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A Presence in the Shadows: Albania's Women Speak Out Against Violence

Where are the women?

As the rule of law fades from the streets of Albania, men of all ages roam the streets, firing stolen Kalashnikov rifles into the air.

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But Albanian women seem invisible.

They can occasionally be spotted carrying bread and groceries, pulling reluctant children by the arm, or peering out of windows as their sons and husbands squander their looted ammunition in deafening rounds of gunfire.

When armed civilians gather for their morning meetings in the central square of southern towns such as Vlora, Gjirokaster, and Saranda, women are nowhere to be seen. They're in the back streets, talking to each other in small clusters, trying to maintain order in their households as food supplies dwindle and bakeries shut down.

"I don't have time to shoot," says Meri, a young mother of three in rebel-controlled Gjirokaster as her husband sits in a cafe cleaning his Kalashnikov. "And if I had the time, I wouldn't shoot." Her friends refuse to talk. "There," one woman says, pointing at her teenage son, "Talk to him."

In Tirana, young women have disappeared from public. "I have been inside the house for the last four days," says Juela Mecani, a young woman who hosts two of the most popular shows on government-controlled Albanian television. "My father doesn't let me out."

In the north, an insular region that has had little or no contact with the outside world over the past 50 years, women inhabit a world about which little is known. "Women's voices are very weak here," says Elsa Ballauri, head of the Albanian Human Rights Group. "But in the north it's even worse."

Yet the sense is that if women had a public voice, theirs would be a dissonant one. "I think these men with Kalashnikovs don't know what they're doing. For them it's like a holiday, shooting like mad. They're doing what they see in the movies," says Adriana Xhuveli, a Tirana resident with a degree in electrical engineering, also confined indoors.

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Her mother, Metime, agrees. "There is no reason to use these arms," she says. "We are only provoking bloodshed among ourselves."

Albanian television, Ms. Mecani says, has been running an ad warning parents to keep children away from the estimated half a million guns raided from Army warehouses. But, she adds, "it seems to me that in Albania the average age of children has increased dramatically. My friends call me all excited to say they've got a gun."

In Gjirokaster, women are mostly busy keeping their children away from stray bullets. "At first the children were terrified," says Ana, a grandmother of four, who keeps a vigilant eye on her ebullient two-year-old granddaughter. "Now they're used to the gunfire and they don't care. They would walk right into a bullet if we didn't watch them 24 hours a day. I said to my son, 'You're shooting like an idiot.' But he won't listen."

Asked about the perceived passivity of women in this stage of the armed revolt, men in the capital say the situation has moved beyond women's capacities. "First the women were out in the front line protesting [against the government]," says Blendi Fejziu, a reporter of Koha Jone, an opposition daily. "Now the situation is too heavy for them."

But few women would agree. "Let them shoot out their rage," says Mecani. "Then there will be calm, and we'll sit down and reason our way out of this."

Mecani, as well as many other women, believes the collapse of government-sponsored pyramid investment schemes is a mixed blessing.

"Maybe now people will understand that you don't make money sitting in cafe all day waiting for your monthly [interest] check to come in," she says. "We've all been talking about President Berisha ruining this country, but the truth is that we're all responsible."

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