SARANDA, Albania — This is the fear that envelops Albania:
A woman furtively approaches a foreigner on a Tirana street corner, asks him to relay a message to relatives abroad, then slinks back into the cool night.
Shabbily dressed residents in an apartment house in the coastal city of Saranda turn away as a foreign journalist stares up at their windows. They then send a boy to report his unauthorized presence to distraught official guides.
Two young men approach the journalist near a dark fountain in downtown Tirana to discuss their passion for soccer. But they break off the conversation when two plainclothes policemen who had been following the writer suddenly show up.
'Everyone Is Vigilant'
When the journalist complains later, a government official shrugs a denial.
"If we had really posted people to follow you, you wouldn't have known about it," he said. "In any case, there is no need. If you become involved in any anti-state activities, then the Albanian people themselves will inform on you. Everyone in Albania is vigilant."
Forty-two years of isolation and tight state control enforced by the police force known as Sigurimi, or security, have left Albania's 2.9 million people afraid to talk with the few foreign visitors allowed into the Adriatic state. As a result, despite some signs that the country's Communist rulers are moving to open their society, it is still difficult to determine just what the ordinary Albanian thinks about the way he must live.
"(Albanians) have been warned by the police and (Communist) Party officials not to talk to foreigners," a Western diplomat in Tirana, the capital, told a reporter who was recently permitted to make a rare visit to the world's last hard-line Stalinist state.
Fear of Jail
"If the Sigurimi catch them, they face being charged with anti-state agitation and propaganda, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in jail," the diplomat said.
The policy is said to be harshly enforced. Albanian defectors contend that there are about 40,000 political prisoners in Albania, including ethnic Greeks, Roman Catholics and Muslims barred from practicing their religions in the world's only officially atheistic nation.
The defectors tell stories of authorities forcing a son to betray his mother for hoarding food, of a court jailing a man for 25 years because he refused to toast the health of the late Albanian leader Enver Hoxha and of a man being imprisoned in 1980 for showing "too much enthusiasm" during a performance by a touring Greek folklore group.
At the heart of the fear is Albania's adherence to Stalinism, a hard-line brand of Communism that has been abandoned by even the Soviet Union. Albania continues to revere Josef Stalin long after his homeland, the Soviet Union, has turned away from him. He is a hero, with streets and cities named after him.
Controls in Evidence
"Albanian unity and economic progress can only be achieved through Stalinist ideals," one government official said.
Albania's dedication to strict controls was in evidence when a reporter departed from his arranged schedule and walked without escort into an apartment complex for workers in Saranda, opposite the Greek isle of Corfu.
The journalist's greetings sparked suspicious and hostile glances from many residents, although one Gypsy woman ignored the rest to smile and wave back.
As the reporter made his way back to his official party, he found that his guides had already been informed of his unauthorized wanderings: A young boy sent by anxious parents to sound the alarm was already running back home.
Dissent is punished severely. Citing testimony from defectors, Amnesty International has described the harsh life of political prisoners in two labor camps, Spac and Ballsh, and in Burrel Prison.
Prisoners at Spac, the rights group contends, work six or seven days a week in copper mines, surviving on meager food rations, and have little or no contact with their families. Amnesty International said that prisoners are permitted to rest only long enough to listen to lectures by Spac's political commissar.
In a rare interview, Paskal Haxhi, 60, a former Supreme Court judge who now teaches constitutional law at Tirana University, denied that such camps exist. But he acknowledged that criminals are sent to "work centers" for "re-education."
Haxhi also said that there was a "precautionary system of internal exile for people such as the families of defectors, to move them away from border areas."
No Numbers Released
The government has never revealed the number of prisoners in Albania. Haxhi said there was only one prison in Albania, which held 80 inmates, and "as our crime rate decreases every year, the prison will eventually be closed."