Peace Corps Volunteer escapes violence in Albania

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Peace Corps Volunteer escapes violence in Albania

Peace Corps Volunteer escapes violence in Albania

Peace Corps Volunteer escapes violence in Albania

Douglas Woo: “One day everything was quiet. The next day the police disappeared.”

Ex-islander escapes violence in Albania

A Peace Corps volunteer from Hilo, he hopes to return to finish the job

By Rod Thompson Star-Bulletin

HILO -- When Peace Corps volunteer Douglas Woo tried to escape violence-torn Albania by hiking over a mountain two weeks week ago, a friend joked that it was like the Trapp family escaping the Nazis in "The Sound of Music."

But former Hilo resident Woo said it was the sound of gunfire that motivated him.

Actually, Woo's parents in Hilo, retired Dr. Stephen Woo Jr. and his wife, Georgianna, may have been more worried than their 19-year-old son.

Georgianna Woo said she couldn't sleep at night. She'd call her sister in Hong Kong for any news from the British Broadcasting Corp.

Stephen Woo says his son, having escaped to nearby Romania, is now wishing he could go back to Albania to complete his Peace Corps reforestation project.

Reached by telephone at a hotel in Bucharest, Romania, this week, Douglas Woo told the Star-Bulletin there were moments when he was "a little scared."

But most of the time he felt secure, even as the southern European country descended into chaos, he said.

"They have an enormous respect for foreigners. You can't imagine the hospitality you receive because you're a foreigner," he said.

Woo was assigned to a village of 3,000 people about an hour's drive outside the southern Albanian city of Vlora.

Late last year, people who had sold their homes to invest in nine major schemes discovered the schemes collapsing, he said.

As many as 30,000 people held peaceful protests in Vlora, he said.

Then people broke into a huge military base Feb. 28 and stole tons of weapons and ammunition.

"It was like night and day. One day everything was quiet. The next day the police disappeared," he said.

But the people with guns were nonpolitical and treated the weapons like toys, he said. Albanian friends would say, "Do you want to come over and shoot some guns off?"

The government in the north set up roadblocks around the south, and food stopped coming to the region, he said.

Phone lines to Woo's village were cut, but he received word that he and another Peace Corps volunteer were to hike to a point over a mountain were the U.S. military would evacuate him.

Woo, the other volunteer and five Albanians packed their bags and food and made the three-hour hike on March 8. There they received a message that plans had changed and they had to hike back again.

Finally a Peace Corps car arrived from the north, picked them up, and drove north again. On the way, they were stopped by an angry group of armed men who had used a tractor to drag a concrete bunker onto the road.

The men apologized when they found out the people in the car were Americans. A short time earlier, two men suspected of being secret police had driven up and killed two people, they explained.

Finally, the car arrived in Tirana, the capital. "Everything looked so normal, people drinking coffee and buying food," he said.

But when time came to fly out, the airport was closed by gunshots. Then it opened again, and on March 14, U.S. Navy helicopters evacuated about 100 people to Italy.

A charter flight took them to a Peace Corps center in Romania.

Woo worries about his friends in Albania. They day he left his village, flour to make bread ran out. The last he heard, Vlora had been without electricity or water for three days.

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© 1997 Honolulu Star-Bulletin

Story Source: Star Bulletin

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Albania; Safety and Security of Volunteers



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