It was 9 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 9 2004. The programs of Top Channel, one of the most successful TV Stations in Albania, were interrupted with the shocking news that a boat of more than 30 refugees was sinking in the Adriatic Sea, only 5 miles far from Vlora Coast.
The strange voice of a man calling from his mobile was asking for help publicly. We could hear his voice directly on the extraordinary edition of Top Channel news: “Please help us! We are drowning…”. The news broadcaster, pale and in a trembling voice, implored the police, government and local people in Vlora to go for help. The number of his mobile remained on the screen for a couple of hours, but no response came on the other end of the line.
Here started the marathon of that tragic night. And step by step the whole truth was revealed, mostly by the media. At 5.00 p.m., on Friday 9 January, more than 30 people from Shkodra district, Northern Albania, one of the poorest in the country, set off to follow their dream that would be the last: their impossible dream for a better life that brought those people to death.
Among them were 6 women. They were all refused to be given a visa from the Italian Embassy to join their families and relatives in Italy.
They had paid 1500 EUROS each to cross the sea illegally, being discriminated up to the point that they could use every other means to go abroad, risking their lives in the middle of the winter. The news caused panic and everyone got stuck in front of the box, waiting hopefully for a solution.
Gradually, after the news was broken, the government started to take measures. Help was asked from NATO Forces that were settled in Albania and from Italian Naval Forces. The Ministry of Defence sent the order for special troops to be put to sea, but the sea was so rough that it was impossible for the rescuers to find the boat. It was too late.
By the next morning one of the ships of the Italian Naval Forces found the boat. Only 11 people had survived, 21 were found dead and it is thought that there were more than 5 other people missing. The survivors were so shocked that they could not give further evidence to what really happened that night. They were sent to the hospital and given first aid.
All they say is that they survived due to their young age and strength (they were all between 29 to 30 years old). They say they could hear the helicopters so near that night, and the ships passing by, but no one saw them because of the wind and big waves.
The news seems to have lots of contradictions, regarding the exact number of people in the boat, the delayed help, and people implicated in the tragic event. It is said that some chief police officers are involved in the illegal traffic. This is one reason why they delayed help, though they knew about the boat of clandestines two hours before the phone call. Another hypothesis is that the police was informed that there were drugs in the boat, not people, so they thought it was better to sink.
Albanians are the only people in Europe who cannot move to other countries, even if they have legal docummentation. This is crazy to think that we live in the 21st century, and Europe denies us the free movement to join our families who live abroad or to look for work in other countries.
Albania is still a very poor country and the socialist government is doing nothing to improve the situation. All clandestines were from Northern Albania, which lacks not only places of jobs but also running water and electricity. These people were looking for a better life accross the borders, but they found death instead. Yesterday we mourned their deaths. A lot of protests are being organized by people and organizations agains the illegal traffic of people, poverty and government.
Measures have been taken by the government to prevent the illegal traffic and to stop the smugglers. Two years ago it was said that the government had put an end to the illegal traffic and some boats had been burned to show this was achieved, but it was all a comedy show. High officials are involved in the traffic.
More than 20 people lost their lives in this tragic event. No one can bring them to life again. Albanians know that unless they are treated as human beings by the foreign authorities, they will try every means to follow their dreams for a better life, for water and electricity, for feeding their children and joining their families that they haven’t seen for years. It is the government’s duty to respect their own citizens and support their free movement.
Albania is one of the most ancient countries of Europe, with an old culture and excellent traditions. We deserve to be called Europeans and share their rights. This event was an appeal to old Europe and its old-fashioned laws. If the doors of the world remain closed for the Albanians, they will still try to go illegally, they will dig a tunnel under the sea and try to go away from poverty. And no one can stop them. Even death.
”’Kozeta Cuadari, a resident of Tirana, Albania, can be reached via email at:”’ mailto:email@example.com
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