About half of the 6,000 foreign soldiers being sent here with U.N. backing are setting up camp and beginning patrols, but there is confusion about what else they are to do.
Ostensibly, the soldiers are to insure that aid sent to poor Albanians is not hijacked by armed gangs, which have roamed the country since January, when several fraudulent investment schemes collapsed and thousands lost their life savings.But the two relief agencies in charge of distributing the food are not sure the soldiers will be much help. In the last month the Red Cross has distributed more than 40 tons of food and 15 tons of medical supplies across the country, and has found the task much easier than expected.
"We've had not a single incident," said Nina Winquist-Galbe, a Red Cross spokeswoman. "There's nowhere we have not been able to go."
Hundreds of thousands of civilians still have guns and ammunition that they were given by the government or which they looted from the military. But as the World Food Program workers begin to distribute food this week, they do not plan for a military escort.
"They can come if they want," said Jean-Marie Boucher, the World Food Program manager for the Balkans, "We would not be impolite."
The soldiers, led by the Italian army and including troops from France, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Romania, Austria and Denmark, say they are needed so hungry people can be fed. "We are here to escort humanitarian aid to the hungry," said Col. Paolo Bianchi of the Italian army. "That is our first, our main goal."
According to the Red Cross and the Word Food Program, there are very few hungry people, and no one is starving.
"Despite the chaos in the government, the markets are open, food is being imported through regular commercial channels," said Boucher. "We have a real problem for some people who were very poor before the chaos and who now need some help short term."
The World Food Program, a U.N. agency, says 140,000 families need one donation each of about 100 pounds of flour, a large bag of beans and some cooking oil.
That, Boucher said, will get them through until the harvest in July. He predicted distribution could take about a month. The troops are expected to be here for three months.
The Red Cross says Albanians who need food the most are those in hospitals, orphanages and homes for the elderly, where almost all the food used to come from the government. Normal deliveries to these institutions have been severely interrupted, Red Cross officials say.
Asked why the countries say their soldiers are needed, Boucher replied, "The only way they could get their coming here approved by the United Nations was to say it was for humanitarian assistance."
That foreign soldiers are spreading across the country for any reason has made many Albanians suspicious. Though mistrustful of their own government and grateful for outside authority, Albanians, who have been ruled or dominated by neighbor countries for much of their history, are cynical enough to believe that the impulse to do good is not the reason other countries send in their armies.