TIRANA – In the initial hours after a deadly pre-dawn earthquake struck Albania, pancaking buildings and trapping dozens of sleeping people beneath the rubble, the country’s neighbors sprang into action. Offers of help flooded in from across Europe and beyond, with even traditional foes setting aside their differences in the face of the natural disaster.
Soon, specialized rescue crews were arriving by the planeload. One of the most striking was a 13-person team from Serbia, a country with traditionally poor relations with Albania due to an ongoing dispute concerning Kosovo, a former province of Serbia whose ethnic Albanian majority took up arms to fight for independence.
The war ended after NATO bombed Belgrade and ties with neighboring Albania, which supported Kosovo’s independence, are still sometimes strained, although there have been recent efforts to improve them.
Serbian Patriarch Irinej, a hardliner when it comes to Kosovo, expressed condolences and said he was “deeply shaken over this tragic event.”
The 6.4-magnitude earthquake that struck Albania on Tuesday killed at least 49 people, injured 2,000 and left at least 4,000 homeless. Every one of Albania’s neighbors sent specialized search-and-rescue crews to comb through the rubble — Italy, Greece, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo — as did Serbia, Turkey, Romania, France, Croatia, Israel, Switzerland and the European Union’s civil emergency unit. Even more countries flew in emergency supplies, while one of the injured — a 54-year-old man with severe spinal injuries — was being flown to Italy for treatment.
Rescuers from Balkan countries that fought bitter wars against each other little over 20 years ago during the disintegration of Yugoslavia found themselves united in the common aim of saving lives.
“Trouble knows no boundaries,” Radomir Scepanovic, a Montenegrin rescuer, told regional channel N1 TV, adding that there were 12 international teams from Europe and the Balkans with 600 rescuers in Albania to help.
It is sometimes the indiscriminate power and destruction of natural disasters that brings nations together. One notable example was when Greece and Turkey rushed to each other’s aid after devastating earthquakes struck each less than a month apart in 1999.
The outpouring of sympathy, quick dispatch of rescue crews and images of ordinary Greeks lining up to donate blood for injured Turks in August of that year was reciprocated in kind after Athens was struck by an earthquake in September, leading to the most significant thawing of traditionally tense or even hostile relations between the two neighbors in decades and gave rise to the phrase “earthquake diplomacy.”
With the Balkans in general located in a highly seismically active region, the terror and devastation earthquakes can cause is one thing that resonates throughout the region.
“Pain knows no borders. We are a small region and quakes are felt everywhere,” said Lutfi Dervishi, an analyst and journalism lecturer at Tirana University. “Such calamities make countries, governments more humane as everybody is under one roof, all uncovered.”
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who appealed for international help initially for the search and rescue effort, and on Friday also for reconstruction efforts, was quick to express his thanks.
"We feel good to not be alone and I'm very grateful to all our friends,” he said on Tuesday night, standing near the ruins of a building in the port town of Durres with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias. Relations between the two countries had been strained following tension over the Greek minority in Albania and other issues, but any lingering bitterness was swept aside.
“I'm absolutely very grateful to the Greek prime minister and the minister of foreign affairs,” Rama said. “They called me right away and they simply wanted to know what was asked from them and where they should be. So this is amazing."
Greece dispatched two teams of disaster response firefighters with specialized equipment on Tuesday and was sending a team of civil engineers on Friday to assist in reconstruction efforts.
“We have been through this, we know this, we will do whatever we can to help,” Dendias said in Durres on the day of the earthquake. “We stand with the Albanian people, with its government, to offer whatever we can.”
Becatoros reported from Athens, Greece. Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed.