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The earth began to shake violently at exactly 7:30 in the morning. Houses swayed and then crumbled, flames ripped through collapsed buildings, and more than 4,000 people found themselves homeless within minutes. Phone lines were down, power lines cut and a landslide blocked all routes in and out of Elbasan, an Albanian town, about 54 kilometres southeast of Tirana. With corpses littering the rubble, bleeding and injured residents screaming in pain and victims trapped under the ruins of their former homes, desperately trying to make themselves heard, panic spread. Within half an hour, as the scale of the natural disaster became apparent, agencies specialising in emergency response learned of it and began preparing their intervention.

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This was the scenario for Albania Disaster Simulation 2000, Albanias first civil-emergency planning exercise, which took place on 17 October. Such a scenario, which was inspired by the September 1999 Athens earthquake, could occur very easily in Albania, since the country lies on the same, highly sensitive fault-line as Greece and Turkey. The simulation aimed primarily at clarifying the roles and responsibilities of key agencies in Albania in the event of a natural disaster, rather than the management of such an earthquake.

The local government ministry, local authorities, emergency services, non-governmental organisations and international agencies joined in this real-time simulation, which aimed to reproduce the conditions of the critical first ten hours following a natural disaster, the time it usually takes for international assistance to arrive. Activities included casualty evacuation, food and water distribution, psychological and medical support and the supply of clothing and shelter.

The exercise was the result of three months of intensive preparations. It also followed a year of cooperation between NATO Allies, Partner countries and Albanian authorities to develop a national civil-emergency planning structure and organisation as required under Albanias Individual Partnership Programme with NATO. Moreover, a NATO consultant, Silla Jonsdottir, has been based in Tirana since April 1999 as a legal adviser to Albanias civil-emergency interministerial working group, helping draft the necessary legislation.

Ms Jonsdottir, who is from Iceland, arrived in Albania during NATOs Kosovo campaign at a time when hundreds of thousands of refugees from Kosovo were spilling over the Albanian border, overwhelming the countrys emergency-response services. The experience of having to provide emergency aid for so many people helped make the task of the interministerial group a governmental priority. Between November 1999 and January 2000, the group studied civil-emergency systems in Partner countries like Slovenia, Sweden and Austria. It then prepared a draft law, which was submitted in May 2000 to ministries, institutions, international agencies and non-governmental organisations for comment.

For the first time, all these people experienced a totally new working method based on unlimited information and experience-sharing, said Ms Jonsdottir. This approach forms the base of any well-functioning and efficient cooperation. The consultation process generated input from more than 20 sources, which has been incorporated into the draft document. It should be adopted into law in the near future.

As Ms Jonsdottirs assignment and NATOs assistance comes to an end, Albania will look to Allies and Partner countries for help in continuing the implementation of the legislation. Assistance to Albania might now exist on a bilateral basis, under the NATO umbrella, Ms Jonsdottir said. We currently envisage appointing a lead nation to supervise the process.

NATO expanded its civil-emergency planning activities to include members of the Partnership for Peace programme in 1995, many of which have since become very active in the field. Indeed, in 2000 alone, the Alliance helped organise more than 100 civil-emergency planning events, including exercises, seminars and workshops, and involving more than 100,000 officials from throughout the Euro-Atlantic region. Ms Jonsdottirs assignment, nevertheless, constitutes a milestone in NATOs civil-emergency planning as the Alliance has moved beyond its traditional, educational role, to provide tailor-made assistance on specific issues, paving the way for further stability-building programmes.

Read more: Albania
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