simply be to liaise with the Albanian authorities, she said; the prison expert would take care of the prison part. In the meantime, the customs formalities were miraculously settled in record time, in spite of the fact that the port was the main entry point for the massive humanitarian assistance which had been keeping Albanians fed and clothed since 1991. Thanks to our assistant’s efficient intervention, we were able to rent a small van with a driver for the three of us to escort the lorry with the cargo. And we were set to go. I did not expect such expediency; I was probably secretly hoping the hurdles would be insurmountable and the expedition cancelled, but no, everything was ready for the prison tour to begin.

If you wish to continue your reading, you may buy the book "Europe: a human enterprise".

Claudia joined the Council of Europe in 1990, after working in the legal department of the International Labour Organization (ILO). She was closely involved in the accession of new democracies to the Council of Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She worked for a number of years in the Directorate General of Political Affairs as head of External Relations, and then in the Balkan countries until she was promoted to the position of Political Director. Claudia helped set up the Office of the Directorate General of Programmes responsible for co-operation programmes in the field, before moving to the Directorate General of Democracy where she is currently head of the Directorate of Human Dignity, Equality and Governance, dealing with issues relating to equality, violence against women and democratic governance in the member states.