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After Days of Suffering, Refugees Desperate to Leave Italy

August 11, 1991

BARI, Italy (AP) _ Hungry, exhausted and dehydrated after four days under a broiling sun, groups of Albanians on Sunday battled each other and police to board buses to return to the homeland they fled.

But others promised to defy the Italian government’s hard-line policy toward the 12,000 would-be refugees who crossed the Adriatic Sea last week.

Some Albanians being kept at a soccer stadium in Bari brandished sticks and wooden rods to keep away police.

Authorities hoped to send nearly all the approximately 5,000 remaining Albanians back to their impoverished homeland on Sunday.

The Interior Ministry said the operation was moving speedily toward conclusion with the cooperation of the Albanian government. The ministry said there had been 50 repatriation flights on Saturday and aircraft were leaving every 15 minutes for Tirana on Sunday.

Italy, which has received three big waves of Albanian boat people in the past year, hopes that the forced repatriation will discourage others from coming. It allowed the previous arrivals to stay.

At the Bari port, where at least 3,000 Albanians had been jammed together for four days with little food, many Albanians said their dream of a new life in Italy had become a nightmare.

″We are all hungry. Everyone has sunstroke. There are no bathrooms, no beds, nothing, nothing, nothing,″ protested Dr. Lambi Lalla of Durres, one of the refugees.

″Before no one wanted to get on the bus. But now we all want to.″

When buses to an Albania-bound ship arrived, youths broke through police lines to clamber aboard. Several Albanians carried limp, weakened friends onto the vehicles, their ribs outlined against sweat-soaked T-shirts.

Scenes of misery abounded on the dock. Dozens of Albanians, their feet black with grime and their hair matted, lay on the concrete dock, overcome by the sun.

The stench of urine mingled with the sugary smell of decay.

Young men, many wearing only trousers or shorts, scuffled with each other or with police, who waved sections of rubber hose to hold them back.

″They fight to get on the bus to get to a plane″ to Albania, said army Lt. Col. Sabino Cuccovillo, on the dock.

At one point, as food was being distributed, dozens of youths on a two- story high wall tore off chunks of concrete and hurled them at police, witnesses said. The Albanians below charged the officers, who fired in the air and launched tear gas canisters, according to witnesses.

One soldier, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the refugees had been demanding water.

Twenty police officers were injured, with at least seven sent to the hospital for stitches, said Dr. Francesco De Robertis of the first aid team at the port.

Clashes also broke out at a soccer stadium in town where about 2,000 Albanians were being held. Police with truncheons battled stone-throwing Albanians. No serious injuries were reported.

Outside the stadium, about 100 Albanians still wearing their green army uniforms sat in the sun, some debating what kind of jail term they would receive if they returned.

One, who identified himself only as Adriano, was asked what he would do if he was sent back.

″I’ll kill myself,″ he said, drawing a finger across his throat.

Army Brig. Gen. Guilio Fraticelli, watching the Albanians, said he did not know how the Italian military would get some to leave.

″These are people who have nothing to lose, and they know we are Italians ... they know we can’t go beyond certain limits,″ he said.

Nearly all the Albanians were young men seeking work. They complained of growing poverty in their country emerging from four decades of communism.

″With what we earn in a day, we can’t eat,″ said Sazan Kalesha, a 32- year-old factor worker. ″You should see how we live. It is better to take a pistol to your head and kill yourself.″

Pope John Paul II on Sunday called on the international community to provide more aid to Albania.

″No one can remain indifferent to the dramatic images of the men, of the women and of entire families that have arrived on the shores of southern Italy.″

Update hourly