BRINDISI, ITALY, JULY 14 -- In Albania, a country where few have dared to raise their voices against the government, language became the instrument of a quiet rebellion.
Behind the locked doors of their homes, often at night to avoid a neighbor's prying ears, many Albanians struggled against the government's enforced silence by polishing English, Italian or other foreign tongues -- skills they might never need, keys to a world they might never know.
"You can't imagine how hard we worked to learn these languages, hoping that someday we might be able to use them," said Alma, a 29-year-old Albanian refugee, in serviceable Italian she picked up from Italian television broadcasts and practiced by tutoring cousins.
Alma, who worked in a shoe factory and studied English and Italian late in the evening, was typical of many of the roughly 3,700 Albanians who arrived here by ship Friday: A surprising number of them speak English, Italian, French or German. Their studies flourished despite strong discouragement by the Albanian government, which sought to restrict all areas of cultural life with measures such as banning Beethoven, Picasso and Hemingway.
Although it was not clear how representative the refugees were of the Albanian population at large, the interest in language seemed to cross class lines, affecting plumbers as well as professors, electricians along with economists.
Albanian refugees interviewed at dockside Friday and today at a former military camp-turned-temporary home outside Brindisi said few language classes were offered at school. They learned new phrases from rare foreign publications, even comic books and car manuals, as well as from foreign newscasts and the lyrics of singers ranging from Elvis Presley to Luciano Pavarotti.
"This was a seed of what happened this summer," said Alma, referring to the demonstrations that prompted a rush on foreign embassies in the Albanian capital, Tirana, and this wave of political refugees to the West.
Like many of her compatriots, Alma refused to give her last name and shied away from TV cameras because she feared for her family back in Albania. The regime's promise not to retaliate against relatives of those fleeing the country was greeted here with skepticism.
Many of the refugees were gun-shy because of their own experiences or that of their relatives in prisons, labor camps or coal mines, which they said were populated by thousands of suspected opponents of the regime. Torture reportedly was used frequently on political prisoners.
Although the hard-line Stalinist regime of Ramiz Alia has promised limited economic and democratic reforms, few here believe the government.
"It has changed its skin, but inside, the government is still the same," insisted Arben Elmagi, a young electrician, expressing a view common here.
Refugees said discontent had been growing over the past few years as prices rose for many basic commodities -- which were often in short supply -- with no comparable increase in wages.
According to the refugees, a skilled worker might draw enough money a day to buy a kilo of cheese. The simplest dress would cost 10 to 20 days' wages, while buying a black and white television required saving 10 months' salary.
Life was hard in other ways, refugees said. Religion was brutally repressed; recurring gas shortages made weekend outings by bus a luxury; people from age 15 to 26 were required to put in one month a year in labor camps.
For women it was often harder. At the end of a workday, Alma recounted, she came home to do housework by hand "because we have no machines." And, said a number of refugees, abortion was outlawed except where the pregnancy threatened the life of the mother, sending thousands of women to back-alley abortionists who were often fatal for the mother.
Dissent was not tolerated, but it began to grow anyway. The first sizable anti-government demonstrations, initially reported by Yugoslav media, broke out in the northern city of Shkoder last January, fueled by news reports of revolts in neighboring East European countries.
About a month later, similar outbursts occurred in the seaside town of Kavaje, while a homemade bomb exploded in the vicinity of a guarded statue of the late Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in central Tirana.
In April word spread of a planned demonstration in Tirana, a city of 250,000, but authorities got wind of it, arrested many young people and banned public groups of more than two people. On the scheduled day of the protest, said Alma, "People came out but were afraid to say anything."
In a heavily attended courtroom session, four men were convicted of organizing the "protest," refugees said. Although state radio and TV ignored the trial, word spread rapidly and sparked a demonstration of more than 10,000 people July 2 that wound up in a bloody clash with police.
The demonstration, pointedly staged outside foreign embassies "so the world would hear about it," according to one refugee, also refueled attempts to scale embassy walls or crash through mission gates with everything from motorcycles to trucks.
Last Thursday, the Albanian government bowed to the requests of United Nations officials and issued passports to about 4,500 Albanians holed up in European embassies. After being put on boats, two-thirds of the refugees arrived in Italy and were sent by train to West Germany, where they arrived in Heidelberg today, weary but jubilant. Another 700 were bound for France, while about 800 were put up at the Brindisi camp.
Today, refugees eagerly sought Italian telephone tokens to call relatives at home and to contact the U.S. Embassy in Rome. Almost all plan to seek political asylum in the West, and most of them seem to want to head to the United States.
Said Arben Elmagi, frowning angrily into the sun: "We feel Europe and America have been a bit indifferent to the way our people have been violated, to their courage . . . . We don't understand why the West isn't speaking out to help us more, because without outside support this small revolution will die."