Pressed against the guardrails, the ragged, sunken-eyed refugees cheered their escape from privation and repression. "Ciao Italia," they shouted from the upper decks as the ships steamed into the Adriatic harbor town of Brindisi. Reluctantly granted safe passage last week by Eastern Europe's last Stalinist state, they had swarmed aboard planes for Budapest, Warsaw and Prague. Trains carried them toward destinations in France and West Germany. Boats headed for Marseilles and the coast of Italy. The Brindisi-bound exodus alone ferried about 4,000 refugees. It was the final leg of their flight. After languishing for 12 long days behind foreign embassy walls in the capital of Tirana, thousands of dissident Albanians were free at last.
Back in Tirana, the government dismissed the refugees as social outcasts and claimed that 100,000 Albanians rallied in support of the government. But 24-year-old Enkeo Halili, a mechanic, had time only to look ahead. After disembarking, he told a reporter, "We don't want these communists. We are young, we are poor. We've never even seen a discotheque." In Brindisi, the weary travelers were met by teams of relief workers and the promise of new lives in Europe or the United States. Details of their settlement will take time; for the moment, the refugees are quartered in an abandoned Army compound. Yet for most of them, the longest step had already been taken.