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Afghan Withdrawal Raises Questions, But Saving Lives Comes First, Says Albanian Prime Minister

In an interview Thursday, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said there are questions about how the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan was handled, “but we need to first save the lives [of Afghans].”

Rama, whose country is temporarily hosting 4,000 Afghan refugees, said that as a NATO member country, Albania has to take its “share of responsibility” to protect those who worked with the organization in Afghanistan.

Rama told Mirwais Rahmani of VOA’s Afghan Service that Afghan refugees can stay in Albania for as long as they wish.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you so much for your time. Albania was one of the first countries that offered to host Afghan refugees. Tell us why.

Prime Minister Edi Rama: Because of who we are. We have a very proud history of having built our life in this country for generations based in our first common law, which says that the house of the Albanians belongs to God and the guest. The accurate translation would be the traveler. And then there is a whole explanation of the duty behind the knock at the door of whomever is behind the door and in whatever situation he, she or they are, you have to open the door and you have to offer shelter to the traveler that is lost or needs refuge or needs to be fed or whatever. So, that is first. Second is our history. Our grandparents did something fascinating and thanks to them, Albania became the first and the last European country that had more Jews after the war than before and independent from their religion.

And many Jews were saved by being hidden from Muslim armies. Because we have Muslims and Christians here but independent from their religion, Albania was protecting Jews. And then we were like the Afghans 30 years ago. So, it was at that time us demanding help and knocking on others’ doors for shelter.

Now it's the time to give what we got. And finally, I would say that we owe it to our children. Our children need to inherit this attitude, and every generation should cultivate it when the chance is being presented because, God forbid, we become a cynical rich country.

Edi Rama: Thirty years ago, "it was at that time us demanding help and knocking on others’ doors for shelter. Now it's the time to give what we got."

VOA: I'm sure you saw the chaos and tragedy in Kabul airport during the last two weeks of August. Many believe it was a result of hasty withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan. What's your take on this?

Rama: As I said and I want to repeat, for sure what happened in the last weeks and what the world saw live from Kabul, from the airport, from the scenes of desperate people losing gravity and falling from the sky will absolutely raise many questions – many questions about our civilization, about our democratic world, about NATO, about the future of NATO and how we should see and shape it. But it's not the time to enter in this (conversation) until the last person that is in need is saved from whatever the danger might be for him or her in Afghanistan. We should take care of human lives, and then of course, the discussion will follow. But on the other hand, I have to say that, you know, it's quite hypocritical to put the blame on the United States and on the administration and just wash their hands like Pontius Pilate. After all we have been in this together. Yes, there are questions, of course, and the withdrawal had its problems, and it's obvious but we need to first save the lives. And the blame on the withdrawal, the whatever mismanagement of the withdrawal, the dramatic episodes of the withdrawal, should not be alibis or should not be instruments to forget the real thing – the lives of people.

Edi Rama: "The withdrawal had its problems and it's obvious, but we need to first save the lives."

VOA: I talked to some Afghan evacuees in Albania. Their main concern is the uncertainty surrounding the process of their application. An Afghan evacuee, while thanking your government for the warm hospitality, had a question for you: in case their application or resettlement process takes months or years, will the Albanian government provide them with health services and education opportunities for their children?

Rama: Thank you for the question. It's a very good question. First of all, they should forget months. It will not be months. It will be more than months because the mass of applications and the massive bureaucratic work that has to be done back in the [United] States for so many people that have been parked, as they said, in different places in Europe or elsewhere, is huge. So, it will be more than months. Secondly, we have already decided that we will offer them free health care.

The concern of the kids and the young students is a common concern. So, we are working to come up with a plan, we are working to be able to create a network of teachers because we can put them right away in our schools. But it's in Albanian, and we need to somehow give them some continuity to have their language and English, so we are working on that. And we will not let them, you know, drag in the places they are for more than months without sending those kids to school, without being able to see a future. At the same time, I would invite all of them to think about integrating while waiting – they are great people.

VOA: The U.S. might not take in those Afghans who fail security background checks, or their cases are rejected. How will Albania deal with such a scenario? Are you ready to take in those Afghans who will have no other place to go, or is there any alternative solution?

Rama: They are at home here. They should feel at home here, and if they want to stay, they are welcome. We will never tell them to leave the country because they don't fulfill criteria. We'll never tell them they have to apply for a visa clearance in Albania. We suffered a lot from visa regimes, and we are not going to be now a visa regime country for them, so they are more than welcome to stay.

VOA: What’s Albania's reaction to the Taliban's government in Afghanistan? Will Albania, as a country that hosts hundreds, if not thousands, of Afghans, recognize a government led by the Taliban?

Rama: Albania had its Taliban. They were not Islamic Taliban. They were Marxist and Leninist Taliban. And we saw religion being bombed. We saw God being declared illegal. We saw our own culture of the 20th century being bombed. We saw the jailing of artists, of writers, of play writers. We saw a total lack of freedom of expression. We saw full nationalization, and private property being dumped and being bombed and so many other things that, you know, you have seen in that country. Every comparison has its weakness. So, I'm not going further. But no, we will not be part of any club that will recognize this regime.

Let me add this. While I said this, I say also the other thing, that it's important to build communication, it's important to talk with that regime. Because for the sake of all that need to be helped, demands it. So, one of the strengths of our Taliban regime was that not only didn't they want to talk to others, but the others didn’t want to talk to them. So, this is something to be remembered.