TIRANA, Albania — Emerging ghostlike from the blackness of a Tirana back alley, Violeta Muco wheels her battered bicycle up against the curbstones just before 1 a.m.
She deposits a string bag with two scuffed bottles into a line of waiting containers and mumbles a greeting to those already ahead of her in the line for milk.
At 4 a.m. her 10-year-old daughter will come to take her place for the last few hours, returning home around sunrise with the family's precious ration of two liters.
The all-night vigil is the only means of obtaining milk in famine-stricken Albania, and milk is often the only variation from a diet of tasteless gray bread and contaminated water.
In Tirana, the shabby capital, hordes of street urchins hound foreign visitors for money, chanting "Leka! Leka!" They beg for ballpoint pens, chewing gum--anything they can trade for food.
In the countryside, barefoot children clad in rags rush into the roads to stop the few vehicles that pass, pointing to their mouths in a gesture that conveys in any language that they are hungry.
A three-year drought is spreading starvation through this tiny Balkan nation of 3.3 million. It long has been the poorest, most backward in Europe. And the collapse of communism elsewhere in Eastern Europe has severed Albania's last traditional avenues for foreign trade.
The late dictator Enver Hoxha once vowed that Albanians would rather eat grass than cooperate with capitalists. But abject poverty and increasing hopelessness have forced his Communist successors to eat his words.
In an attempt to jump-start its lifeless economy, Albania, Europe's last totalitarian enclave, has opened up to the West with appeals for foreign investment and loans to bankroll recovery.
But as the last to emerge from communism's self-imposed isolation, Albanians are coming to the distressing realization that they are at the end of the line for what little Western assistance is being offered to the East.
Even more troubling in its implications for the future is the country's failure to abandon the socialist foundation on which its bankrupt economy is based.
Western governments, including the United States, have been holding out aid as a reward for reform. But Albania's recent election amounted to an endorsement of the most inflexible faction within the Communist ranks.
"No Western government is ready to assist a neo-Communist regime," Democratic Party chief Sali Berisha lamented after his opposition movement's defeat at the polls.
Despite the widespread suffering in this corner of Europe, Berisha's fears appear well-founded. American and Western European political leaders have made it clear that help is contingent on political change.
"Albania doesn't need more foreign debt--it needs domestic freedom," insisted U.S. Rep. Bob McEwen, an Ohio Republican who visited Albania in late March.
"The reason people are standing in line for bread in North Korea, and in Moscow, and in Havana, and in Albania, is because of a lack of freedom. When there is a free economy and this is a free country, there will be abundance."
Echoing the views of other Western lawmakers, McEwen said the U.S. Congress would be willing to aid a poor country with promise, "but all of the resources of the West cannot make food available under a Communist regime."
Albania's needs are truly daunting, as hunger and hardship intensify with each day.
Stately linden trees that lined the roadway between Tirana and the Adriatic coast for decades were hacked down to unsightly stumps this past winter by Albanians who needed firewood to heat their homes.
The drought cut deeply into food and hydroelectric supplies, prompting the government to suspend agricultural and energy exports that used to provide some hard currency and barter goods.
For lack of spare parts or money to buy them, entire factories have since shut down, setting off a chain reaction of supply shortages that are slowly bringing industry to a grinding halt.
Communist officials still deny there is unemployment in Albania, but streets teeming with loiterers speak to the truth. The jobless throngs are providing a breeding ground for increasing bitterness and discontent.
"People in the cities said before the elections that if the Party of Labor (the Communists) wins, that they'd all leave," said Robert Elsie, a Canadian who has specialized in Albanian affairs for 15 years.
"Without economic stability, you can't have political stability. People here will demonstrate, which will prompt the police to crack down, and then the West will withdraw whatever aid it conceived of in punishment for those excesses."
Demoralized armies of idle youths are already inundating Western embassies with pleas for visas, threatening another wave of refugees on top of the 40,000 who fled to Greece, Italy and Yugoslavia earlier this year. The port city of Durres remains under military control to prevent a repeat of the exodus in February, when thousands commandeered ships to take them to Italy.