PRAGUE, JULY 11 -- Speaking openly about life in Albania for the first time in their lives, the first 51 political refugees to reach safety abroad out of several thousand overflowing foreign embassies in Tirana painted a picture today of modern Albania at odds with its longtime image as the hermit of Europe.
Far from being ignorant of current events, the Albanians here said their countrymen tune in daily to the Voice of America and to Yugoslav and Italian radio broadcasts, in much the way Romanians did before their revolution. "Every day, all of Albania listens to the Voice of America, Italian radio, Yugoslavia, and we talk about it afterward," said Musa Hoxha, who, like many of the refugees, spoke fluent Italian. Some knew English, which they had taught themselves by listening to the radio. "So like this, we know everything that's happening in Europe and the rest of the world."
That knowledge gave them the courage to try to flee the last hard-line Communist country in Europe, said Hoxha, 36, who described himself as a worker and former political prisoner. "All my life I dreamed to live in a democratic country," he said. "Now the new politics of Europe created the possibility also for me to leave."
He said it was news of Czechoslovakia's November revolution and the human-rights stance of President Vaclav Havel that led him and the other 50 refugees here to take refuge in the Czechoslovak Embassy in Tirana, the Albanian capital, an unthinkable option seven months ago. "We knew that Czechoslovakia is now the country of democracy," he said.
Some of the refugees said many Albanians are aware of the plan to reunify the two Germanys with Soviet consent. That knowledge, they said, may have encouraged 2,000 Albanians to head for the West German Embassy in Tirana when police broke up an anti-government demonstration June 28.
The refugees said Albania could be on the brink of tumultuous but unscripted change. They lamented the lack of any organized political opposition but said simple demographics and the faltering Communist economy may be propelling Albania in the direction taken last year by other formerly Communist nations in Eastern Europe. Albania has the highest birthrate in Europe and the youngest population, with a median age of 26. The refugees here are mostly young men, shoemakers, plumbers, mechanics and laborers.
"It's very difficult to find work -- for intellectuals, also for regular workers without qualifications," Hoxha said. There are few new jobs in the country's flagging industrial sector. More than half the work force is thought to be farm laborers; the average annual income is about $200.
Work is especially hard to find if one has fallen afoul of the secret police, the Sigurimi. Hoxha said his prospects came to a halt in the mid-1970s when he was sentenced to seven years in prison. He said his crime was to tell a group of people he considered friends that Albania's late dictator and Communist Party founder, Enver Hoxha, was "worse than Stalin." Musa Hoxha said he was a distant and poor relation of the former leader, who died in 1985.
During the June 28 demonstration, refugees said, young people held up two fingers in a sign of support for freedom and multi-party democracy. But not all of the refugees who fled to foreign embassies that day may have intended to seek permanent asylum.
Luan Likaj, the self-described leader of the group, said he had been out on the street when the demonstration started and police resorted to violence to break it up.
"It was dark. I heard shouts and shots. . . . I saw the police intervene, and so I went to the embassy.
"I didn't have a big desire to go out of the country until that time. I wanted to live and work in my country and be near my parents, wife and children."
The more than 3,000 refugees still crowded into foreign embassies in Tirana will be on their way out of Albania possibly as soon as Thursday. The Italian Foreign Ministry announced today that three ferry boats, two chartered by Italy and one by France, will leave for Albania Thursday and transport the refugees to the Italian port of Brindisi. The refugees from the overcrowded West Germany Embassy will be first to go, the Italians said.
But some of the Albanians may have more trouble finding permanent homes than they had scaling embassy walls. Diplomats are said to be worried that too lenient treatment of this group of refugees could encourage a second wave.
West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher has said West Germany would accept all the Albanians who sought refuge in its embassy. But European Community diplomats have reportedly said they might want to distinguish between those Albanians seeking asylum for political reasons and those who have emigrated seeking better economic opportunity.
The latter group typically finds it harder to gain entry to Western countries. Many of the refugees are thought to be unskilled laborers, and the U.S. State Department has said it would process refugee requests from Albanians through normal bureaucratic channels, often a lengthy procedure. But none of this may discourage others from trying.
"I think there will be many more Albanians who will go out, because people have endured 40 and 50 years of life under the eye of soldiers and police. If it's not possible to leave the official way, then people will try to leave illegally," said Albert Turhani, 31, a plumber who taught himself English and said he wanted to study poetry in the United States.
In Tirana, the Albanian government, seemingly taking no chances, has the embassies under heavy guard.
Here in Prague, meanwhile, halfway between home and places they can only imagine, the Albanians sit on their cots in the rundown Motorlet Company workers' dormitory and dream.
"In Albania, I lacked all the things an American would miss in prison," Turhani said. "America is a place where I can be a human being."