In the final days of 1989, as communism faltered throughout Eastern Europe, Albania was facing upheavals too. The country had been isolated for decades, maintaining an antagonistic stance not only with the West but also against the fellow travelers in Soviet Union, China, and Yugoslavia.
The collapse of the communist regime there would trigger the largest population movement seen in Europe since the Second World War. In 1990, hundreds of men, women, and children sought asylum in Western embassies in Tirana, and many were resettled through a UN-brokered plan. However, what began as a trickle soon became a flood. By early 1991, tens of thousands of people were converging on the Albanian Adriatic littoral, hijacking boats and vessels to cross to southern Italy.
Amidst this febrile environment, Albania held its first free elections in 46 years in March 1991. However, many doubted that the new democractic government would bring any meaningful change. More maritime exoduses followed, culminating in the voyage of the Vlora in August 1991.
The Vlora had recently returned from a trip to Cuba, carrying a cargo of sugar. Crowds broke into the dock and forced the captain to sail to Italy. Fearing for his life, he complied, setting out with only the boat’s supplementary motor (Vlora was in docks to repair its primary motor), and without radar. The boat had a capacity of around 3,000, but it carried nearly 20,000 people on that voyage. Its destination was the port of Brindisi, where thousands of Albanian refugees had successfully disembarked in March. This time, however, the Italian authorities ordered the ship to turn away and set course for Bari.
In her biting memoir of the end of communism in Albania, “Free: Coming of Age at the End of History,” Lea Ypi remembers:
“On the screen of the small colour television we had recently bought, I saw the dozens of men who had managed to climb to the tops of the masts, half naked, with sweat dripping down their necks, their faces dirty and badly shaven, their hair grown long at the back, in mullet fashion. Standing there precariously, struggling to hold on, they looked like the self-proclaimed generals of an army that had lost its morale before the battle had even started. They waved their arms senselessly at the television cameras, shouting, “Amico, let us exit!,” “Let us disembark!,” “We are hungry, amico!,” “We need water!” Above them hovered two or three helicopters. Under them, on the deck, swayed a sea of people: thousands of men, women, and children, scorched from the heat, injured from waiting in close quarters, pushing one another, wailing, desperately attempting to leave the boat. Squeezed inside the cabins, other passengers perched on the windows, gestured or shouted instructions to those on the deck, encouraging them to dive into the water. Some followed the advice and were arrested. Others managed to escape. The rest continued to scream: that they had consumed the last lumps of sugar from the cargo hold several hours before, that many people were severely dehydrated and were drinking sea water, that there were pregnant women on board.
…. A journey of about seven hours lasted thirty-six. When the disembarkation orders finally arrived, the crowds were forced into buses and locked in a disused stadium, guarded by police. Those who tried to leave were arrested and beaten. Packaged food and bottles of water were dropped by helicopter. Inside, men, women, and children fought to reach the supplies. Some people had brought knives with them and started to use them to stab other people to get their way.”
The Italian government’s policy was deportation by all means. It argued that since Albania was no longer a communist state, the arrivals were economic migrants rather than asylum seekers. It requisitioned private ferries to transport them back to Albania.
The entire saga, dubbed the “Albanian Invasion” by the Italian press, was vividly chronicled in photo accounts of the day, reflecting changing attitudes in Italy.
A day before the first wave of immigrants arrived on March 6, 1991, the Milanese paper Il Giorno featured a picture of an Albanian couple in Brindisi celebrating their son’s first birthday. In the photo, the family was smiling, composed, and well-dressed – just like any ordinary Italian family, a picture of seamless integration. Yet, the accompanying headlines warned, “The Albanian Wave Does Not Stop, as Thousands of Refugees Wait in the Ports of Durres and Vlore.”
Two days later, Il Giorno would carry a photo by AP photographer Massimo Sambucetti of Albanians jumping ashore from a ship that reached Brindisi after running a blockade. That picture would be on the front page of almost every Italian daily, as well as many international papers.
Then came the Vlora, with its overloaded crowd of migrants. “Invasion,” thundered many papers, reaching for Dante’s Divine Comedy and its images of damnation and Charon’s ferries teeming with condemned souls in a boat to Hell. The photo (first photo, topmost) by Luca Turi was one among many that underscored those allusions.
The day after the Vlora arrived in Bari, Sambucetti would capture an iconic image of an Italian policeman in riot gear standing guard over an exhausted, half-naked Albanian lying at his feet. Sambucetti recalled that day:
I was in my hotel room, transmitting the pictures of the Vlora, which had just been brought to me by our Bari stringer Luca Turi, and that showed thousands of refugees just disembarked and waiting on the quays of the harbor. All of a sudden, a rattle coming from upstairs shook the building. I rushed out of my room to check what was causing all that noise and saw dozens, maybe hundreds, of policemen in anti-riot gear running down the stairs.
“Where are you going?” I shout. “There is a revolt in the stadium!” A policeman answered me. I just had the time to grab my cameras, queue a couple of pictures in the Leafax and run to the stadium
[Leafax enabled Sambucetti to transmit around a dozen pictures over analog telephone lines — a black-and-white image taking 10 minutes and a color one about 30 minutes].
Sambucetti’s picture (above) would be featured around the world. British newspaper Independent’s headlineabove it read: “Incompetence and Brutality.” Italy’s president, Francesco Cossiga, denounced it, arguing that the photo misrepresented Italy as an unwelcoming country. The AP photos would be the finalists for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for spot news coverage and Sambucetti won the 1992 Baia Chia Photojournalism Award.
The crisis dragged on, with Italy pressuring the Albanian government to put its ports under military control and halting passenger trains to stop the flow of emigrants. Italy also offered financial aid to Albania to take back the immigrants. Undocumented immigration continued on a smaller scale, using the cover of night and speedboats organized by criminal gangs. Approximately 800,000 people are estimated to have left Albania between 1989 and 2001, which was twenty percent of the population, and about half went to Italy.
Over time, the immigrants assimilated well into Italian society. However, as debates over African and Levantine migration into Europe grew, the Albanian integration was held up as an exception rather than the rule. Justifications followed on how the Albanians already knew Italian as a second or third language, as they intercepted Italian TV channels even during the Cold War, and how even though they were Muslim, they were not very attached to religion.
The images of that “invasion” summer were largely forgotten. “In March, they said we were all victims. They accepted us. In August, they looked at us as if we were some kind of menace, like we were about to eat their children, one neighbor told Lea Ypi.
As for Luca Turi’s photos, during later bouts of migrantion crises, they were reused to accompany various fake news stories about contemporary refugee populations (Africans, Muslims, Syrians), shared not only by fringe groups but also by far-right parties and politicians.
For Ypi, integration was inevitable:
“The West had spent decades criticizing the East for its closed borders, funding campaigns to demand freedom of movement, condemning the immorality of states committed to restricting the right to exit. Our exiles used to be received as heroes. Now they were treated like criminals.
Perhaps freedom of movement had never really mattered. It was easy to defend it when someone else was doing the dirty work of imprisonment. But what value does the right to exit have if there is no right to enter? Were borders and walls reprehensible only when they served to keep people in, as opposed to keeping them out? The border guards, the patrol boats, the detention and repression of immigrants that were pioneered in southern Europe for the first time in those years would become standard practice over the coming decades. The West, initially unprepared for the arrival of thousands of people wanting a different future, would soon perfect a system for excluding the most vulnerable and attracting the more skilled, all the while defending borders to “protect our way of life.” And yet, those who sought to emigrate did so because they were attracted to that way of life. Far from posing a threat to the system, they were its most ardent supporters.
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