North Versus South

THE FISHERMEN OF VLORE ARE FISHing with hand grenades these days. There's precious little food in the Albanian port, now that anti-government protests have turned into something like a civil war between north and south. Roving gangs of gunmen have looted most stores in the southern town. But the outdoor market is full of fish. After chasing out government forces on Feb. 28, rioters seized a huge weapons cache in the military barracks. Ordinary citizens, as well as ordinary criminals, are now heavily armed. As for the fishermen, blam! Toss one grenade into the sea, and the explosion brings a lot of dead fish to the surface.

In the rebellious south, Albania's authoritarian government looks like a dead mackerel. In many towns the rebels are now armed with tanks, artillery and assault rifles. At Sarande, a mob stormed a naval base and took control of half the navy. One tenth of the operational air force--that is, a single MiG-15 and two pilots--defected to Italy. At Gjirokaster, rebels sacked the main army base in the south, putting newly arrived reinforcements to flight and capturing a general.

Cornered in the north, President Sali Berisha sacked his prime minister, declared a state of emergency and put his secret-police chief in charge of quelling the rebellion. He also offered an amnesty to any rebels who laid down their arms. There were no known takers. Down south, the people of Vlore were fighting for one reason, according to Krenar Hoxha, 25, a rebel militiaman: ""Berisha stole our money. We want it back, and we want him to resign.'' The protests began in January, when a series of pyramid schemes collapsed and as many as 800,000 Al- banians were bilked of their savings. Berisha's regime didn't run the schemes, but neither did it regulate them or warn people of their ob- viously impending failure.

In Europe's poorest country, the government has no money to cover the losses. Instead the secret-police chief, Bashkim Gazidede, has recruited new paramilitaries, giving them some quick training. A little too quick, in some cases: last week a rookie shot himself in the head while sleeping on duty with his rifle.

Despite international calls for Berisha to share power with the opposition, he refuses to budge. ""It's not in his character,'' says a Western diplomat. ""I just don't see any way out of this that isn't awfully bloody.'' Berisha also has ethnic differences with the south. A member of the Gheg tribe, he speaks a different Albanian dialect than the Tosqs in the south, who consider themselves more sophisticated. Southerners also are slightly more prosperous than other Albanians, so they had more to lose from the financial collapse. ""There's a saying in Albania,'' says hotel worker Alliaj Lulzim. ""If you lose your money, you lose your mind.'' Before it's over, Albanians will probably lose their lives as well.