American missionary Von Golder admitted to being a little more ready to pay taxes this year after watching a Marine Corps CH-43 gunship lift off from Tirana last weekend with his family aboard. Mr. Golder's wife and three children were among more than 400 Americans evacuated from Albania after weeks of protests and rioting turned into civil skirmishes and wholesale looting.
"These are days of weeping and fear in Albania as the Lord does surgery on us," Mr. Golder wrote to friends via e-mail following his family's departure March 14. The collapse of pyramid investment schemes that has engulfed the country in anarchy threatens to undo fledgling Christian churches as well. Protestant churches have been legal in the former communist country for less than a decade; they have shallow roots to withstand the violence and deprivation now sweeping the country.
Mr. Golder, a church planter in the Balkan country since just before the fall of communism in 1991, felt he should stay on with recently converted Christians even as he sent his family to safety.
"I have been convicted by the mention in John 10:12 about the hired hand abandoning the sheep when the wolf comes," said Mr. Golder. "I saw this happening when pastors were forced to leave the cities in the South when the violence first broke out. We kept in daily phone contact with one of those churches, and they seemed to be fighting a losing battle with fear and despair. I don't believe that is right if it can be avoided."
Others have decided to remain at church-planting posts as well. Missionary Steve Galegor said he plans to stay on in Korce, another site of fighting. "It has been said that if we go now there is no need to come back," he said. "The issue of credibility is greatly at stake at this time."
David Allen, based in Tirana, also felt called to stay, but sent his wife and children home to Great Britain until stability returns. Nurse Heather Eley, along with two other American missionaries, will remain in Tirana as well, caring for 180 orphans.
American Mark Nyberg and his German co-worker, Peter Hoffman, are the only foreign workers remaining in the city of Vlore. Mr. Nyberg directs an orphanage run by AMG International, a Chattanooga-based interdenominational ministry, in Vlore. Sixty-six babies and small children now housed at the orphanage would have nowhere to go if the two foreigners agreed to be evacuated. But keeping the place running is risky as well. Two weeks ago, looters struck the orphanage's warehouse. They stole a year's supply of basic foodstuff and some equipment. With all supplies for the orphanage set to run out this week, and diesel fuel for its vehicles gone too, Mr. Nyberg is looking for ways to place the children in private homes temporarily.
Vlore is the second largest port in Albania. Five of nine companies involved in the pyramid schemes were based there, so it has been at the epicenter of chaos.
Even before communism, Albania was Europe's poorest country. With the Communists' fall in 1991, Albanians latched onto the risky pyramid ventures that briefly lured all of the former Eastern Bloc. The promise of impossibly high returns of up to 100 percent a month offered Albanians comforts they could only imagine during five decades of harsh Communist isolation. Up to 1 million of Albania's 3.2 million people poured between $1 billion and $2 billion into the pyramid schemes, most of which have now failed.
According to AMG's Tasos Ioannidis, the situation in Vlore is "desperate." Troops and tanks have surrounded the city since despair over the investment losses led to February protest demonstrations and the burning of banks and businesses involved in the fraudulent investment deals. Police actually left the city rather than defend the government of President Sali Berisha, who is seen as a dictator. When mob rule took hold, unrest spread to other cities in southern Albania as protesters raided military and police depots, stealing at least 20,000 weapons (journalists reported seeing 10-year-olds carrying Kalashnikovs) and raiding prisons to release inmates as far north as the capital of Tirana.
Like the rest of Albania, Vlore is now under a curfew, with shops and public places forced to close at 3 p.m. every day and public meetings of any kind banned. Outside news reports, too, are blacked out in the government-enforced state of emergency.
Even in Tirana, citizens expected to run out of bread this week; store owners removed many other supplies from the shelves to avoid looters.
Americans and Christians who want to stand up to the anarchy could find themselves its targets. Rich Westerners, or even those who appear to be by comparison, can become loathsome in a country where millions have lost their homes or their life savings in investment schemes. Those who were taken in may blame the Albanian government for not regulating the pyramid peddlers, but they also decry the capitalist model of open markets that made them possible in the first place. If President Berisha does step down, as protesters insist he must, he will likely be replaced by a socialist faction that tends toward communism.
A backlash against free enterprise--which cannot provide instant prosperity--is not confined to Albania. Other parts of Eastern Europe are feeling it as well, as get-rich-quick dreams face the need for perseverance. Particularly in the Balkans, political stability and prosperity have been overcome by what James Madison called the "mischiefs of faction."
Bulgaria endured a winter of street protests as one-third of the country's banks failed and inflation soared to 50 percent in January. "There is more money in mattresses than in banks," a missionary with Church of God World Missions said.
Bulgarians resorted to eating pigeon when bread became unavailable for several weeks; now a loaf costs the equivalent of $15. An interim government formed in anticipation of April elections announced government austerity measures last week that will include laying off 58,000 government workers. As Bulgarians prepare for things to get worse before they improve, communism looks better than ever to some. "We had no shortages then," one street protester with a short memory said.
In Yugoslavia, months of street protests have forced Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to acknowledge opposition victories in local elections, but he may lose power in national elections later this year. The hardline socialist government's failure to enact economic reforms, however, means more hardship ahead no matter who is at the reins.
Even in the Czech Republic, on the eve of admission to the European Union and NATO, economic reform is at a standstill as a coalition government led by President Vaclav Havel faces increasing pressure from leftist parties. Teachers plan to strike through the end of March, demanding a 20 percent increase in pay.
Slow economic progress is not holding back the march of modern technology. Internet access in Albania slowed government attempts at a crackdown. Like Yugoslavia in the midst of turmoil earlier this year, Western news is reaching the country via computers in spite of a broadcast blackout. Electronic mail allowed many to make plans to exit the country and find places of refuge in nearby Italy or Greece, and even to know which roads were the safest to take out of the country. The biggest news for Albania's missionaries last week was the location of Mission Aviation Fellowship's Albanian Encouragement Project. The e-mail, post office, and news service for missionaries was forced into hiding to keep its equipment from the hands of looters. Even so, said director David Fyock, MAF's system was "running on overdrive" with news and prayer requests.
Relatives of the Golder family, too, saw the benefits of instant technology when Mr. Golder and his family appeared briefly on CNN. Sue Golder's mother, Gladys Nicol, saw her daughter and grandchildren on the news network as they were preparing to be evacuated near the U.S. embassy. Mrs. Nicol knew they were trying to get out of the country, but the helmets on her grandchildren's heads--pictured for her in the States through satellite technology--were a sure sign they were on their way.