Albania

21 Feb

This week I attended meetings in Vienna and I am attending now meetings in Albania. The appalling lack of understanding of what is going on in the ghettoes and the huge economic incentives that make people in abject poverty to be involved or victims of trafficking, prostitution, begging, and drug abuse seem to be still completely outside the institutional logic of both governments and intergovernmental organisations. We need to reverse the fact that most of the EU money ( hundred of millions of Euros) goes into hundred of reports, trainings, cultural events while there is almost no money whatsoever for work at the grassroots.

Scary is also that the Roma leadership is the same as it was 10 years ago. The Roma elites seem to cling to their positions and in the process block young smart Roma to replace them. This needs to change as we need to change the sometimes abject attacks against non-Roma that are dedicated and often much more successful than some of our leaders to help the Roma in the ghettoes.

Here a full – uncensored report from the ghettoes in Albania

January 2005

His name is Elvis. They just demolished his house. It was built illegally – this was and remains now (September  2013) the case with the overwhelmingmajority of Roma housing. He is eight years old but looks like a four year old. He has a strong, scary cough his parents didn’t take him to the hospital. No money for that – not enough money to survive – garbage recycling and begging bring just enough to feed the alcohol addiction of his already broken 26 years old father.

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Tuberculosis was then and remains now a serious threat among Roma children in Albania. Elvis ate from what he managed to beg and sometimes from garbage bins. His pet was a rat. His mother wished they would manage to migrate to Greece or Italy– begging was rumored to be a good business there. Young –underage Roma women were in 2005 the main targets of traffickers to Kosovo, Italy and Greece.

Summer 2013

It is a long bus ride from the city center of Tirana to the first settlement – around 45 minutes. It is hot and the bus is overcrowded. We get off near some newly build social housing They look great but are too close to what it seems to be the main electric power station for the city. I find out later that no Roma live in the nice buildings here.

There is also a brand new Community Center built next by the Roma settlement by one of the most vocal on Roma rights intergovernmental organisations working in Albania . Roma were not involved in the construction work that took place next to them despite the fact they badly need work .

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Hut in the ghetto – community center (pink building right) and new social housing

The access is the same as any other ghetto – a dirt road that takes us there.  A family sleeps on the ground just before the first shack. A small creek that looks more like a sewage canal is at the edge of the huts. Some children are bathing in the dirty water.

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creek full of garbage next to the ghetto

There are 57 huts – between 400 to 450 people live here. Four toilets built by the local administration one toilet for at least 100 people. There is running water. The place is full of all kind of garbage. Adults and children work together to sort it.

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hut in the ghetto, motorcycle, TV antenna and garbage for recycling Albania 2013

A man – 29 years old shows me his hands. Dirty, lots of cuts. Sweat is running down his face.  As young boy he used to work in Greece he says. His wife laughs at him – begging in Greece not working. He nods and says – “yes, Roma type of work – the man knows what I am talking about”. They have together one little daughter – she is three years old. The mother has another four other children. One of them is in prison for stealing scrap metal. She had her first child before she was 13 years old. The hut is amazingly clean but strikingly poor. She has some cheap china on display – it is rigorously ordered on the shelves. An old TV is blasting in the background. They steal electricity. Everybody here does she says. She locks the two doors when we get out of the hut. I ask her why. There are alcoholics that will steal anything and sell it for booze she tells me. Her husband uses a modified motorbike to collect and carry the garbage. He is lucky as he managed to pay it off – shark loans are here a problem too.

None of the families here were offered social housing. One in four children goes to school is the estimate of the informal Roma women leader – it is a matter of economics – that is the maximum a family can afford. Some women wash their carpets outside as I saw in almost all the ghettoes I have visited. It is one of the many similarities to what I saw in Roma ghettoes all around Europe.

None of the Roma here were offered to work when the nearby social housing and community center were built. Poverty is good for grandiose speeches, promises from the politicians and a great business for those well connected. Some of the men in the ghetto complain about that – they say they had some experience working in construction and they should have been recruited to work there.   It is true also that those strongly considering regular work are clearly a small minority among the men. Women and children beg. A good part of the men that live here steal. Almost everybody else is involved in recycling garbage. Most of the adult men have been at least once in prison. Over half of the families here spent some years in Greece or Italy. A thin and wiry boy asks me for money – is the third generation of beggars I am told by his mother. She looks defeated as she dumps a big dirty bag with plastic collected from garbage. It needs to be sorted and children will have to help. Big bags for collecting garbage are everywhere. Among them people, chickens, rats and dogs try their best to make a living.

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hen, rooster, dog and garbage recycling bags- Albania 2013

The Albanian neighborhood near by has very tall fences around their houses. Barbed wire and pieces of glass on the top of the fences to prevent burglary  is the norm here. In the last years I see this happening in many other places near by Roma ghettoes. I saw it also in South Africa – the only difference is that here in Europe electrified fences are not yet the same big hit as they are in South Africa.

Social services in the settlement here are practically non-existent. The few people that adventure to come here are either journalists looking for sensational stories or the odd NGO activists that work at the grassroots. Even those very few can come rarely and as long as they have finances for their projects.  The idea of helping or volunteer work in Roma communities it is laughable considering the existing prejudices within the majority population.

The tiny Roma elites have also no culture of helping their communities and it is not rare that they will strongly criticize and try to prevent the dedicated non-Roma activists that want to help to work in the Roma settlements. This is mainly done with the hope they could have control over financial resources targeting Roma.

Access to health services and education in these types of settlements is much harder than the average bureaucrat in the local administration or Albanian government believes. The incentives that work for the poor and medium class Albanian or Roma for that matter to get a good education, learn about how the administrative system works, rights and responsibilities simply can not work in the ghettoes. Abject poverty forces people in deploying surviving strategies that are incomprehensible for most of the decision makers as they never were exposed to these situations.

The shacks are built illegally and there is always the risk that these people will be evacuated. Lack of identity cards, migrations, the slow but clear replacement of two parents families with mono- parental mother based family are some of the other problems. The majority of the people here are children. Most work helping their parents survive. Recycling garbage, begging and small theft is for now the way they do it. Their future looks grim as prostitution and drugs are on rise in Tirana. So does the future of the community.

As we depart I am amazed by the beauty of the landscape. The dirt road full of holes, the children bathing in the filthy water, and the crowded shacks are a tough and stark reminder of the differences that exists here.

The next ghetto I see is very close to the highway at the other edge of the city. It reminds me of locations ofghettoes in Italy, France and Spain.

There is lots of garbage- mainly plastic- that waits to be sorted.  The temperature is well over 35 Celsius. There are at least 20 children under six years old running around.

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garbage recycling, toxic pound and huts – ghetto Albania

Some older children help their mothers with sorting the garbage. The toilets are just holes in the ground. It stinks.

In the first hut the woman complains that her children have no papers. They were born in Greece. It costs a lot to register them in Albania she complains. The husband is drunk. Domestic violence is rife and affects mainly women and children. Theft and prostitution are the other alternative to garbage work. There is no water tap close by. The lake is used for washing.

The children here are again the third generation of beggars. You start as a beggar- you end up sorting garbage. The stages in between are many times theft, prostitution, prison, selling prostitutes, robbery.

Venereal diseases here are a serious problem – the most recent cases where syphilis and gonorrhea. A tired male prostitute with a strident make-up passes by. He walks awkwardly on his high hills in his blue dress stained by sweat.

A truck full of construction waste comes and dumps its load ten meters from the huts. There is lots of dust. Two children none of them older than 3 years old start playing with the waste. They are fast covered in the white dust that makes me cough. Most probably the dust is toxic.  None of the children here goes to school. Even if there will be transportation available for them there is no much chance they could stay in school. Abject poverty translates in no amenities whatsoever – the result I know it from my own experience– you stink. Children and teachers are not particularly happy with very poor and stinky children. When you are Roma the chances to be openly hated are rather high.

Same type of modified motorcycle I saw in the previous Roma settlement is  also used for transporting the collected and recycled garbage – the ones I see here looks almost luxurious considering the huts and the dirt and clothing of people around. There is stolen Volkswagen logo welded in front of one of these motorcycles. Pictures of sexy almost naked blonde women are painted on the sides . In the back there is a horse-shoe –for luck . It looks almost surreal.

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Men have complicated tattoos. Most have been in prison at least once. No drugs here- they are too expensive I am told – cheap alcohol is the alternative addiction. The majority of men are alcoholics I am told. From what I see some of the women here have a similar problem. Somebody complains that they are too poor even to be considered by the drug dealers as mules for trafficking drugs to Greece. There are Roma in the Albanian prisons caught trying to smuggle drugs to Greece. A successful “mule” gets 500 Euros.  I wonder how many children wish to do it and how many will end up trafficking drugs. Considering the poverty they live in probably the majority of them wish to do this “job”. Some will as there are no many other options. Looking at the adults around I am certain in the same conditions I would try to get a contract as a mule myself. And dream as they do that one day I would make it big and manage to get myself and my family out of this hellish place.

There is a boy that sorts garbage near by. He looks like 4-5 years old but probably is closer to 9 considering his dexterity in sorting rubbish. Parents are out together with 2 other siblings to collect garbage. He wears two different shoes a sandal and a sport shoe. The sport shoe is for the wrong foot – it should be on his left. He wears some dirty trousers and nothing else. He is severely bitten by mosquitos – the lake is near by. His body is drenched in sweat as he moves fast sorting garbage.

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After some 10- 15 minutes he stops. He goes to his hut, gets a piece of cheese and some cucumber and sits down in front of the shack as he most probably saw his father doing. It is a sad view and makes me feel like shit. His chances to end up, hurt, addicted, in prison or as a male prostitute are exceptionally high while chances to get and education and manage to escape the ghetto are exceptionally small.

Syphilis sores are quite frequent in this ghetto I am told. Some of the children have them too.  The poverty is so abject that there are cases when shark loans will force the families to “rent” a child to them in order to recover the money. Some of the most productive criminal networks take children to beg to Pristina – the capital of Kosovo – the more powerful Euro and the massive presence of intergovernmental institutions there means better business for the gangs that use children for begging. A few years ago during the time the presence of international security forces was high there used to be a massive flux of underage prostitutes recruited from ghettoes such as this one here.

Politicians have rallies all over the city. The elections are scheduled for the next week.  The rally meetings look sophisticated and expensive. There are many garbage collectors that “benefit” the huge gatherings free food and lots of recyclable paper and plastic. Beggars, mainly children can be seen in the center of the city especially around the outdoor terraces.

During my time in Tirana I saw over a hundred people collecting garbage – they were not exclusively Roma but the majority of them were Romani women.

As in other countries there are small “pocket ghettoes” – places where there is a small concentration of apartments occupied by Roma among a larger non-Roma neigborhood.

The apartment buildings look very much like those in Ferentari- Bucharest. In the main streets nearby Roma women sell second hand clothes. Most of them buy the clothes in bulk and sell them one by one on the streets to make a profit. This is a grey business as there are no taxes involved. The police comes from time to time mostly to collect bribes or chose something they like from the pile of second hand clothing.

The huge bags of garbage are also there. Roma live mostly on the first floor of those apartment building and the neighbors complain about the garbage collectors. It stinks, it looks dirty and some of the garbage looks toxic.

As we cross the bridge in Tirana I see a familiar face. I talked to him in the winter less than 6 months ago – nothing changed – he is in the same situation half naked and begging.

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In January 2013- it was a cold day – he was half naked as he was now. He was high then – he snuffed a half full bag of glue from time to time. Nowadays, a friend that works with people in the streets tells me, he takes harder drugs.

The garbage dump of Tirana looks like any other garbage dump I saw. Close by there are a number of Roma shacks. The resemblance with the Roma settlements around many other garbage dumps all around Europe is striking. This is a highly toxic environment.

There are 14 shacks on the hill besides the garbage dump. Piles of garbage can be seen in front of most of them. There is no running water and no electricity. Everybody in the families here including very young children are involved in work on the garbage dump. School is simply not an option. There is a kind of smog- from burned garbage. The air feels sticky and dirty.  Near by the huts there are outside toilets. They look filthy.

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Roma hut –around 150 meters away from the garbage dump of Tirana

Begging, trafficking drugs and prostitution look like luxury options for children growing up here. Life in prison seems a much better option than life here. The huts are built from scrap wood and plastic from the garbage.  Whenever there is a heavy rain the roofs leak or collapse.

Working on the garbage dump is dangerous and not only because on the toxic environment. In the past children died here in work accidents. The garbage dump ensures the survival of around 20 Roma families. It is terrible work and it will sooner rather than later disappear as the recycling business becomes cleaner and profitable. What will happen with the people depending on the garbage dump nobody seem to know or care. Social services here do not exist – legally a number of people here do not exists either as they do not have ID papers.

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Child and crooked cardboard housing next by the garbage dump of Tirana

In 2003 and then in 2005 I visited the largest Roma community in Albania – Kinostudio. Now in 2013 not much seem to have changed. The river near by the houses is full of garbage. A few girls play in the polluted water. It is hot.

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The local administration in Tirana plans to be build a highway here – it means most of the houses will be demolished. Some of the houses built at the very edge of the river look in danger of falling into the river if serious rains fall.

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People bring construction waste and dump it into the river in order to protect their households. A conservative estimate puts the number of Roma that live in houses built without permits in Kinostudio to more than 5.000.

Pockets of smaller Roma settlements are all around the city. Some of them are very central. In the winter of 2004 a Roma ghetto was located almost in the same place as the one I visited in June 2013. The difference seems to be that now there is lots more pilled garbage to be sorted and the focus switched to plastic from metal scraps.

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June 2013 – Tirana                               December 2004 – Tirana

Back in December 2004 I spent a few days here. There were around 100 people living in illegal shacks at the margin of the road.

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Child and living condition ; working to get scrap metal– Albania December 2004

Almost everybody was either into begging and/or garbage recycling. The housing conditions were similarly terrible – dirt floors, heating based on burning scrap wood or garbage. Many of the children were sick and all looked underdeveloped. The risk of tuberculosis was very high among them.

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Children getting water in the ghetto- Tirana June 2013

 Now there is a fence separating the road from the ghetto. Most of them were children. The ghetto did not change much the only thing that changed is around the ghettoes. The new luxurious buildings are in strident contrast with the shacks were Roma live.

There are 70 families – around 300 people living in the shacks most of them children. They are at risk to be evacuated any time. The business in the ghetto is mainly focused on garbage collection and recycling. There are a few piles of plastic and metal next to the huts.

Four men are playing domino. Adults– some younger some older. All of them with heavy tattoos – most of those tattoos were made in prison they tell me. Small criminality is part of every day life here as in any other ghettoes. Most of them have been to Greece in the past. Agriculture work, begging and small theft was their main ways of survival I am told.

There is an old woman here that works hard and tries to push others to do the same. Unfortunately her business (she sells flour sieves) is not successful. Racism plays an important part in her lack of success – she believes.

On August 5,2013 the mayoralty of Tirana decided to destroy the huts to force these people move. At that moment only 37 families were still there – close to 100 children. The video of women wailing and children watching the bulldozers destroying their homes is heart wrecking.

The children there are pushed even further into criminality. A criminality that will cost the state hundreds of times more than needed to address their situation and offer those children the possibility of a normal future. Without this opportunity most will choose as role models the very few Mafioso’s that control their lives . They will dream that some lucky hit in Greece or Italy, controlling a network of beggars or prostitutes, selling or trafficking drugs will put them in the black tinted windows Mercedes that comes and picks-up children from time to time and takes them to work in the most profitable spots for begging.

It doesn’t look like the government cares what will happen to the Roma whose houses were demolished or will be demolished. Some Albanian political elites seem to think that forced eviction will somehow make Roma problems disappear.

Others seem to think that “exporting” Roma problems to the European Union is a solution. Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia and Czech Republic did try it after they joined the European Union. The results – an increase in anti-Gypsyism , the explosion of ghettoes in Western Europe and a significant raise in racially motivated violence in the European Union.

Piles of garbage, adults watching powerless as their houses were destroyed, children that do not understand what is going on, solidly caught in the horrible cycle of living from garbage, an angry teenager sitting on a mattress watching the destruction of what used to be his neighborhood – these is what is left of the settlement.

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Demolition of a Roma settlement – Tirana August 2013

I wonder if Elvis is among them. He could very well be – a young angry father with a hellish future in front of him.

The risks within the Albanian ghettoes are serious. Not many want to see it and almost nobody wants to deal with it.

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