Kosovo Crisis Boosts Albania Town
KUKES, Albania (AP) _ Kosovo’s agony is Kukes’ gain.
Embedded in the poorest region of one of the poorest countries in Europe, the isolated town desperately needed an economic boost.
That day has arrived. Along with the influx of thousands of refugees from nearby Kosovo has come some big spenders: international aid officials, refugee workers, soldiers and journalists.
Overnight, jobless residents found work, shopkeepers tripled their sales and, in a town where per capita income was hovering around $50 a month, dingy apartments with reeking toilets were rented out for as much as $500 a day.
``In Albania, they say Kukes has hit the jackpot in tele-bingo,″ says teen-ager Arber Spahiu, referring to a popular television game offering lucrative prizes.
Town spokesman Emri Peca emphasizes that the boom hasn’t been all good. The Kosovo refugees have swollen the town’s population of 23,000 to more than 130,000, severely straining already meager public services.
Water supplies are being drained, garbage and toilet waste pile up and police struggle to cope with crime, Peca says. Then there are the daily tears of traumatized refugees and anxiety about the fighting just up the road in Kosovo.
When the refugee exodus began, Kukes families willingly opened their apartment doors to fellow ethnic Albanians, and at first most didn’t ask for money. But many of the 71,000 refugees who chose not to live in the camps are now paying rents averaging $165 a month for a single room, sometimes crammed with a dozen or more people.
The town’s few hotels, including the five-story Hotel Turizmi, which reopened after seven years, are booked solid and getting a makeover. Owners are renting out apartments and houses to aid officials and journalists at rates far surpassing those of Tokyo and New York.
``We’re very happy to have refugees and foreigners in town,″ says Dritan Germizi, 22, who with his brother owns a mini-supermarket where profits have soared since the crisis erupted. Now they can afford to cool the store with one of the town’s few air conditioners and load the shelves with a once-unimaginable array of items.
Germizi Brothers now stocks Italian wines, Danish cheese, frozen Cornish hens, Italian toiletries and a dozen kinds of beer, including Mexican. Beer is the best seller, says Germizi, with aid workers carting it off by the case.
Just down the street, refugees buy vegetables, fruit and soft drinks from Kreshnik Lengu’s now-prospering sidewalk stall. His prices, like most in town, have been hiked, in part because transport costs have almost doubled.
``You can’t find work in Kukes. The factories are all closed. So I opened this place,″ says Lengu, 20.
Since some refugees are willing to pay what’s asked, van drivers have jacked up their fares from $5.30 to $10 for a one-way trip to or from the capital and chief supply point, Tirana.
An inordinate number of men still idle the days away at pool halls and cafes, sipping coffee and raki, a potent homemade spirit.
More enterprising locals have signed up as office staffers, drivers, interpreters, fixers and laborers with the more than 50 foreign organizations that have flocked to Kukes. The international media are likewise significant employers.
Money also flows into the pockets of local suppliers, like one baker who went into business two weeks ago. The U.N. World Food Program gives him free flour to turn out 3,000 loaves a day, which are then purchased by the agency and distributed in the camps.
While most of the foreign aid has been channeled directly to the refugees, the crisis is generating some lasting benefits for Kukes.
The United Arab Emirates has constructed an airfield and dug wells, U.S.-based International Medical Corps is training town doctors and the Tirana government is being compelled to improve communications.
Perched on a promontory above a lake in the shadows of snow-flecked mountains, Kukes is a dust-swept town of ugly concrete tenements set amid some of the most stunning scenery in the Balkans.
Traditionally neglected by the central government, its economy sputtered along during the 44-year-long communist era, when copper and chromium were mined and processed. Kukes also attracted tourists from the former Soviet bloc.
But under a centralized economy, little of the mineral wealth was recycled back. When the isolationist regime of Communist dictator Enver Hoxha ended in 1990, enraged citizens destroyed the factories.
Their stark, concrete skeletons remain, and won’t be restored without outside investment, town spokesman Peca said _ and that won’t come unless basic infrastructure is put into place. Kukes, he points out, is still a 10-hour truck journey over treacherous, potholed roads from Tirana.
Still, Kukes residents are hoping that if the Kosovo crisis lasts long enough, their windfall will translate into long-term prosperity.