‘They are Humans’: Albania Memorializes Dramatic Exodus to Italy

This wasn't the first mass escape from Albania. A few months before, on March 6, 1991, several thousand more Albanians reached Italy after seizing cargo ships in the ports.

A year earlier, on July 1990, some 5,000 others took refuge in foreign embassies in the capital, Tirana. Thousands more crossed the land border to Greece.

However, this was the largest single exodus till then, and it took place months after the Communists had won Albania's first multiparty elections.

The first two waves of emigrants were mostly welcomed by Western countries.

Artist Jasmine Pignatelli explaining her work, "They are human". Photo: Vlora Municipality

Italy, Germany and other countries sent ships and planes to retrieve the several thousand Albanians who had invaded their embassies in Tirana in July 1990. Italy offered political asylum to those who arrived by ship on March 6.

But that welcome was not repeated. The Italian government declared that political persecution had ended in Albania with the first multiparty elections, four months earlier, while the Italian navy attempted to turn the Vlora back by blocking its entrance to the southern Italian port of Bari.

The captain of the Vlora didn't give in and got through. But the Italian army and police then isolated the emigrants in an old stadium and in a separate zone in the port, where food was thrown out from helicopters.

The entire place was effectively under the control of gangs, some of whom had a reputation for savage violence in their home country and who later met violent ends in the tumultuous 1990s.

"A week of hell followed," Iljazi remembers, describing the behaviour of the gangs among the emigrants. "We were cramped in a very small area...

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