By Keida Kostreci
November 29, 2019 – Albanians began the week on a high note, as they prepared to celebrate the country’s Independence Day, and finished it in heartbreak, Friday burying loved ones who perished in the worst earthquake to hit the Balkan country in decades.
Forty-nine people died, including seven children ages 2 to 8, and 900 were injured; 5,200 people are without shelter; and 1,200 buildings were destroyed in the 6.4-magnitude quake Tuesday. The panic has been palpable as people refuse to go home. They also have been rattled by several aftershocks, including one that registered at 5.0.
Seismologist Rexhep Koçi told VOA that while there was the likelihood for more aftershocks, they would be increasingly weaker.
The port city of Durrës, 33 kilometers west of the capital, Tirana, saw the highest death toll, with 25 people killed. Farther north, in the small town of Thumanë, the quake killed 23 people, six of whom belonged to one family, and all but one younger than 30. They were buried Friday. One person also died in the nearby small town of Kurbin.
Tirana residents turned out in the city center to honor the victims, placing candles in a makeshift memorial by the statue of Albanian national hero Gjergj Kastrioti, known as Skanderbeg.
The state of emergency declared Wednesday for Durrës and Thumanë was extended to the heavily damaged town of Laç. Prime Minister Edi Rama said he made the decision after opposition leader Lulzim Basha suggested it. Rama appeared to put on hold the acrimony often on display between the two political rivals.
“In this case, our concerns and ideas converge,” Rama said, inviting the opposition to participate in the Committee for Earthquake Relief.
For Rama, the tragedy hit close to home as his office confirmed that among the dead was his son Gregor’s fiancée, Kristi Reçi, who died along with her parents and brother in Durrës.
As search-and-rescue operations were closing, with one person unaccounted for in Durrës, providing aid to survivors has become the focus.
Physician Shkëlqime Ladi said doctors are on hand to help with immediate needs.
“We are focusing more on the psychological aspect of the affected. Their psychological state is aggravated,” she told VOA in Laç.
In Durrës, volunteers and residents are offering condolences and support.
“We feel very bad for the families, people who have lost their lives. If needed, we can take people in. We have a house, it is not a problem at all,” Durrës resident Hysen Mnalla told VOA.
Erald Peposhi is one of a group of students from Tirana who went to Durrës to help. They delivered 180 meals and 300 sandwiches.
“We are here to help those who are left homeless. As you can see, there are people that need food, and we hope the situation improves soon,” he said Friday.
For the second time since the earthquake, the European Union has activated its Civil Protection Mechanism to help Albania.
Right after the earthquake, EU sent crews from Greece, Italy and Romania to help with search and rescue and now the government has asked for experts to help assess the damage.
EU Ambassador to Albania Luigi Soreca said Friday that the European Union and its member states are standing with Albania and working nonstop to provide assistance “in this very difficult moment.”
“It is a week of deep sorrow and tragedy for Albania,” Soreca said in a statement. “Our heartfelt condolences go once again to the Albanian people and especially to the families, friends and communities of those who have lost their lives.”
Neighboring Kosova, Italy, Greece and Montenegro have sent in crews. The United States has also offered help.
‘Repaying the help I received in 1999’
Her voice trembling and in tears, Emine Imeri, a volunteer from the Drenica region in Kosova, told VOA in Thumanë the situation reminded her of 20 years ago when Albania welcomed thousands from Kosova as they fled ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces in the Balkans conflict.
“The entire Drenica, the entire Kosova, has mobilized. We regret that we had to repay the favor in such circumstances. We would have preferred to repay what they did for us 20 years ago for a happy occasion,” she said.
She also said she hoped the aid they brought would help.
“People took their coat off their back to send it here,” she said.
It was just one example of the outpouring of help from the new country, 90% of whose population are ethnic Albanians.
People spontaneously came from Kosova, operated mobile kitchens, gathered donations and opened their homes for those in Albania wanting to find shelter or to escape the aftershocks. On Friday alone, individuals and businesses from Kosovo delivered 100 tons of much needed necessities.
Kosova’s Security Force sent troops across the border to help, and outgoing Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj allocated 500,000 euros for earthquake relief. He visited Durrës on Friday, as did his likely successor, Albin Kurti.
Kosova President Hashim Thaçi visited Thumanë the day after the tragedy.
The earthquake struck two days before Albania’s 107th anniversary of independence. There was no celebration, but a show of solidarity gave solemnity to the day.
Albanian President Ilir Meta and Prime Minister Rama, who have been fighting bitterly over political matters, appeared together in Vlora Thursday, where independence was declared.
The Independence Day coincided this year with the U.S. Thanksgiving Day, and many Albanian Americans rallied to collect donations, holding several fundraisers to help one of the poorest countries in Europe.
“I am so heartbroken for my people back home, for those who have lost lives and loved ones,” New York City Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj, an Albanian American, told VOA.
Marko Kepi, of the Albanian American organization Albanian Roots, organized a fundraiser that raised nearly $1 million in less than a day.
“This fundraiser is simply to help those who have lost their homes and to help those families who lost their loved ones, do whatever we can so they can have some sort of peace of mind, that they are not alone, they have support and they are not going to be left out in the street,” he said.
Armand Mero reported from Tirana, Ilirian Agolli reported from Durrës, Pëllumb Sulo reported from Laç.