Local Peace Corps Volunteer
Escapes Troubles In Albania
Helicopter helps Americans flee to safety of ship

by Aaron Belz
Special to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

When Maplewood resident Justin Parmenter joined the Peace Corps in June, 1995, he had no idea that 20 months later he would be airlifted out of the capital of Albania under threat of ground-to-air missile attack. During two of the most intense weeks of his life, Justin was evacuated from his peaceful village, had to sneak through police checkpoints, received news that his supervisor had been shot and killed, and was picked up with a hundred other Americans from the U.S. Embassy compound by a Marine Blackhawk helicopter.

Albania is a Mediterranean country bordering Greece with a poor economy and a fledgling Democratic government. The Peace Corps had stationed Justin as a high-school English teacher in Permet, a small city deep in Albania's mountainous heartland, a window-rattling hour's drive off the main North-South highway. There he learned to communicate in simple Albanian sentences and gained a taste for fresh roasted goat and leeks. His friends, addressing letters to him simply, "Justin Parmenter, Permet, Albania," could only imagine that he was lonely.

Justin knew, going into Albania, that this small Balkan country had a history of political unrest. During 1996 the biggest news item had to do with the economy, which was precariously balanced on a few successful "firms" – which were actually profit-sharing pyramid schemes. One such firm, known as "Gjallica," funded the Democratic party's candidates for the May, 1996 parliamentary elections. In late 1996 and early 1997, many such firms went bankrupt. Organizations which had promised huge profits to their shareholders – as much as 300% in 3 months – closed their doors, destroying the lives of Albanians who had staked all they had.

"That's when everything began to collapse," said Justin in a recent interview. "There's a village called Pagri about an hour from Permet, and I went there several times to visit a friend who operated a small wine factory there. He told me that a teacher in Pagri had sold his house and also his sister's house with the idea he would buy both homes back with the profits and have money left over. When that particular firm went bankrupt, he lost his mind. He went insane."

In an attempt to quell the uprising, the government ran footage on the news that was, according to Justin, obviously from the archives. In video clips of serene streets and marketplaces, Justin noticed that "eggs were priced at 8 leks apiece, and the price of eggs hadn't been that low for probably six or seven months." The news reports also warned not to listen to BBC or Voice of America radio reports, claiming that they were deceitful.

When, in late January, the Albanian city of Lushnja erupted in violence and government buildings were burned to the ground, President Sali Berisha attempted to declare a state of emergency, but was refused by Parliament. On March 2nd the declaration finally passed Parliament – the whole country went under an enforced 8:00 p.m. curfew and all schools were temporarily closed.

How bad was the violence? "Weapons were passed out to civilians who didn't know how to use them, and who enjoyed experimenting with them," said Justin. "Serious weapons. Anti-aircraft artillery, tanks being driven around by teenagers, 10-year-old children with Kalashnikov automatic rifles. I read about a kid who was looting an arms depot with his brother, and he accidentally killed his brother ... just fooling around with the gun."

Still, Justin felt secure in Permet: "Based on what people told me – people who had lived there all their lives and knew it very well – I had no fear at all. They said, 'Nothing's going to happen. You're safe here.'"

But on March 3, when things started to boil over in nearby Gjirokaster, Justin decided to call Peace Corps Headquarters in Albania's capital, Tirana, since he "hadn't heard from them in awhile." The Peace Corps, which had already cleared out some of the Volunteers who had been stationed in cities like Vlora and Saranda, asked Justin how he was doing. He said things seemed calm, and they told him to stay put.

The next day Justin got a call from Peace Corps instructing him to pack a bag for seven days and hire a private car for Korca (an expense they would reimburse). They told him to carry his passport just in case. So Justin found a friend whose cousin had a car and took him to Korca on March 5th. He stayed there with Peace Corps friends.

On March 9th Justin and his friends got a call from the headquarters again. This time they were instructed to leave for Tirana.

The following day Justin received a startling piece of news: "I was sitting in a restaurant eating breakfast with a couple of friends. We had a short-wave with us, and at 10 o'clock in the morning or so, they said on BBC that Permet had been taken, and that five or six civilians had been killed."

And the next day brought an even greater shock: "I was in a store right next to the hotel where we were staying, buying some bottled water. I heard a woman talking about Permet and Gjirokaster. So of course I was curious; she was speaking Albanian, but I understood what she was saying. She said that Tomor Mullaraj had been killed! That's the name of my director at the school where I taught – the guy whom I'd told, 'I'll see you soon' a week before."

Numb with this news, Justin followed the Peace Corps directive to stay inside the guarded camp, where he and his friends played Trivial Pursuit and sang songs; they could see tracer bullets rising into the sky at night. He and the others were finally shuttled in mini-vans to the U.S. Embassy compound, escorted by Toyota Landcruisers, hazard lights flashing.

He describes their arrival in the Embassy as somewhat surreal: "Marines seemed to be everywhere with lots of big guns. The embassy compound is like a little chunk of suburban America, with American-style houses, no-parking signs, riding lawnmowers. It seems like you've gone back to America and almost left Albania when you get there. These people have wooden decks on their houses like they do here. One thing I noticed is that there were Marines digging foxholes under the decks."

There were hundreds of Americans gathered in the freshly-fortified embassy, from missionary families to diplomats to expatriates. The Marines began taxiing 14 people at a time in UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters to a nearby ship, the USS Nassau, where they were invited to eat dinner and wait for further instructions.

One of the helicopters which took off in the hour after Justin's flight was fired upon by a ground-to-air missile – one of the weapons that had been stolen from the arms depots. The Marines paused the evacuation until they could eliminate the possibility of another missile being fired. Evacuation resumed the next morning.

After a week-long Peace Corps debriefing in Bucharest and a visit to his brother in Wales, Justin returned to St. Louis on March 30th. Though shaken and deeply sad about the death of his former Director, and the possible unreported loss of others, Justin hopes to return to Albania soon to be an election monitor with the Organization of Security and Cooperation (OSCE).

He doesn't think he'll be able to salvage the rest of his personal property, since there has been so much looting: "I had a cheap stereo, a pretty nice Walkman ... a sleeping bag, a lot of books. But the things that I left behind that I care about at all, in terms of material possessions, are a shoe box full of photographs and letters from my family and friends. I wanted to bring it back with me, to keep for the rest of my life."

[You can also read this story the way it was published]

[March, 1997]

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