[Religion News Service, March 24, 1997]
"Madness," writes the Rev. Luke Veronis, in one of his daily e‑mail messages from his beseiged apartment in Tirana, Albania. "It is as if the entire country has gone crazy. I want to think that things are slowly getting back to normal, but I am fooling myself."
Veronis, an Orthodox priest, grew up in Lancaster, Pa., but since his ordination he and his wife Faith have served as missionaries in the ravaged country of Albania. Forty‑five years of communism have left their mark, and some of the madness he sees predates the unrest of the last few weeks.
"We walk into a decrepit military hospital," he writes. "Dirt lies everywhere. Plaster falling from the walls. Windows and doors broken. Beds rusty. Mattresses with half the foam in them. Medical attendants, doctors, nurses, and visitors smoking everywhere; surgeons even smoke in the operating room."
Into this setting are brought people with the most senseless of injuries ‑‑ bullets that had been fired into the air, and came down to land in flesh.
"Eda, a 7‑year‑old girl, has a bullet in her stomach. Six days ago she was playing in the garden outside her home, and a bullet that had been shot up in the air came down and hit her. She has been with the bullet inside for six days, and only today are they going to operate."
In nearby beds are Valbona, 16, with a bullet in her back; Fiqeri, 35, with a bullet in his side; Shpend, 54, bullet in shoulder. The list goes on.
"Most of the people we visited were injured by chance, for no reason at all. Madness everywhere!"
Not all of the damage has been unintentional, though it is still senseless. The second‑largest library in the country, at the University of Agriculture, was burned, and the laboratories and computer rooms were destroyed. The orphanage at Korca was raided and "bandits stole everything, including the beds, and then ransacked the place."
Machine guns could be bought on the street for $20, or exchanged for food. Most of the country’s jails have been destroyed and the prisoners have escaped; most courthouses have been damaged, and judicial files burned.
While Faith and most of the other women and children have been evacuated, Veronis will stay behind, in solidarity with co‑workers, the Albanian people, and his archbishop.
An Orthodox visitor to Albania and friend of the priest, Sue Talley, describes Albanian Archbishop Anastasios as "a mighty man of God," but worries about the effect of this stressful situation on his health; the years that have brought courage and wisdom have taken their physical toll.
The archbishop recently appeared on local TV news broadcasts to deliver an appeal also read from the nation’s pulpits. He spoke to those who plunder orphanages and churches, who hurt the elderly and the innocent.
"Enough! This hysteria must stop!" he said. "It is unheard of for someone to protest against an injustice that was done to him by some in power, by doing injustice to others who are even weaker than he."
Unfortunately, though it is terribly wrong, it is not unheard of. Meaningless violence and unfocused revenge are all too familiar elements of human cruelty.
The present troubles in Albania have deep roots. Anastasios believes 45 years of communism "destroyed private initiative and cultivated hypocrisy and opportunism." And then, during the brief democratic era after the fall of communism, the deceptive lure of making easy money spread throughout the populace.
"Now that the people see the fraud, they are waking up from their sleep and they are driven to the other extreme: a destructive rage presented as protest," says Anastasios.
It’s not just a monetary or civil crisis, however, but a spiritual one.
"It has reminded me that we all have to conquer the evil that exists within us," Veronis writes. "Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said that the line of good and evil does not run between countries or ethnicities, but through the heart of each person. Thus, the answer here is not simply the change of a political system, but a radical change of people’s hearts.
"When things return to normal, I will focus more on people encountering Christ in the depths of their hearts. Not simply coming to church, following the rituals of the faith, but allowing Christ to live and move within us. Allowing him to recreate us into beings of love, truth, hope, mercy and grace!"
Adds his friend Talley: "Father Kosmas of Vlore, after 45 years of carrying the Word of God and Holy Communion to his people secretly by night, ended his testimony with these words, ‘Jesus Christ wins! Jesus Christ always wins!’ May the Lord soon cheer our hearts with better news, even as we continue our prayers for peace."
Amen, and amen.