Isabela and Zamira Islamis' journey to freedom started on Aug. 1, 1984, when they dove off the rocky coast of communist Albania and swam for 13 hours toward the Greek island of Corfu. It ended yesterday in an Alexandria courtroom when the sisters were sworn in as U.S. citizens.

"I have talked to American friends for hours and hours about how it was" in Albania, said Zamira Islami, 32, her voice flavored with the accent of her native land. "It's hard for them to understand."

On the eve of her naturalization, Zamira Islami spoke optimistically of the future: "Tomorrow I will celebrate, yes."

It is a time for joy, the sisters said, particularly in light of recent events in their tiny Balkan homeland, which is slightly larger than Maryland in area. Earlier this month, Albania's Stalinist government allowed about 4,400 people to leave the country after they stormed European embassies in the capital city of Tirana, demanding liberty.

But the Islami sisters' joy is tinged with sadness. Their brother Klement, 28, disappeared while attempting to swim the Ionian Sea with them; his body has never been found. And, except for three letters, the communist regime back home allowed no direct communication with their family until recently.

The sisters, who live in Fairfax County and work as broadcasters for the Voice of America, learned by letter that their father died of a heart attack -- six months after it happened.

Given that background, they describe being overjoyed when they read the first news reports detailing recent events in Albania. Isabela Islami, 37, said she knew what her countrymen had been going through, that their protest was spurred by the same frustrations that moved her, her sister and her brother to flee.

The sisters recalled that when they were children, their parents would talk to them of freedom and tell them about their freedom-loving ancestors.

"My grandfather was executed for being an anti-communist," said Isabela Islami. "He said we Albanians don't have anything in common with the communist Russian Bolsheviks.

"As a child I was told not to talk about government policy. I was once criticized by my literature teacher for not referring to 'the {Communist} Party' in one of my compositions. The composition was about our native land."

Because their family was outspoken against communism, Isabela, Zamira and Klement were sent in the mid-1970s into "internal exile" in the remote village of Cerme, which Isabela described as having no more than a dozen cottages. "I used to have to help dig canals in the fields," she said. "I still have . . . how do you say, scars on my hands. My hands, they are not soft like American women's."

Once in exile, they were allowed to travel only 15 days each year. The rest of the time, they had to check in with government officials at 5 each morning and again at 7 each night, they said.

In January 1983, Klement Islami decided he'd had enough. "It was my birthday that he said, 'Next birthday we will celebrate somewhere else,' " Isabela Islami said.

The trio planned their escape for their July 1984 travel period. Three days of traveling put them in Sarande, a city on the Ionian seacoast.

At 10 p.m. on Aug. 1, the threesome went out for a walk and dove into the warm waters, heading for Greece.

"We thought Corfu was closer than it actually was," Isabela Islami said. But they kept swimming, "thinking that we would get to a foreign country, a free country."

Zamira Islami said that after covering about 12 miles in 13 hours, she "became numb -- I was just trying not to drown." Her sister spotted an Italian yacht and began swimming toward it. She was pulled aboard, and the people on the boat began searching for Zamira, who was found drifting in the water, too exhausted to swim.

Although Klement was never seen again, Isabela Islami believes her brother is alive. "If there was a dead body out there, somebody would have found it," she said. "Sometimes when you don't have news, it is good news."

Isabela Islami concluded that the sisters' story has one chapter to go before a happy ending can be written. Their 66-year-old mother, Nadire, remains in Albania. "She deserves freedom," Isabela Islami said.