A chain of massive explosions at an ammunition depot over the weekend kill 26 people and leave over 300 injured near the Tirana capital of Albania. Some 1,000 soldiers...

A chain of massive explosions at an ammunition depot over the weekend kill 26 people and leave over 300 injured near the Tirana capital of Albania. Some 1,000 soldiers and 500 policemen search for victims throughout the disaster zone, with unexploded shells and munitions from the communist-era military depot still littering the dangerous site. As the country declares a day of national mourning, three people are arrested for negligence.  (Tirana, Albania – Monday, March 17, 2008)

The 2008 Gërdec explosions occurred at approximately noon local time on Saturday 15 March 2008 at an ex-military ammunition depot in the village of Gërdec in the Vorë Municipality, Albania around 15 kilometers far away from Tirana. The explosions could be heard in the FYROM/Macedonian capital of Skopje, 170 km away from Tirana. A large fire caused a series of explosions that continued until 2 a.m. on late Sunday.

The main explosion, involving more than 400 tons of propellant in containers, destroyed hundreds of houses within a few kilometers from the depot and broke windows in cars on the Tirana-Durrës highway. Thousands of artillery shells, most of them unexploded, littered the area. The blast shattered all the windows of the terminal building at the country’s “Mother Teresa” only international airport, and all flights were suspended for some 40 minutes. Some 4,000 inhabitants of the zone were evacuated and offered shelter in state-owned resorts. The Government declared the zone a disaster area. According to subsequent investigations, a privately managed ammo dismantling process was ongoing in the area.
The number of the casualties climbs to 17 in the tragedy that occurred yesterday at noon in the weapons storehouse in Gërdec. A young woman at the age of 19 has passed away today in the hospital as a result of the suffered burns. The police sources informed that some of the workers that have been working in the storehouse are missing. It has been announced that a number of the wounded who are in life threatening condition will be transferred today in Puglia-Italy.
The latest blast occurred today at around 1:00/pm, but with a lower intensity and at around 2:00/pm a body was found under the rubble of one of the houses in Gërdec. It belonged to a male in his 40’ies and it is believed that he has been a private contracted guard, judging by his uniform. Another body had been found by the units of the military engineers at the very site of the blast but the identity remains unknown and the body has been send to the morgue in Tirana.
Anila Muka in picture. ©Vedat Xhymshiti, for THE Frontliner

Anila Muka in picture. ©Vedat Xhymshiti, for THE Frontliner

Anila Muka an inhabitant of Gërdec said that she knows nothing about the fate of her brother Arif. “They have sent Arif to Greece for further treatment. I am completely confused, I don’t know where my kids are; I have seen them in front of me as I was sheltered inside of a bunker, but after the yesterday’s second blast I have fainted and a few ours later when I woke up I didn’t find my son and my daughter who both are around 9 years old” She ads that it cannot be a coincidence that none of the employers of the American company was not present at the site exactly in the day of the blast. Mrs. Muka’s husband is a worker in this company and she still doesn’t know anything about his fate.

Another injured inhabitant who has suffered serious wounds in his head expresses his suspicion about the coincidence of the absence a cell phone network in the area as he bursts his emotions in words “We want a government that governs the people, we don’t want thieves, we don’t want traitors who would even trade our lives in the way that they did. This government should resign; it is an occupying government and we are being ruled by foreigners as a result of the anarchist management of this government that is harmful for the people”.

The units of the military engineers continue their search all over the village of Gërdec, putting red flags and sealing zones with red tape, which are the sites where the missiles have landed after being thrown in the air due to the blasts. Most of these missiles remain unexploded and pose a permanent threat for the lives of anybody who is situated in that area. Until these moments the march of the missing persons continues; the current figures put their number at 11. While the police haven’t permitted the inhabitants to return to their houses, the influx of the citizens of the town of Vorë hasn’t stopped, as they were taking clothes and basic supplies before heading towards Tirana, the capitol of Albania.
A shoe is left behind the stairs of an abandoned house in Gerdec, on March 16th, 2008, near the capital city of Albania. ©Vedat Xhymshiti, for THE Frontliner

A shoe is left behind the stairs of an abandoned house in Gerdec, on March 16th, 2008, near the capital city of Albania. ©Vedat Xhymshiti, for THE Frontliner

More than 2000 homes have been completely destroyed and 300 more have suffered heavy damage, while the Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha declared that very soon a commission will be established to asses the damage and that the state will rebuild the damaged houses of that area. On the other hand the entitled departments of the prosecuting authorities from the county of Durrës and Tirana have confirmed for ‘DagBladet’ that they have started their investigations on the case of yesterday’s blasts in Gërdec. Dozens of survivors have been subject to the investigation as well as Albanian employees of the American company who survived the gigantic explosion. The pair of the prosecuting authorities has confirmed for the agency that if the explosions would cease today, the group of the prosecutors is expected to go to the most critical point at the site of the blast, the crater that was opened by the explosion, in attempt to find the cause of the accident. Officially, Albanian authorities confirmed 26 deaths in the explosions. Officials report the number of injured people at over 300. According to figures published by the Prime Minister’s Office, 2,306 buildings were damaged or destroyed in the explosions. Of these, 318 houses were destroyed completely, 200 buildings were seriously damaged, and 188 buildings were less seriously damaged.

After Munitions Explosion, Albanians Ask Why Danger Was Placed So Near

Accidents happen. But when a factory has inexperienced villagers prying apart thousands of artillery shells a day with metal rods and their bare hands, it is hard to call the deadly catastrophe that follows simply an accident. The explosion of a plant in Albania last month carved out three yawning craters, the deepest over 100 feet, and killed 26 people. Witnesses likened it and the powerful shock wave that followed to the detonation of a nuclear bomb. “It felt like you were flying,” said Razije Telhai, 48, who said she had been thrown 60 feet by the force of the blast.

Albanians are now asking how the country, which was invited this month to join the NATO alliance, could have allowed such a dangerous plant to operate right off a major highway, a short drive from the capital’s main airport, which was damaged by the shock wave.

Outside the site on Friday, former workers began the first of what they said would be daily demonstrations demanding further compensation for lost wages, injuries and suffering. So far they have received about $1,300 each.

Victims’ families complain that the government did not do enough to keep their loved ones safe. “We have no protection; there is no justice,” said Gezim Cani, 23, who rushed home after the explosion from a construction job in Italy, fearing for his father’s life, only to learn that his mother had been working at the factory as well. She had not told him so he would not worry. Both were killed.

Albanian PM Sali Berisha ahead to a press conference in Tirana, Albanian Capitol city, in the aftermath of Gerdec Explossion. ©Vedat Xhymshiti, for THE Frontliner

Albanian PM Sali Berisha ahead to a press conference in Tirana, Albanian Capitol city, in the aftermath of Gerdec Explossion. ©Vedat Xhymshiti, for THE Frontliner

In the wake of the tragedy, the defense minister has resigned and Prime Minister Sali Berisha has come under significant pressure from victims’ groups and the political opposition.

It has also raised a host of questions among Albanians about their government and the entrenched corruption in this Southern Balkan nation, a problem long documented but perhaps never so vividly or so horribly illustrated.

The blast also highlighted a more general, if little noticed, problem, the frequency of deadly explosions of conventional munitions stockpiles. According to the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research group, there have been more than a dozen explosions at ammunition depots worldwide in each of the last seven years.

The group documented 153 such explosions between 1995 and 2007, and said in a January report that more unreported ones were “very likely.” The known explosions killed at least 2,575 people, though a blast in Nigeria in 2002 accounted for more than half of the fatalities.

What happened in Albania in March was not a simple mishap at a government storage facility. Workers hired by private contractors were dismantling the ammunition so its components, like brass and gunpowder, could be sold, an increasingly lucrative enterprise in a period of sky-high commodity prices.

Highly militarized under its longtime Stalinist dictator, Enver Hoxha, who died in 1985, the country is saddled with enormous stockpiles of cold war munitions. The United States government, now a staunch supporter of Albania — which has returned the favor by sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan — has helped underwrite the destruction of the arsenal.

Last July, with more than $50 million in American assistance, Albania finished destroying 16 tons of chemical weapons. The State Department said it was the first to do so among the signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which went into effect in 1997 and obliged member countries to destroy stockpiles.

The United States spent $2 million more destroying small-caliber weapons and ammunition in Albania through 2007.

But Albania’s Ministry of Defense said last week that even after months of work here at Gerdec, there were still 100,000 tons of ammunition, of which only around 10 percent was needed for the armed forces. The rest is slated to be decommissioned.

Before the Gerdec factory was established, there were already two state factories devoted to destroying ammunition. But their work was frustratingly slow.

“We wanted to demolish as soon as possible this stock,” said Gazmend Oketa, formerly a deputy prime minister and now defense minister, in an interview in his cavernous office, a blue NATO flag hanging behind his desk.

“Working with these two factories, which capabilities are quite limited, was going to take us a very long period.”

To speed the process, the Albanian government awarded contracts to a South Carolina-based company, Southern Ammunition Co., which worked with a local company known as Albademil. The first contract between the state arms export agency and Southern Ammunition was for dismantling of small-arms ammunition, mostly 7.62 millimeter cartridges. Another contract was signed in December, for much larger ammunition, including 152-millimeter howitzer shells.

In an e-mail message, the president of Southern Ammunition, Patrick Henry, acknowledged that the company had signed the contracts. But he said that its involvement at the site ended in December, and that it was “not involved in any aspect of the large-caliber demil.”

He said both contracts were “immediately transferred to Albademil.” He acknowledged that company employees had been questioned by the F.B.I., but said that Southern Ammunition was not under investigation, which the United States Embassy in Tirana, Albania’s capital, confirmed.

Villagers who lived near the factory said they were well aware of the dangers, and feared an explosion. But Albania, a nation of 3.6 million, is one of the poorest in Europe. Despite their concerns, many local people felt the jobs were too good to pass up.

Hekuran and Zelie Kaca, parents of a 4-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter, began working at the factory in February. Hekuran Kaca said he and his wife worked on a four-person crew responsible for muscling open aged Soviet and Chinese shells manually, about 900 a day, and scooping out the gunpowder. For this they each received the equivalent of $26 a day, if they reached their target.

Around midday on March 15, a typical workday thus far, the factory director told Mr. Kaca he could not take his lunch break until he had moved bags of gunpowder taken from the shells to nearby storage containers.

As he took the first load, a fire sprang up in the excess gunpowder on the ground, cutting him off from his wife. “Zelie, it’s a fire, get out quickly,” he recalled yelling to her, before running from the explosion he knew was coming. Mr. Kaca hoped that his wife had made it out the main entrance, which he could not reach through the flames.

The fire poured a column of smoke high into the sky, sending villagers scrambling for the woods or nearby underground bunkers. Without that warning, several said, the death toll would have been much higher.

Last week, approaching the factory site on the road from Tirana, the first evidence of the explosion was the metal skeleton of a billboard, sitting high on a hilltop, stripped clean down to its frame. The blast blew out windows on cars and houses for miles around. Closer to where the factory stood are houses with most of the tiles blown off their roofs, like so many brittle fall leaves.

The site of the explosion is an expanse of roiled mud, spiked with the jutting noses of countless howitzer shells and dotted with chunks of concrete and bricks.

The youngest victim, Flavio Deliu, was 4 years old, one of the five members of the Deliu family who were killed. The Delius’ house stood across the road from the plant; now it is just an eerie concrete frame in a field littered with artillery shells. The latest victim was a 19-year-old woman who died of her injuries this month.

Three men have been arrested, two from Albademil and the other the head of the state arms export agency.

Arben Prifti, the lawyer for the Albademil defendants, said through a translator that Albademil was not involved in dismantling the ammunition. “The activities of Albademil just have to do with scrap, just after they did the dismantling,” he said in an interview at his office in Tirana.

Mr. Prifti said that Southern Ammunition was responsible for everything from training and security to breaking down the ammunition.

In his e-mail message, Mr. Henry said, “Since our formation in 1974 we have only worked with small-caliber” ammunition.

Albania’s prosecutor general, Ina Rama, said through a translator in an interview that the group of investigators looking into the explosion at Gerdec was also examining accusations of potentially illegal munitions trading.

The New York Times reported last month that decades-old Albanian cartridges of the same types as those slated for destruction at Gerdec had been sold to the Afghan Army and police forces instead, after repackaging hid the cartridges’ origins.

A subcontractor involved in preparing the munitions for Afghanistan said he suspected that money was being diverted to Albanian officials. The president of the company that bought the ammunition, Efraim E. Diveroli of AEY Inc., mentioned Prime Minister Berisha and his son in a recorded conversation. There has been no public evidence that AEY’s activities were related to the explosion.

The opposition Socialist Party continues to call for Mr. Berisha to step down.

“This is necessary in order to open the way for the attorney’s office to investigate,” said Valentina Leskaj, chairwoman of the party’s parliamentary group.

Mr. Berisha has denied any involvement in the ammunition deals or the Gerdec factory. Through a spokeswoman, the prime minister said last week that he was ready to face a vote of confidence on the floor of Parliament, which even opposition politicians say he would win.

All of which leaves the survivors angry and frustrated. “Nobody is taking responsibility for what happened,” Mr. Kaca said.

With no news about his wife’s fate, after searching morgues and hospitals, he finally returned to the site. Two days after the explosion, he sneaked back to the closed-off site. He found four bodies at the spot where he used to work, all burned beyond recognition. DNA evidence confirmed a week later that his wife had been killed.

“In the end, we are the ones who pay for it,” Mr. Kaca said. “We are the ones who suffer.”

The Justice Never Prevailed in Albania for the Victims and their Families!

By Vedat Xhymshiti, for THE Frontliner, Nicholas Kulish for The New York Times. C. J. Chivers contributed to this article reporting from Moscow.

Vudi Xhymshiti; is an independent journalist, editor and photographer. He is focusing on the issues of the domestic politics of Kosovo, Foreign Policy of the United States, the Russian Federation, the European Union and the Middle East. Xhymshiti is also focused on the issues of the politics of race, gender, identity, migration as well as displacement of people due to climate change and armed conflicts. He has been published in various media including Der Spiegel, NY Times, TIME, Paris Match, Le Monde etc. Xhymshiti is also a print media critic and founder of THE Frontliner.

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