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Monday, 22 October, 2001, 13:18 GMT 14:18 UK
Bill Hamilton on Albania
The BBC's award-winning journalist Bill Hamilton joined us for a live forum and answered a selection of your questions.
To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:
Albania had been a country many ignored, until 10 years ago, when the first television pictures of the reality of life there were broadcast.
It had become isolated due to its ruthless Stalinist dictator, Enver Hoxha, who had forced his people to live in starving and neglected conditions.
But in 1991 Bill Hamilton and cameraman Bhasker Solanki became the first western television team to gain free access to Albania.
What they found was distressing to record - tens of thousands on the edge of starvation, hospitals deprived of basic necessities, families homeless and penniless after years in prison. Disabled children, naked, covered in excrement and without human dignity.
Ten years later - how has the country been transformed? What hopes do they have for the future?
Highlights of the interview
There were children there who were completely naked, sitting on cold stone floors, covered in their own excrement. There were no toys, there were no books, there was no form of stimulation. I also noticed there were burn marks on many of the children and it was only when I saw the nurses smoking at the door that it suddenly struck me what had happened was that any child who stood up and wanted to get involved in something would get a cigarette butt put into their leg to make them sit down again. To see things like that and not to have responded, I thought, was going to be a sin. So I just had to get involved.
When we got back here and got the pictures on the BBC main bulletins everything just suddenly took off. The Sunday Times ran an appeal and within 10 days nearly £1,500,000 had come in from the British public. We were also invited over to the European Union to show the pictures there in Brussels and one of the French commissioners took a great interest in it and within a month we were back there and a substantial amount of aid was arriving at different hospitals.
When it got there it took the England team two hours to get through to their bus. They went through every suitcase, copies of Playboy were confiscated - even if you had a copy of the Bible that would be confiscated because Albania was the only atheist state in the world.
England really insulted them because they brought their own chef from Park Lane because they thought the food would be so terrible and they brought steaks with them and hundredweights of potatoes. Now that really was an insult to the Albanians because the one thing that they grew was potatoes in abundance. In the hotel, so as not to insult the host, the chef actually ate the Albanian food and the English players ate the Park Lane food.
When the England team left, straight after the game, I had another day to myself there and I came out of the hotel and three times I tried to make my way down the street and each time I was stopped and an arm came onto my shoulder and I was marched back to the hotel by the secret police, the keys were collected from my room and I was shut back in my room. However, the fourth time I managed to escape and I started to see the conditions in which people were living and I thought I have got to get back here.
Over the next 12 months, I wrote to the Albanian Foreign Ministry twenty times - I sent them telexes, letter etc. and was completely ignored. Then there was a report just before Christmas 1990 to say that Albanian students had been found hanging from lamp standards in Duras and I thought that even by Albanian standards this is going too far - this was a Yugoslavian agency report and I knew the Albanians and Yugoslavs didn't get on. So I wrote to them and said what the western press are writing about you now but it serves you right because you are so rude - a responsible journalist asks to come into your country and you completely ignore him so you deserve all you get. The next day a telex arrived at the BBC inviting me to collect my visa for Albania. I have been going back there now every year for the past 10 years.
Albania has the highest birth rate in Europe and also an infant mortality rate that even today is running at four times that of western Europe. In the maternity hospitals they had not teats for the bottles. Mothers who were unable to breast-feed their babies - the babies were fed other mothers' milk on a dirty spoon mixed with glucose. They only had two Chinese-made incubators - one of them didn't work and in the other there were six babies in one incubator - that's how bad it was.
With regard to the doctors and nurses, they had children of their own at home and they thought if I can't give decent food to my children and opportunities, then why should I be giving something better to the children in this institution.
He carried out one of the greatest confidence tricks of the 20th century. He persuaded his people and convinced them that they had the highest standard of living in Europe and that the country was going to be invaded any day because people would want to come and take it from them. But the thing was nobody cared less about Albania and what was going on there. In fact by showing such a shameful indifference to the problems there the rest of world probably prolonged the agony of so many of Albania's victims.
The West now, I think, is responding much better. A European programme is helping a great deal with the construction of new roads - the infrastructure in Albania desperately needs reworking. Electricity cuts even in the capital are happening three or four hours a day, water supplies are not good. Very few people are still on the telephone, although private telecommunication companies are opening up now. But until you get the infrastructure right you are not going to attract very much foreign investment.
But I think now the West feels it owes something to Albania because during the Kosovan crisis, the Albanians themselves, poor as they were, took in 800,000 refugees which pushed their own population up by a quarter and they looked after them very well until they went back and in that way relieved the West of quite a problem. So I think now they feel they owe a debt of gratitude and there are signs that Albania is getting more that it did before.
21 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Albania
16 Dec 97 | World
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