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The Fishing Boats Are Gone, The Olives Unharvested

May 18, 1992

HIMARA, Albania (AP) _ Robbed of their boats, fishermen wandering the white-sand beaches of Albania’s idyllic southern riviera no longer bother with fishing tackle or nets. They use dynamite.

Since their boats were stolen by people trying to flee Albania’s abject poverty, the fishermen have taken to flinging explosives into the Ionian Sea in hope of striking schools of fish.

It is a desperate way to catch supper, but these are desperate times in Europe’s poorest country. The young are leaving, and those left behind survive on charity and hope tourism or links to neighboring Greece will save them.

Albania continues to reel from decades of harsh Stalinist rule and the chaotic aftermath of the regime’s collapse. Even the startling beauty of Albania’s isolated, palm-fringed Ionian coast cannot hide the grim privation. Hemmed in by limestone cliffs, the villagers of Himara traditionally have made a living from fishing, goat-herding and harvesting olives.

Now the village shops are closed. Most of the goats were eaten during the winter, and olives went largely unharvested for lack of workers.

One of the few goods available is the dynamite sold on the sly to fishermen by poorly paid marines from a nearby military base.

The Himariots boast a proud history. Their isolated region, an old center of Greek Orthodoxy, remained autonomous while the rest of Albania was under Ottoman Turk occupation until independence in 1913.

Today they depend on charities in neighboring Greece, which bring in soap and other necessities. Little aid reaches them along the treacherous road from Vlora, a port 30 miles to the north.

For Easter, one charity gave each family a chicken.

Many of the 3,000 residents have left, seeking a better life in Greece. ″Almost half the village, and about 90 percent of the young,″ are gone, said Qemal Stefan, a 47-year-old garage attendant.

His two teen-age sons fled once to Greece, were deported, then set off again across the rugged Pindus Mountains.

He has not heard from them for five months.

Among villagers left behind, the end of xenophobic Communist rule has allowed the long-stifled culture of the Greek minority to emerge.

Less than two years ago, it was a crime to speak Greek on Himara’s streets. Now, Albanian is rarely heard. People tune into Greek TV rather than broadcasts from Tirana, 130 miles to the north.

Even the graffiti hailing the end of dictatorship is in Greek.

It is part of a creeping Hellenization of southern Albania, where ethnic Greeks number anywhere from 60,000 to 400,000, depending on who gives the figures.

With the Greek resort island of Corfu visible in the distance - at one point it is fewer than three miles from the coast - it is little wonder that many see a tourist industry linked to Greece’s as their best chance for salvation.

The Albanian riviera’s stunning beauty and isolated beaches have plenty to offer.

But in impoverished towns like Himara, boats are not even allowed to dock in the harbor because they would be stolen by desperate would-be emigres.

″Even if they landed, we have no food to give them.″ said Stefan.

Things are not much better in Albania’s main southern resort of Saranda, where tourists still make occasional day trips from Corfu.

One recent day, a group of visitors huddled in front of the only hotel, beset by begging children as they awaited a bus back to their boat.

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