In-depth | Earthquake

Aftershocks in Albania’s devastated communities

By - 30.11.2019

Relief efforts marred by lack of coordination and official inefficiency.

Around noon, on a cold Wednesday, a few rays of sunshine caressed a big teddy bear that sat on top of a pile of bags in Prishtina’s Zahir Pajaziti square. 

As in other collection points around the capital, and other towns and cities all around Kosovo, the bags kept on coming, filled with food, clothes, blankets and all other kinds of essentials that residents were donating for the victims of the 6.4 magnitude earthquake that had hit western Albania early the previous morning.

But it was the teddy bear that stood out for the simple fact that it was more of a present than a donation; on some level it represented the affection and solidarity shown toward Albania these days.

Plisat, KF Prishtina’s fan group, were into the second day of a mobilization campaign aimed at providing an immediate impact on the relief efforts in the most affected areas of Durrës and surrounding villages. Cooperating with various companies and volunteers, they had already been able to send around five loads of supplies. 

By the time we visited the site, less than 36 hours after the quake had struck, a sixth load — a double-decker bus and two trailers — was ready to depart for Albania.

From Termokiss, the social community that served as another ad hoc collection point for people willing to donate, four people had already set out for Albania, equipped with supplies with the intention of setting up a mobile kitchen in one of the affected areas.

The devastated village

By the time dusk arrived, we were in Thumanë, the village that had suffered the greatest loss of life and that by now had turned into a scene of sorrow and insecurity. 

A visibly damaged mosque in the center of the village seemed to tell its own story of what had happened. Amongst it all, the many cars weaving through the village’s narrow, snaking roads caused a sense of deep urgency. 

After a number of turns, we arrived at the main rescue site: Hundreds of people quickly darting along the narrow road from the center to the place where two tall communist era apartment blocks had been sliced vertically in half. 

They were surrounded by heavy machinery and firefighters, media people and curious onlookers. The scene evoked that feeling you get as a child when you look down at the dirt and spot the crowds of ants busily working around their tiny, slightly elevated holes.

An excavator was working carefully in the spotlight beams under the guidance of Kosovo Security Force (KSF) personnel, who had been immediately deployed on the morning of November 26; more than 50 KSF members trained to deal with urban response to natural disasters were on the ground in different parts of the affected areas.

Police tape marking the safety perimeter kept journalists and bystanders away from the working site as firefighters and rescue teams carefully searched for survivors trapped beneath the rubble. But, almost 48 hours after the major tremor had hit, hopes that anybody might still get out alive were rapidly fading with time. 

The village of Thumanë has suffered the greatest loss of life in the 6.4 magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of Albania in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

Rumors were circulating that the authorities had located another body. By this point, 14 bodies had already been recovered from the ruins in Thumanë. By the weekend, the death toll here would reach 26.

An ambulance was called closer to the rubble and the excavator paused. The tension in the small gathering of people nervously looking on at the six-storey building instantly grew. Trucks of KSF troops were deployed in between the two main rescue sites.

In a guilt-filled moment of calm, I observed the grey building that was only half standing. Rooms and other spaces of the apartments were still visible, although darkness had by now completely taken over. Pieces of furniture, that until 3:54 a.m. on Tuesday morning had been an intimate part of people’s private homes.

In one of the rooms on the fifth floor, an undisturbed handbag was still hanging eerily where it had been placed; in that single scene was a deep sense of irony about life and the things that we normally give so much importance.

A handbag hangs where its owner left it, while all around is devastation. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

A little away from the crowd, a man in his 50 invited me to sit near him on a cement platform. “I’m from Shkodër, my son is there, inside with the crane,” he said. 

After a little small talk about banal topics in the circumstances — Italian football and politics in both of our countries — he told me that the collapsed building, and many others built during the communist era, had not been constructed according to adequate safety standards.

“Buildings made during Enver Hoxha’s time were all built without any criteria — just enough to get them done,” he says. “Nothing around here is done right.”

A few meters down a short, muddy alley, the silhouette of another semi-destroyed building loomed over our heads. It had already been cleared by rescuers after a thorough search, and now people were nervously walking around outside it, smoking cigarettes. In one of its apartments, a hand-written “For Sale” placard in white capital letters was dangling, while clothes that had been hung out on balconies to dry were still hanging, unfazed. 

A couple of minutes later, the ambulance departed the site — another body had been pulled from the rubble.

Thumanë on a football field

On a football field, just a few meters to our left, was a makeshift camp run by local authorities and volunteers. It was providing temporary shelter for around 500 people, mostly from Thumanë, although imprecise record-keeping made it hard to know for sure. 

While the police guarding the main gate were reluctant to let us in the camp, we could see through the fence a clown entertaining a small circle of kids, observed by adults; pieces of clothes left here and there; and a stand that worked as a kitchen, serving food for people spending the nights in cold tents. 

A makeshift camp on a football pitch in Thumanë has been providing temporary shelter for up to 500 people, but those staying there complained that it was under-resourced. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

Just when we thought that things couldn’t get any worse, rain started to fall.

A little further up the road, a group of people yelling to each other inside a yard caught our attention. This, it turned out, was one of the improvised distribution centers in Thumanë, attempting to dispense any item at their disposal.

As we got closer, a man yelled out: “Are you staying at the camp or not?” Others, who were surrounding him, were asking for some of the much-needed emergency aid items. The “rule” now seemed to be that people within the camp should wait to get their share of aid after the others had been supplied.

Mattresses, in particular, were highly sought after — the tents in the camp, it seemed, were not well supplied.

A woman dressed in black was waiting just outside, looking at the men from beyond the fence, her heavily wrinkled face etched with suffering. 

Sixty-year-old Anxhelina Lena thanked us sincerely after hearing that we were from Kosovo and told us that she was staying at the camp, together with 11 members of her family — her husband, children and cousins. She explained that her house here in Thumanë is no longer habitable and that the family of 12 have just one mattress between them in a single tent.

“We need mattresses, but there’s nothing here anymore,” she says, pointing at the nearby building. “We’re not looking for anything beyond that, we’re here only to save our lives, we can’t complain. A family of seven will be buried tomorrow — that is the most terrible thing.”

Anxhelina Lena, 65, said her whole family of 12 were being forced to share just a single mattress in the camp in Thumanë. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

Just before we had arrived in Thumanë, one of dozens of aftershocks had hit. Anxhelina told us that the last one had been felt while she was back in her house after she’d returned to retrieve some items and move to the camp.

“My son is now guarding me everywhere, worried,” she told me. “He says: ‘Mother, every time you go near the house, there’s an earthquake.’” She shook my hand before quickly moving inside the building to get her name on some waiting list.

As we headed toward our car to depart Thumanë, the rain intensified.

A city in chaos

We had received information that a building near the Niko Dovana stadium in Durrës had been completely destroyed, claiming many lives. 

After a bit of a drive to the city with an ancient history, we located the building, which was now a pile of ruins. A safety perimeter had been set, while a Romanian team of rescuers and firefighters equipped with sniffer dogs were at the site, together with members of the Albanian Army.

The initial impression was that this building could not have had six floors. But local neighbors explained that the floors had collapsed under the soil, making it even more difficult for the rescue teams to search for victims or survivors. The adjacent buildings, although the same height, had escaped damage.

No one would ever dream of having to do that job.

The thorough search with the excavator accompanied by high-powered battery lights and the careful eyes of the rescuers had begun. The person with the main spotlight would point at the exact place where he wanted the excavator to dig, while carefully looking for clues or any sign of people trapped in the rubble. The idea of being in the place of that man handling the excavator sent a shiver down my spine; no one would ever dream of having to do that job.

Some things particularly seemed to be of interest to the firefighters: pictures, wallets, bags, books and mattresses. When one of the latter was caught in the excavator’s fork, the rescuers immediately halted the work and examined the mattress, only to find a red wallet nearby. The item was brought out to be examined by experts and family members or neighbors, presumably to help rescuers understand how many people could have been in the apartments when the earthquake hit.

Nearby, a small tent had been set up for some of the survivors that once lived in the building, and a bonfire was burning. The survivors looked heavily affected; children couldn’t stop crying while elderly people stayed in cars. 

Nearby a building that had been completely destroyed in Durrës, a small tent had been erected for survivors, who lit a fire to keep warm. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

The car had become a useful shelter for people with destroyed houses, and for others who were afraid to sleep in their homes; people sleeping and eating in cars was by now a frequent sight in the aftermath of this tragedy.

Hours later, after arriving at our Tirana hotel in the middle of the night, we immediately checked for updates. Since we had left the six-storey building in Durrës just a couple of hours ago, more bodies had been pulled from the rubble. 

To add to the general sense of insecurity all around, a 4.4 magnitude aftershock hit.

National Day given new meaning

The following day was November 28 — Albania’s National Flag Day. 

Normally a day of jubilant celebration, this year the flag represented only sorrow, and solidarity, as Albania sought to come to terms with one of the biggest crises in its modern history. 

The death toll was rising almost every hour, while the government appeared incapable of dealing with a crisis of such magnitude. The desperation — and frustration — among the survivors was rising.

The Mira Mare hotel site was one of the most badly hit areas of Durrës. Built only two years earlier, the hotel had completely collapsed in the quake, while other recently-built buildings in the beach zone, like Vila Verde and Hotel Lubjana, had also been heavily damaged to the point of no return.

The Mira Mare hotel was only built two years ago, but it was completely devastated in the earthquake. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

On Thursday, the site had attracted many people as rescue teams, comprised of Albanian, Turkish, Romanian and Croat units worked to locate the body of a 54-year-old man who was believed to be trapped under the rubble.

Dash Noka from the village of Sukë was standing near the rubble of Mira Mare, stepping on the sandy beach normally reserved for holiday makers and observing the rescue teams working on top of the former building. He had come to check on the condition of his brother’s property, another hotel just up the road that had luckily been left undamaged.

Smoking a cigarette, Dash explained that his seven-member family, including children and his parents, were still in his village and that his house had been destroyed. For the past two nights, they had slept in their yard, under the open sky, fearing to go into their own home. 

Dash Noka said his family in the village of Sukë had been completely abandoned by authorities, who were only interested in looking after people in positions of power. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

He was irritated with the government, particularly with the way in which aid was being distributed, and the fact that no one had visited his family in the village. 

“Aid reaches only the hands of the powerful,” he told us. “The directors of schools, people in high official positions whom we know well, while my house is destroyed and no one has come to see us.”

He explained that he hadn’t been able to obtain a tent from the authorities. The cold and rainy nights were already coming fast and their options looked limited.

“The earthquake warned us; there was trembling a couple of times before the big one,” he said, underlining that the vibrations had been felt shortly before 10 p.m. on Monday and two other times around 3 a.m. on Tuesday, before the main 6.4 magnitude that hit at around an hour later. “People should have left their homes then.”

Then, at around noon, the earth shook beneath our feet once again — a 5.2 magnitude aftershock had hit.

Right across the street, a small store vendor told me that the owner of the hotel and some other guests had managed to escape the collapsing building in a matter of seconds, only because their dog had become agitated and looked for a way out of the hotel.

The search at Mira Mare had drawn huge attention. People had surrounded the site from all angles, while cameras pointed on, waiting for any news. 

Then, at around noon, the earth shook beneath our feet once again — a 5.2 magnitude aftershock had hit. Immediately, there was palpable unrest in the area. The firm ground no longer seemed so strong. 

Everything else in that moment lost its meaning, like a word repeated too many times.

People left in limbo

We headed back to Durrës city center. 

On the way, we learnt that the quake we had felt shortly before had damaged the main hospital, causing huge distress among the patients who had been admitted after being injured in the main earthquake in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

Near the six-story building that we had visited the night before, by an apartment complex in neighborhood number 16, a man greeted us as we looked to pass through a narrow shortcut. Sixty-five-year-old Agron Lajthija was standing outside of his ground floor apartment. Once again, the moment he understood we were from Kosovo, we were in for a wholehearted welcome and warm words.

Agron and his wife had returned from the camp, where they had spent the night, coming to their damaged apartment to pick up a few items. After a brief chat, we were invited to enter their home to see the cracks in almost all of the rooms for ourselves. Both were scared to spend a minute inside of it, let alone an entire night sleeping.

“We stayed near the stadium, in a tent; we’re afraid to stay at home,” said Agron, visibly emotional and desperate. 

Many residents in Durrës are too afraid to return to their homes, after they were damaged in the earthquake. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

Originally from Kukës, but having lived in Durrës for 15 years, he told us that he was ready to go anywhere, simply to get away. Their preference, however, was to go to Kosovo, and they had already made enquiries about going there by bus.

“My son and daughter are in Elbasan, but we cannot go there…” they said in unison. 

Just as we prepared to shake hands and finish the conversation, all the carefully crafted curtains of self-control fell, and Agron broke down.

“We’re in a very bad situation,” he mumbled, in tears. “There’s nowhere to go.”

Difficulties distributing aid

A small camp with around 10 tents had been set up near the Niko Dovana stadium, across the street from the Leonik Tomeo School that serves as a distribution point for donations of food and other materials coming mostly from Kosovo and North Macedonia. 

In front of the metal school doors, many people were gathered looking for things that could be of use to them these days. After another cold night, the most sought-after items were blankets.

After a few minutes, we managed to get in.

Durrës residents left unable to return to their homes after the earthquake have sought emergency aid from the distribution point set up at the Leonik Tomeo School. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

Vehicles with Kosovo registration plates arrived frequently, filled with any kind of aid transported to Durrës by volunteers. Red Cross volunteers and members of the Municipality of Durrës were at the school, trying to manage the overwhelming amount of deliveries — the environment was completely void of any kind of organizational structure or effective planning. 

As we were there, more cars from Kosovo arrived and parked in front of the school, near a pile of aid that had been unloaded earlier in the day. Volunteers quickly established a line and got the stuff inside the school, where other volunteers sorted through the delivery and filled the various stacks of food and clothes.

Gazmend Kosumi, one of the volunteers who had taken days off from work and arrived the day before from Kosovo, was frustrated by those responsible for running the center, explaining that aid was being delivered to people without any selection having taken place, and that there were cases when some individuals had taken more than what was needed.

“There’s no organizational planning in order to know who needs the stuff and who doesn’t,” he said, adding that the help arrived in tons, but the disbursement was failing at every level.

Gazmend Kosumi took a week off work in Kosovo to lend a helping hand in Durrës, but he said he is frustrated with a lack of organization from officials. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

“Yesterday, when I gave a kid a sandwich through the grill on these doors, his eyes lit up — his soul came to life,” he said.

As we quickly hustled out of the main door through the group of people standing outside, a woman saw my journalist’s badge and assumed we were from Kosovo working with the volunteers. A hearty salute followed: “Ah, may God help you, inshallah.”

At the camp near the stadium, there was more chaos. 

One of the tents was serving as a distribution point, and blankets were being given away by volunteers to a group of people pushing each other to get one. A man walking away with three packed blankets was confronted by others who didn’t get any or who had managed to take only one per person. 

An ugly, verbal confrontation followed, while many people around murmured in discontent about the way the situation was being handled. 

The land trembles, the skies open

By afternoon we found ourselves on a muddy country road outside of Krujë. We were heading to a village named Bubq, which had suffered a lot of material damage. Fortunately, nobody here had lost their lives.

Near the village, a completely destroyed house warned us of the level of damage caused. In the center, at the municipal building, many people had gathered, waiting for help to come from the central authorities. A few Albanian army trucks had made their way there, but local residents said that no one from other authorities had come to offer help or to assess the damage to their houses.

The residents without cars were sleeping in their yards or other open spaces, under the sky.

The need for tents was urgent, because most of the homes had been left unusable, including houses built no more than 10-15 years ago. The locals said they had been forced to sleep in cars, causing their legs to hurt from the lack of space and inadequate blood circulation.

After a while, two men drove us to their neighborhood, a couple hundred meters up the road.

Every house on that road was either uninhabitable or severely cracked. The residents without cars were sleeping in their yards or other open spaces, under the sky.

The first house we checked was where Burim Prrini and his family used to live. An old, single-storey building with a heavily damaged roof and walls, now uninhabitable and waiting to be demolished. From within, we could see that Burim, with the help of others, had already cleared the house. Now, shelter was his main concern.

“We’re well off for food, but we have no place to stay or spend the nights,” he said.

Burim’s neighbors, Gani Daci and Indrit Preni, used to inhabit a small house with separate entrances just down the road. The amount of destruction had also left their two families without a roof over their heads.

Indrit Preni is concerned for the health of his three children, after damage to the family home has left them sleeping in the open air with winter fast approaching. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

Indrit lived with his wife and three children. Gani also has three children. Now, with the deteriorating weather not helping, they were scared that their kids could get sick.

Further up the road, another house caught my eye. It looked new and not visibly damaged from outside, but I quickly understood that I was wrong. The house was damaged from within, mostly at the structural joints and main walls. 

Hasan Rrushi and his family were sorting through stuff in the yard when we greeted them.

Hasan explained that he built this house around 10 years ago and he never would have believed that this much damage could have been caused to it. He used to think that if some disaster were to strike, his house would be the one to shelter everyone in the neighborhood.

As his daughter showed me pictures of the damage inside the house, I asked him where they had spent the nights. They instantly pointed to a small car parked in front. “Seven people, all in there.”

Hasan said he only needed a tent and that leaving his home would never be an option. While he brought us some tangerines for the road back to Prishtina, we catch a short moment alone. 

“I’ve done everything through hard work,” he told me, as tears filled his eyes. “Now it’s all gone.”K

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

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