Stockpiles of unstable ammunition have posed a constant threat to those living nearby, as Albania races to meet a dismantling deadline.
By Erl Murati for Southeast European Times in Tirana -- 04/06/12
Smoke billowed from what was left of the ammunitions facility at Gerdec in the aftermath of the deadly March 15th 2008 blasts there. [Reuters]
"One citizen, one soldier" was the motto of Albania's communist regime, ensuring an overly-militarised country which crumbled into pieces in 1990. Albania inherited from Enver Hoxha's dictatorship an estimated 200,000 tonnes of Soviet-Chinese ammunition for an army of 120,000 professional military forces and hundreds of thousands of reservists.
This enormous arsenal of never-used weapons degraded over time and became hazardous to those living nearby. A defining moment occurred on March 15th 2008, when an explosion at an ammunitions dismantling plant in Gerdec, 15km from Tirana, triggered a massive, fiery chain reaction inside the stockpile. The blasts, which continued for hours, killed 26 people, wounded more than 300 and destroyed hundreds of homes, displacing 3,000 people.
"Since that day, security has been our priority," Deputy Defence Minister Ekrem Spahiu told SETimes.
It prompted the defence ministry to implement a swift demilitarisation process, which it promises to conclude by next year. NATO membership required the destruction of surplus ammunition as well.
Following the 2008 tragedy, specialised Albanian military personnel took over the dismantling process from private entities.
"Some 60,982 tonnes of ammunition was demilitarised from September 2009 to April 30th 2012. Around 31,000 tonnes are left to go. At this pace, the entire demilitarisation process will end within the 2013 [timeframe]," Spahiu said.
People living near the ammunition dismantling facilities complain about the effects of the explosions -- structural damage to their homes as well as environmental concerns. Yet no casualties have been reported for the past four years.
Daniel Karanxha, director of the Mjekes plant in Elbasan, said that his plant handles 60% of the ammunition dismantling process. "For the time being, we are working on the demilitarisation of anti-tank mines and 120mm and 122mm missiles. We dismantle about 30 tonnes of ammunition per day," he told SETimes.
Accident prevention is the top priority. "Security in our plant is at the maximum. So far, no incidents have occurred. The entire demilitarisation process is monitored in our plant not only by supervisors but by a central surveillance camera system," Karanxha explained.
Both the ruling party and the opposition support this national priority. "Security throughout the ammunition dismantling process is absolutely higher compared to four years ago," Socialist MP Piro Lutaj, a member of parliament's Committee of National Security, told SETimes.
The opposition remains concerned however by the potential misuse of funds and donations that the US government and other international partners are providing.
"What we want to see is transparency. We are concerned by the misuse and often unclear destination of these funds. We ask the government to show evidence of the correct use of these funds, provided by the US and EU taxpayers, in helping Albania to demilitarise its surplus ammunition," Lutaj said.