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Friday, 19 October, 2001, 16:32 GMT 17:32 UK
Rebuilding Albania
Albanian orphans
Tens of thousands were on the edge of starvation
In 1991, the BBC's Bill Hamilton was the first Western television journalist to gain free access to Albania after the last hardline communist government in eastern Europe fell. His award-winning films sparked off a huge international relief effort. Now, 10 years on, he reports from a country transformed.

Ten years ago, what we found in Albania was distressing to record: tens of thousands on the edge of starvation, hospitals deprived of even basic medicines and families emerging homeless and penniless from prison and labour camps - some after serving 40 years or more in internal exile.

We found scores of disabled children in the cities of Shkoder and Berat forced to sit naked all day on cold stone floors covered in their own excrement and left without a shred of human dignity.

Albanian child
Children's homes and lives have been transformed beyond belief

Today, the homes have been transformed beyond belief. The staff have been retrained and both occupational therapists and physiotherapists have joined the staff.

The children are also learning the rudiments of language and maths.

One blind orphan, Anila Bedo, who was rescued from the Shkoder home and brought to England is now attending college in Norfolk.

Staff of the deaf-blindness charity, Sense, say they are amazed at her ability to adapt and learn new skills.

British help

British schoolchildren have also been at the forefront of the aid effort.


Such is the thirst for knowledge that nearly every Albania child sees learning the English language as a way of opening the door to the outside world

In a country with an infant mortality rate four times the average for Western Europe, they have provided infant ventilators, incubators and oxymeters which Albanian doctors say are saving the lives of nearly 500 premature babies every year.

Children from Britain and Ireland have also donated 50,000 English books for two new libraries run by the charity Task Force Albania.

These have opened in the capital city Tirana and the chief port of Durres.

Such is the thirst for knowledge that nearly every Albania child sees learning the English language as a way of opening the door to the outside world.

Expat community

Sadly, that also serves to underline one of the country's major problems - the haemorrhaging of so much of Albania's finest young talent.

Thousands have left to find jobs abroad, and every day long queues form outside foreign embassies in Tirana with hundreds more desperate for a visa to get out of the country.

There is however, one compensating factor. Those refugees who have settled in Western Europe are now helping the Albanian economy by sending money home.

The country's president, Rexhep Meidani, puts the amount sent into the country as high as $500m a year.

Law and order

Two of the key factors in attracting greater foreign investment are a dramatic improvement in Albania's infrastructure and a firmer grip on law and order.


Scores of young girls have either been kidnapped or tricked into leaving for promised jobs abroad only to find themselves forced into street prostitution in the west

Hundreds of miles of new roads are under construction and the country's first motorway between Tirana and Durres is now complete.

Some 100,000 guns stolen from armouries during the civil unrest of 1997 - triggered by the collapse of pyramid investment schemes - have been recovered during a nine-month amnesty.

All have been put to the torch in a project paid for by the United States, German and Norwegian Governments anxious to see an easing of tension in the Balkans.

The guns came from over a dozen countries and included a Russian cannon dating from before the Bolshevik revolution.

Religious hopes

The return of religious freedom is one of the greatest seeds of hope for the future.

Albania's former dictator abolished God from his country and destroyed hundreds of mosques and churches.

Today, new ones are springing up right across the country, congregations are continuing to grow and young people in particular are eager to embrace spiritual values.

Their hope is that the world has learned a lesson from Albania's tragedy, for, by its silence, it showed a shameful indifference that may have served to extend the agony of its victims.

'Child slavery'

That so many on the outside have now felt moved to respond means that for the first time in three generations, many of Albania's children are slowly emerging into a new dawn.

Others though are continuing to face a life of misery. Some spend all day with their families trying to eke out a living from the around 200 tonnes of rubbish dumped on the outskirts of Tirana every day.

Poverty and hunger have forced most of them down from mountain villages. The squalor, stench and risk of disease are unimaginable.

Scores of young girls have either been kidnapped or tricked into leaving for promised jobs abroad only to find themselves forced into street prostitution in the west.

The International Organisation of Migration says it amounts to nothing less than child slavery and has called for the establishment of a special counter-trafficking police unit.

Bill Hamilton will be joining us for a live forum on Monday at 1230 BST. You can put your questions to him about the situation in Albania. Send them in now using the form below.


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Talking PointFORUM
The BBC's Bill HamiltonAlbania 10 years on?
Ask the BBC's Bill Hamilton
See also:

06 May 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Picking up the pieces in Albania
21 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Albania
08 May 01 | Europe
Timeline: Albania
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