Sleepless in Thumanë/Durrës - Kosovo 2.0
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Sleepless in Thumanë/Durrës

Photographing a tragedy.

By - 04.12.2019

Prishtina, November 26 (3 a.m.) 

I return home from a colleague’s birthday party. I’m pretty drunk. 

I go about my routine of having my last cigarette of the night while spinning a record on my cheap vinyl player before turning in for the night.

All of a sudden, everything starts spinning around me… not necessarily out of the ordinary considering the amount I’ve consumed. But this was different. 

It lasts a bit more than usual, more than 20 seconds, and I wonder whether something more profound is happening to me. Is it a stroke…? This must be it!

Prishtina, November 26 (9 a.m.)

I wake up, hungover, to a call from my colleague. “Are you coming? A team of us are heading to Albania.” I still don’t know what’s happened, or what he’s talking about. “Dude — earthquake! Buildings have collapsed and all sorts of shit. Man… Are you coming?!”

Next thing, me and my friend are in his Golf, heading to Albania to document what’s happening. We’re sleepless, and I’m unsettled by the few things I’ve caught on TV — I need to be there myself.

We cross the border and find ourselves in a column of cars, all with hazard lights flashing. We join them, thinking it may help us to get there more quickly. It does. We stop at the gas station and finally meet our “entourage.” It’s a group of guys from Prizren who have organized and loaded up mini vans with clothes, blankets, water. 

They’re heading to Thumanë, where disaster has struck.

Thumanë, November 26 (9 p.m.)

We arrive in Thumanë. There’s darkness all around. I get out of the car and ask the first person I meet: “Where is it?” — “I’ve just arrived from Korça,” he tells me. “I don’t know myself.”

The village is pretty small and it wouldn’t take long to get your bearings, even with all the lights out. But there’s a beam of light pointing to the center of the tragedy.

We pass a camp of around 50 tents being erected for those forced from their homes. It’s a familiar sight to me and my mate from back in our refugee days in ’99. “Looks like a mini Bllace or Stenkovec,” he says, reading my mind. 

The small vans from Prizren unload their mountain of clothes, food and other essentials in the center of the camp.

We slowly make our way to the center of the disaster in Thumanë. 

At the worst hit building we find a squad of Greek firefighters still searching in the middle of the night, eagerly working on a part of the destroyed building — trying to save another life!

As the night wears on and they prepare to stop for the night, they get him/her. 

Tragically, it’s a body.

Durrës, November 26 (11 p.m.)

We head for the city of Durrës and get in touch with our fellow photographer friends who are already there, working. While driving to the city, filled with the hotels and cheap tourist sites well known to many Kosovar families from their summer vacations, the city looks largely intact except for the cracks running up buildings, up to the fifth floor. I wonder who would sleep there now.

As we pass a row of buildings, we see occasional buildings that have been smashed into the ground — they’re surrounded by many others that are still standing.

We meet the other photographers at a local bar, very near to the main disaster sites in Durrës. They’re filing their latest batch of images. All around them, the bar is full of locals, afraid to sleep in their flats.

Durrës, November 27 (3 a.m.)

Me and my fellow photographers are waiting like three crows in front of the rescue site at a collapsed hotel, seeing if the ongoing excavation may turn into an image of hope — a person saved, alive… an uplifting moment amongst all the tragedy… 

But no. 

Pulled from the flattened rubble of a building, that less than 24 hours earlier had been standing tall and proud, was the last casualty of the night.

The owner of the hotel. Another body.

“Where do you want to sleep? In another hotel that might come crashing down on us?”

Durrës, November 27 (3:30 a.m.)

Physically and emotionally exhausted, my friend decides to call it a night and suggests we book a hotel to sleep a bit. “Where do you want to sleep?” I ask. “In another hotel that might come crashing down on us in the aftershocks?” He sleeps in his car. 

I return to the bar with the sleepless locals, waiting for sunrise. 

A young married couple near the stove with a couple of elders have no idea what the next day will have in store for them… more insecurity? Returning home? Moving? 

Suddenly, somebody gets a call and their mobile vibrates on the table. He picks up the phone and answers with a half smile: “You had me scared it was another one!”