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Albania: Weapons-Collection Program Meets With Mixed Results

  • Jolyon Naegele

The United Nations Development Program, together with Albanian security forces, is engaged in an ongoing project to collect weapons from the public in exchange for developing the infrastructure of the impoverished country. As RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports, the program is having mixed results.

Tirana, 10 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- It has been four years since political infighting plunged Albania into violent anarchy and crowds looted the country's arms depots of more than half a million light weapons.

The United Nations estimates that civilians took 550,000 weapons, 1,500 million rounds of ammunition, and 3.5 million hand grenades from the depots.

Since then, Albanian police have managed to retrieve 180,000 of the looted small arms and light weapons. Legislation was passed allowing the public to return the weapons voluntarily. But the majority of the collection took place over the last two-and-a-half years with the help of the UN Development Program, or UNDP.

Although many of the looted arms -- chiefly Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles -- found their way to neighboring Kosovo and Macedonia, a number of the weapons remained in Albania, hidden in countless homes across the country. Grenades became a favored instrument for fishing, and the number of accidental shooting deaths increased.

UNDP launched its weapons-collection program in Albania after meeting with success in its first such effort, disarming child soldiers and ex-combatants in the West African state of Mali. Since starting the disarmament project in Albania in December 1998, UNDP has launched similar weapons-collection projects in the South Pacific's Solomon Islands as well as in Somalia and the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville).

Initially, the UNDP's Albanian pilot program was set in motion in some 100 villages in the central Gramsh district, with the goal of collecting approximately 10,000 weapons -- an estimated one weapon per family.

Alfred Moisiu is a former Albanian defense minister and currently heads the pro-NATO Albanian Atlantic Association. He says many Albanians are wary about handing over weapons and believe such a move may be premature:

"Most people are not agreeing to hand over the arms, the weapons, because the situation is still not secure here in our country. [And even if they did hand over the weapons] it is not a problem for the criminals for crime, because the criminals are able to find the weapons anyway."

UNDP workers, accompanied by Albanian police officers, went into the Gramsh villages and tried to raise public awareness among target groups -- such as women and young people -- of the dangers the weapons posed to family life, the local community, and society as a whole.

Johan Buwalda of the Netherlands is program manager for UNDP's Weapons in Exchange for Development Program in Albania. He says the cooperation between his organization and security officials from the country's Ministry of Public Order has improved the program's rate of success:

"Trust is also created by international assistance. When we are with the police, the people have more trust in the output of this project and [understand] that this is not just an action of the police and that the weapons will [not] be destroyed, or hidden, or used by other parties. So the involvement of UNDP in the collection itself is a very important issue. At the same time, we give the police more authority by providing equipment, vehicles, communications, and materials, so that at least [the public] sees that UNDP is behind them and is assisting the Ministry of Public Order for creating law and order in this country."

Nevertheless, Buwalda calls the Albanian police force "very poorly equipped" and says it lacks vehicles, suitable storage facilities, security regulations, and registration books for whatever weapons are being collected.

UNDP's public awareness information officer, Nora Kushti, says no real development can take place in Albania as long as large numbers of weapons remain in circulation. But persuasion remains a difficult task. In her words, "It takes time to change a person's mentality, and to disarm a person's mind."

She describes the Gramsh pilot program as being based on public awareness of both the benefits of handing over weapons and the economic incentives being offered.

Kushti says some $1 million were invested in Gramsh's roads, bridges, street lighting, and telephone lines. Residents were given a choice of the type of development -- road improvement, street lighting, or telephone lines -- that they wanted in exchange for handing over weapons.

Despite such incentives, however, UNDP and Albanian security forces failed to reach their goal of collecting 10,000 weapons in Gramsh district. When the project ended in 2000, they had amassed just 6,000 weapons and 137 tons of ammunition.

UNDP then launched two additional pilot projects in Elbasan and Diber, where program manager Buwalda notes that police had already begun collecting some weapons on their own:

"Of course the security issue is a main criteria [for going] to a particular area. We have decided to extend our weapons collection and we have asked the government which areas they'd like us to go to. At the same time, we formulate the criteria where we want to work and how we can work and what is actually needed to work."

Collections in the Elbasan and Diber districts totaled 6,500 weapons. The industrial area of Elbasan turned over weapons in quantities similar to Gramsh. But the Diber district proved more difficult. That district is isolated from the rest of the country by high mountains and bad roads, and is cut off from its historic administrative center and market, Debar (Diber), which lies just across the border in Macedonia. Such isolation -- paired with possible weapons-smuggling to Albanian insurgents in Macedonia -- meant relatively few arms were collected in the district.

"At least when we compare now we can say that Diber was not very fruitful in this way, in that the number of weapons we have collected is not a high amount of weapons. In the beginning we were actually told, 'Look, we are poor. If we have a weapon we'd like to sell it.'"

But rather than paying for weapons -- which UN officials say would have motivated people to steal -- UNDP instead offered Diber assistance in building local infrastructure, much as it had in Gramsh and Elbasan. Buwalda says that although the Albanian government claims all the weapons in the Diber area have been collected, local residents tell UNDP there are still weapons at large.

"We all know that weapons are not always at the same place. They are trafficked in different areas and in different directions. The Kosovo crisis has benefited from a number of weapons [from Albania]. The Macedonian crisis has benefited from them. We know that weapons have gone to Greece, to Italy. But you don't know how much has been returned and what was already [at large] within this civil population before the 550,000 weapons [were looted]. So it is still [a matter of] guessing."

Most of the collected weapons are destroyed at a designated site in Elbasan. The Albanian Defense Ministry, however, has reserved the right to keep any weapons it chooses. Museum-quality antique weapons, many pre-dating World War I -- such as numerous British Lee-Enfield rifles -- are also set aside.

UNDP plans to expand the weapons-collection program nationwide in November. Buwalda says the new program will be considerably broader in scope then the pilot projects:

"It is not only weapons collection. It is also weapons control. So we will assist the police in setting up a database, storing these data, managing the data, and we will exchange our experience and learn from the neighboring countries what their problems are and how we can serve them."

In a bid to expand its disarmament activities in the Balkans, UNDP plans to hold a regional workshop on arms collection in January 2002 with representatives from Albania and the former Yugoslav republics.

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