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Italian Soldiers Cracking Albanian Isolationism With Food Aid

October 19, 1991

TIRANA, Albania (AP) _ Foreign troops roam all over this country that was once closed tightly to the world. They come as friends with food for a poor and powerless people caught in the rubble of a failed socialist experiment.

Italian-chartered freighters in Durres and Vlora harbors each day unload hundreds of tons of food donated by Italy. Sacks of wheat and sugar are stacked on Italian army trucks and distributed throughout Albania by Italian soldiers.

The late Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha and his Communist successors stopped the clock in Albania decades ago, cut this country off from the world and portrayed foreigners as the sworn enemies of Albanian socialism.

The countryside is littered with the hard, hollow relics of Hoxha’s policy:

Empty gun emplacements look down on valleys from broken hills. Farms are sown with concrete pillboxes that guard villages, roads or rail lines. They were constant reminders of the external threat the government said justified hardship and repression.

The foreign troops have finally come, but with butter instead of bullets.

The food-laden army trucks bearing the red, white and green of the Italian flag edge past ox carts piled high with fodder on Albania’s narrow roads.

Peasants hacking at the reluctant earth with long-handled hoes stop their labor to gape at the passing foreigners. A few wave, most simply stare.

Italian soldiers wave back at the peasants. They smoke and joke with Albanian soldiers guarding the port. Most are hand-picked veterans of the allied relief effort for Iraqi Kurds. Some are doing odd jobs, such as the paratroop colonel supervising the unloading of the ships.

″There is an old Albanian saying that goes, ‘When you have friends, in difficult times they are near,’ ″ said Agim Mero, Albania’s minister of internal commerce.

He was thanking Italian Deputy Foreign Minister Claudio Vitalone for the Italian aid and for the 700 troops, 470 army trucks and three large helicopters sent to distribute the relief supplies.

Vitalone, who met Wednesday with President Ramiz Alia, said the Albanians are impressed with the Italian operation and want even more Italian soldiers to handle an expected influx of aid from other countries.

Italy has delivered more than 16,000 tons of food, and the figure is expected to reach 34,000 tons before November and 127,000 tons by year’s end.

Italian army doctors and nurses treat Albanians in two field hospitals at Durres and Vlora. Italy also sent school books printed in Albanian, paper and ink, notebooks, pens and pencils.

Salvatore Ficara, the Foreign Ministry’s coordinator of the relief effort, said the Italian aid totals more than $155 million, including $96.4 million in food and $47 million to help refurbish Albanian industry.

Italy’s generosity, however, is not an exercise in simple philanthropy.

″You must not forget we were invaded,″ said Ficara, referring to three waves of desperate Albanian boat people who flooded Italian shores earlier this year.

Albanian workers earn an average of 78 cents a day. The country’s industry is antiquated. Its agricultural usually powered by horses or oxen.

Italy, seeking to prevent further tides of refugees, is asking its European partners to help improve conditions in Europe’s poorest country.

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