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Monday, December 15, 1997 Published at 17:38 GMT


Christmas at Albania's rubbish dumps
image: [ Whole familes brave the stench at rubbish dumps to scavenge to survive ]
Whole familes brave the stench at rubbish dumps to scavenge to survive

Albania has long been Europe's poorest nation. For years, hard line Communists kept the country isolated from the rest of the world, its people condemned to grinding poverty. Then, after the regime finally came to an end, Albania was dealt another devastating blow as a "get rich quick" pyramid investment scheme - into which many of the country's people had sunk their meagre life savings - inevitably crashed last Spring.

This week, the Albanian Prime Minister, Fatos Nano, is in London to drum up more help for the beleaguered population. He wants long-term development aid for the Balkan state, desperately trying to recover from the virtual civil war that followed the investment scheme's collapse.

Bill Hamilton, of BBC News, has followed the country's fortunes closely since the days of Stalinism. He examines the desperate plight of hundreds of families living on the edge of starvation.

Entire Albanian families risk their health and lives every day in a desperate scramble to sift through mountains of what others have discarded as useless - rubbish dumped by vehicles that, in a touch of irony, were donated by the European Union.

Even small children are sent into a sea of litter to scavenge for anything that can be salvaged or sold to pay for a loaf of bread.

[ image: One of the scavengers, Vera, is just six years old]
One of the scavengers, Vera, is just six years old
The children take part in a daily competition against each other to find anything that might be of value.

Scavenging at these rubbish dumps is made worse by the stench of sewage and the threat of disease.

Yet one mother insisted there was no other choice.

"We live on what we make out of this rubbish. We know it is dirty here. But what can we do? At least it is a job," said Sanije Danaj.

John Arthur, director of the British charity, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, says Europe must take a more active role in the face of such misery.

"I think it's scandalous that people should be subjected to this indignity. West European governments need to respond with assistance for income support and job creation, so the Albanians can help themselves," he said.

However, a lack of food is not the problem. Inflation has soared since the civil unrest earlier this year, and a substantial section of the population cannot afford to buy it.

[ image: This represents home for a family of 10]
This represents home for a family of 10
Many of these people have been forced south to the capital of Tirana from the mountains of the northeast, where unworkable land, rising prices, and a collapse of social assistance payments have made it impossible to eke out a living.

In the mountainous village of Gallat we found families of up to 10 people living and sleeping in a single room and forced to survive on as little as £5 a month.

Armed guards accompanied us while supplies of flour donated by the British Government was driven into the most inaccessible parts of the highlands.

[ image: British flour is brought to remote mountain locations]
British flour is brought to remote mountain locations
Hungry and sore after trekking miles in the pouring rain, villagers were pleading for minuscule amounts of flour to take home to their mountain settlements.

The prospect of near starvation this winter has driven many out of the countryside and into the cities in search of work.

They have ended up in sprawling squatter camps, where they have been joined by others who sold their homes and invested the income in the fraudulent pyramid schemes that collapsed earlier this year.

"Support by the international community was declared in two conference in Rome and Brussels," said Dr. Rexhep Meidani, the President of Albania.

"Through concrete projects we will give this positive message to poor Albanians and to young people: stay here and to live by their work."

A $600 million package from donor governments and international organisations, along with a gradual return to normality, hold out a measure of optimism, but for the most vulnerable the rubbish dumps alone are yielding the only presents this Christmas.


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United Nations Security Council statement on Albania, June 1997

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