Albania: Red Cross brings speedy assistance to victims of devastating explosions

Published: 20 March 2008 0:00 CET

A series of massive explosions on 15 March in an ammunition storage site in Gerdec, 16 kilometres from the Albanian capital of Tirana, has devastated three neighbouring villages. Explosions continued until the following day, causing additional damage to another three communities. The country was shocked as Albanian television broadcast amateur footage of shrapnel and glass shards flying through the air, injuring  people. Three days after the disaster the state authorities reported 17 people killed, nearly 300 injured and ten missing. Thousands fled from the devastated settlements.

The Albanian Red Cross immediately mobilized teams of volunteers from its branches in Tirana and Durres, to assist the injured and their families.

“I have been working in disaster management for 14 years and I have experienced a lot,” says Fatos Xhengo, disaster management expert at the Albanian Red Cross. “But even I could not imagine a disaster of such an unusual character, of such power in peacetime, and in a place so close to people’s homes. We all shuddered. We could not envisage this risk,” he concludes.

At least 315 buildings in the area, including homes, were totally destroyed and nearly 1700 buildings were damaged. Six schools will need serious renovation. More than 3,500 people were forced to leave the dangerous sites and settle in with relatives or friends.  Some 367 people, mainly women and children, found shelter in collective centres in Tirana and Durres.

The explosions continued for three whole days, making it impossible for state commission and humanitarian workers to approach the epicentre.  “Security around the disaster site did not allow us to get closer to the affected villages, - says Fatos Xhengo. “But we could not sit and wait.”

The entire Albanian Red Cross (ARC) was on alert from the very start of the disaster and  began addressing people’s urgent needs immediately.  An emergency committee at headquarters coordinated action with the government, volunteers delivered food, water and emergency articles (blankets, hygiene items, plastic sheeting and kitchen sets) from the ARC stocks; branches organized blood donation and fundraising campaigns.  Information about missing family members and voluntary blood donation was disseminated, in close cooperation with local hospitals. Clothes were collected by the community in response to an appeal by the Red Cross.

The Albanian Red Cross is included in the national emergency plan, and it was able to quickly mobilize its own resources, deliver immediate assistance to hospitals and temporary collective accommodation centres as well as participate in assessments as a member of the government emergency teams.

Fatos remembers the gratitude of people when the Red Cross volunteers came to assess needs in the affected area. “You are the first to come and ask us what we need, and not simply what happened. You care about us instead of just being curious,” said one woman, at the food parcel distribution point. “Such words make me proud of the work we can do for people in crisis,” Fatos says.

The Albanian Red Cross was not alone. Sister National Societies from Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Macedonian and Montenegro supported its efforts and offered help. The German Red Cross delivered medicines, blood and other items of vital importance for hospitals and for affected families.  

The latest assessment report makes clear that longer term assistance is required to help people recover and start rebuilding their lives without having to wait for government decisions on  the reimbursement of building costs or the rebuilding of destroyed houses.

The ARC plans to support people from the most affected villages for three months with assistance which includes food parcels, blankets, hygiene articles and bedding, as well as psychological support. Some 850 families who lost a family member and/or their homes, and who are currently staying with relatives or at collective centres will get Red Cross assistance.

The Federation has released nearly 250,000 Swiss francs from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund to support the Albanian Red Cross operation to meet the needs of the people most severely affected by this disaster, in material and psychological terms.

“This disaster will have an impact on people’s lives not only in the areas close to the epicentre of the explosion,” explains Fatos Xhengo. “When the immediate shock passes, we will still remain with the question: what other destructive mechanisms are threatening our lives? Even after de-mining the experts are saying that nobody can guarantee total safety.”