By Alban Bala and Ulpiana Lama
Over the past few years, relations between Albania and neighboring Greece have shown marked improvement. But the two countries are still officially riven by the World War II-era Law of War imposed by Athens after Albania allowed Italian soldiers to transit its territory en route to Greece. The law today is largely a formality and has not prevented the two countries from signing a friendship and cooperation treaty and enjoying healthy trade relations. But until Athens agrees to dissolve the war law, it will continue to control the land and property of some 30,000 mostly Muslim Albanians who were forcibly deported from the province of Chameria in 1944-45. RFE/RL correspondents Alban Bala and Ulpiana Lama report from Tirana and Prague.
Tirana; Prague, 19 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Qani Biraci, a 65-year-old musician living in the Albanian capital Tirana, was just 7-years-old when he and his parents -- along with some 30,000 mostly Muslim Albanians -- were forcibly expelled from the province of Chameria in Greece.
The expulsion followed Greece's declaration of a Law of War in 1940, after Athens accused Tirana of allowing Italian forces to cross through Albania to Greece. The war law had a brutal impact on the ethnic Albanians of Chameria, or Chams -- with Greek army and paramilitary troops forcibly emptying towns in a sweep of violence that left many residents dead and mutilated. Biraci still remembers vividly his own experience nearly 60 years ago:
"When I was seven, I left the town of Filat together with my parents. Passing through [one neighborhood], where the biggest slaughter took place, I witnessed a tragedy. Severed heads, pregnant women whose unborn children were cut out of their body and crushed on the ground -- such monstrous crimes. I remember the cleavers, the long carving knives that they used to sharpen in front of us."
Biraci now heads the Political Association of Chams, based in Tirana. The group's aim is to help forcibly expelled Albanians to regain Greek citizenship and reclaim some 200,000 hectares of land and property held by Athens since the expulsions. Biraci's group says the value of the sequestered property in Chameria -- also known by its Greek name of Thesprotia -- amounts to $2.8 billion.
Albania has repeatedly sought to resolve the Chams issue by pressing Greece to lift the war law. Recently, Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano addressed the Chameria question during a meeting with Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Andreas Loverdos.
Greece, however, has consistently dismissed the Chams question. Following a Chams rally in Tirana last year, a Greek Foreign Ministry official said: "There is no Cham issue, and certain parties want to contribute to the destabilization of the region by raising such nonexistent issues. Such matters have been dealt with by history."
Furthermore, a law on the registration of assets passed in 1998 has left Chams with no legal way to reclaim seized property other than through a lengthy and expensive court procedure.
But Albanian authorities refuse to let the matter rest. Republican parliamentary Deputy Sabri Godo is the country's most outspoken politician on the Chams issue. He says the issue is sufficiently important to take to an international court should the two countries fail to resolve it on a bilateral level:
"I am of the opinion that the Albanian government, the Albanian parliament, should insist on opening discussions in the proper time and manner. We are not conditioning Greece for further development of relations. If the Greeks are going to categorically refuse to confront this very real problem, then the assistance of a third party might be required."
Martin Vulaj is a member of the National Albanian American Council in New York, which is lobbying to bring the Chams question before the U.S. Congress. Vulaj says he hopes to move the Chams issue out of the purely political realm and treat it as more of a human rights issue. He says the U.S. may prove a valuable partner in Albania's struggle to see rights and property restored to displaced Chams:
"I think that the U.S. Congress can help in a lot of ways. Greece is a U.S. ally -- they're both NATO members, so they have strong relations. And Albania has quickly emerged as a stronger ally for the U.S. in the Balkans as well. And U.S. credibility in both nations and America's status as an honest intermediary can facilitate the discussions and encourage resolutions of not only the [Chams] matter but other issues as well, and can foster an environment where proper relationships can be formed."
Some say unyielding attitudes in Greece may be tied to concern that the restoration of property in the northern Chameria province may pave the way for a reconfiguration of the Greek-Albanian border. But Mentor Nazarko, a spokesman for former Albanian President Rexhep Meidani, dismisses such speculation:
"In asking for the return of or compensation for their land and property, Albanians are in no way asking for a redefinition of the border, absolutely not. The Greeks might be interested in presenting this way in order to cast Albanians in a negative light, but in fact Albanians' only claim is on the question of property rights."
Biraci of the Chams political association in Tirana agrees, saying: "All we are asking for is the return of our land, the recognition of our legal property rights."