Thursday, March 17, 2011


I know Albania is sadly not unusual in this at all, but sometimes it feels like a really brutal country. Of course, I am used to stepping out of my car into a little stream of vermillion blood & disembodied chicken heads where the live chickens are selected & then decapitated before being popped into a bag to be taken home with the rest of the weekly shop. We are all used to seeing animals slaughtered on the streets & whole cows hanging on meat hooks beside the road in various stages of undress in terms of their hides. And it's no secret that animals here are not treated well at all, & I hate it, but when it's man's inhumanity to man, it just makes my blood boil. I must hasten to add there are many lovely & kind people, & I intend to blog about the amazing hospitality & about the things I love here, at a later date, but today I must tell you another story.

My friend, a Loreto nun called me 10 days ago to say she couldn't meet me the next day because of a crisis at one of the Roma camps. She works with traffiked woment & also the Roma. The Sisters of Loreto are an order concerned with social justice who do humanitarian work all round the world. These Roma live in shacks on a derelict piece of land near the railway station. Almost 40 families have lived there for 10 years. And they pay rent. They pay $20 a month for the privilege of putting up their corrugated tin & cardboard huts, no running water, no sewage system of course. The Roma are the untouchables in Albanian society. They beg, they hunt through the bins for tin cans & glass to sell. And they are ostracised by the Albanian population.

One night 10 days ago a group of men came to the camp with guns & ordered all the families off the land, they smashed the huts, set light to them & threatened to murder the men, rape the women & kidnap the chidlren. Again, as I said they pay to stay on this land. They weren't illegal squatters. These men were probably hired hit men because the landowner had finally resolved one of the many, many land disputes ongoing in post communist Albania & so could finally build (yet another) apartment block on the land & wanted someone to do his dirty work. They came back several nights in a row, intimidating the people until finally there were only 3 families left who had nowhere to go. This time the men burnt down the huts while they were still inside them. There were many children under 8 amongst these including a 5 month old baby.

They were found by my friend the nun the next day huddled against a wall. They had nothing left. We managed to collect together some blankets & camping mattresess, some old clothes etc for them & the Catholic mission offered to pay a month's rent at another Roma camp & buy them building materials to help them start again.

Helping the poor is never starightforward. I have worked with the Roma on my card project & it is not always easy. They are not used to rules, structure, routine etc. They are used to travelling light & moving on, so they often leave stuf fbehind. They sold all the building matertials because they neeeded food. In factthey should have got a team of volunteers to help build the huts as part of the deal.

This man here is surveying the devastation & seeing what he can salavge. He is 40 believe it or not, & actually has favour amongst many shopkeepers because he is always honest, always truthful, tries hard to find work & is courteous. So they give him credit, or food. And everyone speaks well of him.
But look at the poor man, how hopeless he looks, how world weary. The Roma are used to prejudcie, but this kind of inhumanity beggars belief.

A friend of mine, a very tall, striking & flamboyant Brit with a penchant for leopard skin shoes & bags & a former class mate of Nigella Lawson, visits them every week with her church; she hugs them gives them food, talks to them, takes tehir children to hospital. She just loves them & they respond. I hope she restores their belief in humanity a little.

There are many shining examples in Albania of 'Samaritans' & Mother Teresas, most of them are missionaries who came in when the country opened up & have stayed. They have started schools, set up churches, fought traffiking, visited those in prison. My son has a new girl in his class, she's a Roma girl born with a shortened & twisted arm. Her American mum, a single woman here since 1991, set up one of the first schools for Roma in Pograddec. She found this little girl being used to beg because of her arm, her mother was a traffiked prostitute in Italy & the rest of the family deliberately made her condition worse so she would get more money. This American lady adopted her & her brother & they are just delightful, well adjusted, balanced kids. Their mum is still single.

I have often thought Albania is a little like India. There are of course the bears with rings through their noses that appear with their owners to earn money at every festival, the man with the python charging exorbitant fees to pose with the snake round your neck, much like you find in the markets in Thailand & India. Then there are the beggars with horrific injuries or birth defects. The worst I saw reminded me of 'A Fine Balance' that terribly depressing but absorbing Rohinton Mistry novel. This particular man had no arms & no legs, he was just a torso sitting on a mat in central Tirana begging.

My friend (of teh leopard print shoes) told me that even here the beggars have pimps & they also maim beggars or exacerbate or neglect injuries in order to attract more money. What a brutal world it is.

But then the reality of the Roma's lives is brutal in itself. The children are often married off at 13. One girl from this camp is 26 & has 13 children. her husabnd is 17 & he now makes her work as a prostitute servicing much older men.

And brutality is in the very fabric of society which was so dehumanised under Hoxha, when people were encouraged to inform on their neighbours, where you were severely punished imprisoned or executed if wealthy, educated, intellectual; or if you did something as heinous as listening to the World Service on your radio or, Heaven forbid, telling a joke about Hoxha. A friend's grandafther was imprisoned for being an intellectual, in the infamous Burrel windowless prison. After many years, he was allowed home to visit his family for 1 day per year he had been in prison. So in his 60s he was on his way out for a 16 day visit when he gave a dying man in the prison a cup of water When the gurad saw him he beat him & kicked him so badly that 2 days later at home with his family, he died. The family in those brutal times saw this in fact as a blessing because it meant he was with his family & could receive a proper burial. If he had died in prison the body would not be released & who nows when the family would have been told even. I have another friend (who is only 30) whose mother sold her own blood in order to feed her child. everyone here, though, has a story like this.

But by far the worst story I heard was about Hoxha's double. A man who was a dentist was found who looked quite like Hoxha. He was arrested & placed under house arrest, given plastic surgery, then had to eat exactly what Hoxha ate, to maintain the same weight, read what Hoxha read & see no one. He often stood in to give speeches for Hoxha, who had the usual despot's fear of assassination. The plastic surgeon was inolved in a 'car accident' when his car went over a cliff. Anyone who knew about the 'double' was killed. At the end of communism the poor man was released only to find that people saw him & screamed (Hoxha had since died) & ran away or tried to attack him. He discovered all his family had been murdered soon after his 'arrest' distraught & mad with grief, he deliberately scarred his face with a knife & put out one of his eyes. Eventually he took himself off to live in a labour camp where people didn't know what Hoxha looked like before finally killing himself in despair.

I'm sorry this is such a depressing post, but this is life here & the legacy that Albania has to emerge from. Thankfully there are unsung heroes like my nun & my flamboyant friend here, as well as a handful of NGOs & mission organisations who are fighting for justice, showing mercy & trying to ameliorate the lives of those who suffer here.


Iota said...

This post reminded me of the film 'Slumdog Millionaire'. It's really distressing stuff.

Expat mum said...

I'm going to tweet this. Yes, it's depressing, but it really annoys me that people in richer countries can manage to tune out so much of what goes on elsewhere. Every time one of my friends pays an outrageous sum for a pair of jeans or a handbag it makes me want to scream.
We are so lucky.

PantsWithNames said...

The Roma have such a tough life. They are so discriminated against all across Europe.

Your friend (with the leopard print shoes) reminds me of a Bosnian friend who looked exactly like Patsy from Ab Fab - right down to the blonde beehive hair and incredibly short skirts and very high heels. My friend also visited the Roma camps often. It was a sight, to see her picking her way through all that mud, but she was a real bright colour in quite a drab background.

sewa mobil said...

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London City Mum said...

Agree with Iota - very distressing.

And yet, what to do? I am increasingly sceptical of merely handing out money to various well-meaning organisations, disillusioned with the reports and first-hand accounts of how little (if any) actually reaches the intended destination instead of lining the authority's pockets.
Your leopard-print-shoes friend and the Loreto nun are putting into action what counts far more than words or money, and I applaud them for their stance, their conviction, and ultimately, their courage.

Great post.


Mwa said...

What a post. Thank you for writing and sharing this.

xiaohu110129 said...
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