(This is my account of the evacuation, taken straight from my journal, almost word for word- so excuse some of the strange wording…)
I want to take a few minutes and write down some recollections, thoughts and feelings of the past few weeks before they transcend into the dimness of my memorey-
Back at the first of March, life was failry normal and the work went as normal, many people were upset over lost money that they had placed into get-rich-quick pyraimd schemes, but amidst the complaining and groaning, the work went forward and there was nothing overly different in our daily lives or regular routine. Trouble erupted in Vlore, a southern city, over lost money- there the pyramid firms, promising a 300% teturn in three months were deeply entrenced and many lost life savings- almsot everyone placing their trust in a most wonderful way to make a fortune without any form of work, but the ritos in the South still seemed a long ways away, and the work went forward.
Then riots started in Tirana, and scattered people gathered in Durres- people frustrated over lost money from sold houses and years of wages from black work from refugee relatives working in Italy and Greece- but still teh work went on and we were not to affected by the tragedy of it all, except for a sadness for the suffereing sof those whom we served and a deteremination to increase our efforts againsts the efforts of Satan to thwart the Lord’s work. In a district leaders meeting, President Holman counseled us saying, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."
Then the southern rebel movement started to expand- people were raiding artillery depots in different cities, angry at the government- their allowance of the deceitful schemes to operate, and wanting their money back. We continued serving in Durres, hearing abou tthe uprisings down South, but not foreseeing any problem or danger to our work,- though an emergency state was called, calling off school and settting a curfew,- we were reassured by the people of Durres telling us that there was no possibility of the uprisings ever arising at our doorstep- adn life continued as normal, our concern more on our companionship relationship and the needs of our investigators than the welfare of the future of Albania-
It as interesting, throughout the entire time, there was a serious lack of information, the government not allwing the stat run television or radio to broadcast anything but a warped view of the situation- the general populace obtaining their only information from foreign TV stations or BBC radio when possible, as it was scrambled by the government. Newspapers and magazines were also banned in an effort to quell the situation.
Still, the seriousness of the situation not fully realized, and we still considered it simply as something that we had to get through or cross and we continued with our work.
My companion at the time was Elder Stewart, and it was a great growing period- we were really working on our relationship- to overcome weakness together and the work was going well- we were setting goals with faith and working hard to achieve them- and we were halping people to understand the plan of salvation and progress(ing) towards baptism- doing our best to keep the rules and make use of our time- especially working in the direaction of member work and in general- keeping happy.
Then the situation began to worsen down down South- the rebel movement began to expand,- gaining arms and support as it moved outward, wreaking havoc along the way.
As the situation worsened, we were asked if we wanted to stay or leave- all the elders wanted to stay, but it was decided that the sisters needed to evacuate- but their first attempt to leave by ferry to Italy was halted by the closing of the ferry agency.
The night before the sisters (were to leave), we had a curfew of dark, and their was an unspoken uncertainty in the house and doubts as to the future, but we still planned on staying.
The next morning was district meeting and there was a very different feeling without the sisters there- nevertheless, the four of us, gathered in a small circle, sang an opening song and prayer and began our meeting- I had just began the district leaders message when the branch president came from his office and told us to not leave, because something was going on outside- we all rushed to the window to see people running everywhere, as if in panic- it was then that the problems became very real to me- and we diddn’t know exactly what was going on, so we watched for two or three minutes and we aw an influential member of the church and community, Vlash Gremi, arrive at the gate and I went down to meet him and he told us to hurry to the house- so we grabbed our bags and quickly left- along the short road to our apartment, Brother Gremi explained tha the arms depot of Durres had been invaded and guns were being passed throughout the city- and many people were flocking to the port with hopes of leaving Albania and heading to Italy- anyways, we made it to the house- four missionaries, President Plarent Toci and Brother Vlash Gremi- and then we got a hold of President Holman after a few tries and explained to him the situation, and he said that things were bad in Tirana and he once again asked us if we wanted to stay, and he stated that for himself he was going to stay and right then I had to think for a moment- what exactly was I doing? and then quickly answered yes, that I would stay- and ‘good, thanks elder’ said President.
That morning as were were in the hosue the gun shots began- at first, far away, but then increasingly closer until they were heard in all directions- Brother Gremi was wonderful, he quickly left th apartment and went to make sure that the sisters had left for Tirana and then he returned, continually checking up on us and ensuring our well-being- President Toci was also there- wiling to help, puttin our needs and those of the church foremost- both of these brethren showing forth shining examples of Christian service.
We waited in the apartment for sometime, unsure of what was to come, filling up water bottles to ensure water (was available) while President Toci grabbed some gas for cooking and candles.
At about noon, President Toci accompanied the two elders (staying at) our apartment to ther apartment, and Brother Gremi returned again tto make sure that we had enough food.
About two o’clock the electricity (went out) adn the phone lines were going off and on- the gun shots and machine guns firing continued, seeming very close at times. We spent the day inside studying, talking, and praying- styaing away from the windows.
Amazingly enough, there was still a quiet peace in my heart- there was a lingering air of uncertaintly, but no fear or worry, my mind was calm. (With my companion) we talked and prayed and felt the comforting influence of the Holy Spirit as servants of the Lord.
President Holman had told us to have our bags ready, but leaving still didn’t seem like a very probable option, in my mind it was still ajust a situation that we would have to wait out and then go back to work-
Late that night, after 10 o’clock, President Holman again contacted us and told us to come to Tirana with our bags packed, to wait out the situation together- he asked if we could com ethat night, I replied no, but that we would be there as early as we could in the morning- I then called the other elders, and we had a companionship prayer before retiring for the evening- They still hadn’t told us that we had to leave.
We awoke early the next morning- packing our bags and about 5:30 (AM) President HOman called and informed us that he had received word from the First Presidency that we needed to evacuate, and he wasn’t sure how they were going to leave from Tirana, but that the four of us in Durres should pack one bag and get to the port as quickly as possible, because there were some other Americans there waiting to be picked up, and said to call him as soon as they picked us up.
‘Wow’ came into my mind as soon as he said we were leaving- ‘that’s crazy.’- but it also somehow seemed strangely routine- I called the other elders and told them to come to our apartment as quick as possible so that we could go to the port. I then called Brother Gremi who said he would be there as quick as possible-
We then commenced in preparing the house to leave it. My bag was mostly packed- a medium black carry-on bag with two extra shirts, three pairs of socks… plus my gospel study notebook- sweats, a shirt, sandals, pictures from home, a jump rope and a couple of envelopes with important documents and some of my most treasured letters from the family…. When there was still a little room, I grabbed the rest of the letters from my family and zipped it up.
Soon the others arrived, the elders, Brother Gremi and President Toci who the elders picked up on their way- it was somber, yet hurried as we made final plans to leave. I quickly wrote a short letter to a member family, the Xhekos in Tirana, and we started out the door- I told Brother Gremi that we would call him, but if we weren’t back in a week to go ahead and take our food in the house.
I believe we departed about 7 o’clock and headed down the road towards the port. The reality of the situation sunk in even deeper as we watched people- even older women and teenage girls- along with men, struggling to carry fifty kilogram sacks of flour from the port storage which had been invaded- cars and horse-drawn carts exiting with flour and driven by men guarding their treasure with stolen guns.
We made our way into the port, usually heavily guarded, abandoned from any form of authority- we made our way about two kilometers down the port road until we arrived to teh place we were supposed to be to find out the ship had left with a group of foreigners a half hour before-
Right then we didn’t know exactly what to do- go back to the apartment, wait at the port or try to go to Tirana- we stood there for a minute, back away from the gathering crowd at the dock (Albanians hoping for a chance to flee to Italy) each of us with his bag of belongings and took a moment to survey the scene- we were standing in front of the customs storage sheds and the aftermath from the previous day and nights plundering was disasterous- every door broken open, windows shattered, adn teh only goods left were school texts strewn on the ground. Smoke was coming out from some of the buildings, teenage rebels laughing at the destruction and smashing any remaining glass. Others were taking parts off of parked vehicles while two or three others tried to start a city bus for a free ride. Most of the valuable things already having been taken, now the poorer class of people scavenged through the leftovers finding and hoarding anything of worth.
The worst thing was the guns- everywhere. Anyone who wanted a gun was able to get one, and many had- most of them kept in houses for protection against the unknown, but there were also many openly displaying their new found power in public- taking sinful advantage fo the anarchy-like circumstances. They were all around us- unshaven, rough-looking young men with heavy military artillery0 most of them only shooting into the air- and some ricocheting their hail of bullets into teh water- angry at the conditions in which they had placed themselves. Many cars and vans also came zooming in and out of the port, with young hoodlums leaning out of the windows and screaming and firing, one of them I particularly remember- a van sped in with guns sticking out of it, the driver and passengers masked in black like a group of middle eastern terrorists.
It made me stop and think of prophecies made about the last days adn teh destructions and chaos foreseen to come forth, and I though, ‘wow- I am seeing it, -and as wickedness continues to rampage across the earth it can only get worse.’ Also accounts from the Book of Mormon when evil reigned came to my mind- it was a dumbfounding thing to see.
There was also a family right next to us with two little children to whom the mother continually snapped at for frear of them being shot- the young daughters playing and running around, innocent of the thick confusion surrounding them- the mother reasserting her demands for obedience from her children when a group of three men walked into the gate,- less than ten yards away and one fired a round into the air- the rat-a-tat-tat echoing in our ears-
Brother Gremi left to go call President Toci- we waited for about an hour when everyone started running to the dock because of an approaching shpi- we quickly grabbed our bags and before I left, I looked for an older german lady whom we had helped to unload her luggage from a car, and not seeing her, I looked 20 yards ahead to see her lugging her suitcase, dog and walking real fast- I think she was tougher than Elder Hover who had played football for Colorado State =) !
At the port we realized it was a false alarm, and we waited there with our bags- many people coming up to us to ask if we knew of any ships that were coming- and we told them that we didn’t know anything either. We waited for another half hour, worrying, or rather wondering what had happened to Brother Gremi, when we finally saw his brown jacket enter into the port and rushed to meet him. He had gone to our house and finding the phone out of order went to his where he contacted President Holman, who instructed us to get to Tirana as quickly as possible. On our way out were were stopped by Reuters News Service, who started to interview me, but cut it short when I started talking about God and his protection…
We made our way out and to the train station where we crowded our way onto a bus and took off for Tirana. We said goodbye to Pres. Toci and another we had met- Vasjen Rebi, and left with Brother Gremi. The bus ride was double the regular price, and Borther Gremi set it up with the bus driver to take us directly to the mission home.
The bus ride to Tirana was yet a further realization of the extent fo the madness- it was very different from the usually tranquility out of my window. Vans of terrorist looking rebels zooming by in masks and handkerchiefs- almost as if from an action movie. I also remember a big truck carrying bags of flour which drove by, guarded by a small militia of men sitting on top, with their guns pointing in different directions into the air. We crossed one junction where the street was lined with piles of anywhere from two to twenty flour sacks- each sovereigned by someone with a gun, anxiously eyeing his neighbor.
The atmosphere inside the bus was rather tense as well- people complaining about the jacked up bus fares- others in quiet awe, some laughing to ease the tension. When gunshots were heard from behind, many heads turned in unison, though others were no longer affected b the caucophony of firing. An older, overweigh man came and sat by me before we arrived in Tirana- he was a teacher- when asked for the extra fare, he grumbled a word of complaint and pulled out what looked to me like his life savings and then quickly buried inside his clothes. Our conversation turned to religion- he was a devoted Muslim, and still clung to his faith in God.
Coming in Tirana, there were more signs of order- policemen controlling traffic with machine guns in an effort to get a handle on the situation.- We arrived into the city to find some confusion, but the air was calmer. We got off the bus close to the mission home and entered with a very warm welcome- many sighing in relief that we made it safely there, being the last ones. President and Sister Holman were especially pleased- their love shown through a tearful hug and a great comfort having all of their ‘children’ accounted for.
They had still not received any word as to when or how we would leave except that the embassy was working on it and would call us. -So we watied. Sister Holman had fixed sandwiches, and afterwards many of the missionaries went down to the sacrament room and gathered in a big circle to sing hymns- and the power of music was manifest as the Spirit of the Lord entered the room, calming our troubled hearts. After a couple of hours we received a call from the embassy to get there fast with one bag and our passport- so we were hurried out the doors in groups of two and three on a half-hour walk through the city.
Brother Gremi, having dropped us safely off at the mission home, watied to make sure everything was okay and then, after refusing all but $3.50 in lek from President Holman- left to go back home. He wouldn’t even accept the $3.50 until I convinced him it was to cover the extra money he paid for the bus to drop us off- and then he left it in his pocket when I put it there- his only intent was to ensure our safety and well-being with absolutely no though of reward- inactive (in church) at the time because of being required to work on Sunday, yet surely he stood tall in the eyes of God that day- doing as Jesus would have done.
On the way to the embassy, we passed a couple of tanks, and were open to the view of all as they watched us leaving, the contry where they had no choice but to stay. We arrived at the embassy and formed in two lines of Americans who were ready to leave- there were many people sitting on bags on the floor- one girl- victim to a gunshot in the arm- quietly sobbed, a makeshift sling around her neck.
The paperwork was quickly done for all of us, except one Hungarian elder and we stood outside ready to leave when President Holman and Elder Szamosfalvi (the Hungarian), signalled for us to leave and that they would soon follow. We all loaded on to a bus and they drove us to the lot where all of the American Consulate houses were where we found lots of decked-out US Marines walking around. They ran us through some checks, we identified ourselves and lined up for a helicopter ride. We stood on a hill overlooking the site where the helicopter landed and they handed each of us and emergency life vest and cranian (helicopter helmet). There were military personnel everywhere, some in foxholes with pointed guns, amongst whom were many news and cameramen taping and taking pictures of all the excitement.
At this point we couldn’t help but laugh at each othere- each dressed in helicopter gear and missionary attire, cameras of missionaries were taking advantage of the moment.
Soon my groups turn came and we walked down to the helicopter- about 14 of us, and were helped inside. We sat down on the cot-like seats and took a moment to look around us as we took off. It was very high-tech, round windows along the sisde and gunners on both sided ready to shoot.
The cranials over our ears muffled all sounds, so we communicated with our hands or on paper as we viewed the passing countryside below us. The mountains we flew over were beautiful, small villages of four to five houses on mountaintops untouched by the corruption we left behind- there were even farmers out at work in their fields and beautiful small lakes which dotted the rolling hills.
Right then it seemed to me much like an adventure- a little kids dream, when I looked at Sister Holman, who was quietly crying across from me. I offered my best look of compassion and then turned to my own thoughts, spurred by her grief.
I immediately became more somber- and wondered, as we passed over Durres how long it would be before I saw it again- I was still not saying goodbye to the land that I loved, but rather a see you again soon Albania.
The ocean was quiet and calm below us- and we saw a couple of ships patrolling the waters. We still didn’t know exactly where we were headed- Italy was supposed- when we looked down to see a part of a gigantuous metal boat and the helicopter turned in preparation to land. The immensity of the ship was amazing- the antennas and radar bars spinning and twirling on the top.
We landed and were quickly rushed out of the helicopter and inside the ship, going down a ramp into a huge room, one wall decorated with a giant US flag. We were checked in- our bags taken, and teh speaker system declared ‘Welcome to America’- it was overwhelming. They took our names, medical information, asked us what we had seen and invited us to have some punch and cookies- which I did! It was unbelievable how extraordinarily kind the personnel on the ship were, with comments like, "We’re here to make you happy" and "anything I can do to help you out?"- almost made me want to sign up with the military so I could be that nice and well mannered as well!
On the ship they treated us to a fine American meal- which upon receiving seemed almost too good to be true, yet when I sat down and looked at it, my appetite was gone. I couldn’t help but think of those who we left behing, fighting over flour. After sitting for a minute, I went over to a corner by some vending machines, collected myself and then went back to each my lunch- somewhat resentfully.
As people continued to board the ship, they were also helicoptering others from the ship to Italy. The shipo we were on- the USS NASSAU (LHA-4) was an amphibious assault ship- small compared to other aircraft carriers, but it still seemed mighty big to an elder from a farming community in Idaho. Later in the evening we were told that everyone there would be able to be flown to Italy that night and to get our bags ready. Shortly thereafter they informed us that they had not accounted for the press aboard and they needed 25 volunteers to stay the night. It was inspiring to see 20 elders form the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to immediately raise their hands and step into the roped off area. They thanked us and told us to wait there as they continued getting the others off, taking some who had agreed to stay. Then, they told us that there was a chance for us to leave as well and quickly lined us up and sent us running up the ramp. While there, in single file, we were given the helicopter gear again and ran out to the helicopter- waving bye to our hosts and taking off into the air.
We flew in the darkness over the ocean, making gestures in teh air to each other and smiling at the craziness of it all. Before long we saw lights and flew over land to the airport, where we were ushered inside. They had Kool-aid and army ration dinners waiting for us- so we sat down on teh luggage conveyer belt and helped ourselves.
After an hour an Italian member showed up (his family the first baptized in Italy- right after Francesco Vicenza) who told us we were going to a hotel to stay and two members of the Quorum of the Seventy would be flying in in 3-4 hours. UNtil then, we had heard nothing of President Holman or Elder Szamosfalvi, the Assistant to the President, and expected them the next day. Being without missionary leadership, after counseling with other elders, as one of the oldest I took the responsibility to of directing matters. We travelled to teh hotel in taxis, – I arrived last and everyone was waiting- rooms were assigned and we decided to meet at 8:00 for breakfast.
That night, sleep was slow to come to a busy mind, but I finally dozed off, still dressed to be ready should the general authorities come needing any help or information. My eyelids awoke at 5:00AM and after Book of Mormon study, we set out to get a hold of a Church leader. At a pay phone out front, I reached the Rome Mission President who said the general authorities had arrived- President Busche and Anderson, and the would be at our hotel at 10:00AM. We still met at 8:00 for a continental breakfast, everyone was informed, and we went to our rooms to pack.
Everyone was in the conference room at 10:00, anxious. Since no one was there, we started to sing the beautiful hymns of Zion, which welcomed the spirit into the room. After 15 or 20 minutes of singing, someone said that they had arrived and so we started to sing ‘Called to Serve’ in Albanian- when to everyones surprise Elder Szamosfalvi and President Holman walked into the room, followed by members of the seventies Elder Busche and Elder Anderson. Sister Holman rushed to her husband and at that moment the spirit entered very powerfully into the room- descended as a heavy rain, and many eyes were filled with tears springing from the tremendous joy that filled our souls. What a joyful reunion- it was inspiring to see President and Sister Holman, standing together awestruck, as they surveyed their group of missionaries, all safe in Italy singing an anthem to their Heavenly Father.
The words of the song rang true, "God our strength will be press forward ever called to serve our King!"
President Busche and Anderson, from the European east and west presidencies, brought us the immediate greetings of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve apostles and told us of their personal interest in our welfare and of their prayers for us. President Holman also took a moment to explain how, with Elder Szamosfalvi they had spent a very uncomfortable night on a couch at the embassy houses and were flown directly over that morning. They then told us to grab our bags and take them to a bus out front because we were headed to another hotel.
We left from Brindisi and headed to a smaller town called Martina Franca and pulled into a very nice looking restaurant- we unloaded and each companionship went to his own room and we came down for lunch. The church didn’t spare any expense caring for its Albanian refugee missionaries, the food was delicious! Waiters brought out each plate and it was almost an art how they dished the food onto our plates. It was a great introduction to Italian cuisine and the next two days I only continued to be impressed- they say that in the states we eat to live, but that Italians live to eat.
After lunch, we were told to call our parents to let them hear our voices that we were safe in Italy. When my father recognized my voice, he began to cry, and then my mother sounded as if she was rejoicing- I couldn’t help my eyes from tearing up as well. It was surprising to hear from them that so many people had called, I didn’t realize that it was such a big deal. It was a warm reassurance to hear their voices.
The rest of the day we spent getting visa pictures and each missionary was individually interviewed by the two general authorities. The night was finished off with dinner and we headed to our rooms. President Busche gave us special permission to watch what CNN had to say about Albania. The report was titled, ‘Albania, Days of Rage’ and offered nothing overly encouraging.
The next day, the Sabbath, we arose and went to breakfast, afterwards heading to a conference room to hold a sacrament meeting- a tremendous spiritual experience. We started the meeting with a song and prayer and my companion and I blessed the sacrament and it was passed to the small congregation. Then the meeting was open for each missionary to bear a short testimony. As we stood one by one, there were many spiritually powerful testimonies given- our hearts were open to the influence of the Holy Ghost, and many tears- of joy and sorrow- were shed. Missionaries testified of the calm assurance through the ordeal, of the Lord Jesus Christ and his divine hand in all that had happened. Faith in our leaders was expressed as well as a great love for the Albanian people and a desire to return to Albania. Our small group of 30 serving together felt like a family, and as our separation was near, gratitude was expressed for the relationships formed and friendships shared.
When each missionary had borne testimony, the brethren (two of the seventies) of the church took turn and edified us by the spirit to prepare us for the future. Elder Neil A. Anderson stood first and read from 2 Corinthians 11 of the sufferings of Paul to help us put ours in perspectives yet told us to prepare for struggles in the future. He then continued reading various passages from the epistles of Paul and applying them to us. From Phillipians 3:8 we understood that the things we left in Albania had no real value and from verse 10 the fellowship of His suffering- he told us we should relish that feeling. He told us there would be many changes and to not let the past hinder us, but rather look ahead and to Christ. He told us to accept our new calls, and that though living conditions would be better for us, there would not be as much success. He also said that the fact that different people were listening to our message might haunt us, but that we needed to mold ourselves and adjust to the new conditions. He then assured us that our calls were reviewed by the First Presidency and encouraged us to also be able to echo the words of Paul in 2 Timothy 4:7-8 (I have kept the faith) and gave the time to his colleague.
Elder F. Enzio Busche began by talking about the Albanian people. He said that tehy are a very special people and the Lord has something in mind for them and they need to go through a cleansing process… He told us that this is a break to sharpen our awareness and that nothing was better for Albania than the prayers of 32 humble, righteous people. He then continued to tell us of our duty to exercise the love of Christ, see the potential in others and set and atmosphere where the Holy Ghost can call others to repentance. He recounted his own conversion story as a young man in Germany to end his talk.
Elder Busche then announced the new mission calls saying all were going to the British Isles except six who would be in the Italy Catania mission to be the first to return. Each name was read, my new call to the Italy Catania mission. We then concluded by singin, ‘God be With You ‘Til We Meet Again,’ and the spirit flooded teh room. Some of the missionaries were unable to sing, and every face was wet as our hearts swelled with emotion. The song and prayer ended, and there were many red eyes and flushed cheeks that quickly exited to the bathroom.
Well, that was it- the evacuation, and while that was the most exciting part, it wasn’t the hardest. Yet unrealized at the time were the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture, language and mission. True to the words of Elder Anderson, the bright recollections of Albania are sometimes haunting and I still struggle with a full acceptance of being a part of another mission. But then all this is how we grow, and through it all I know that the church is true, God lives and loves me more than I can understand.
(I spent 6 weeks in Southern Italy and then returned to the country of Albania where I was able to complete the remainder of my time)