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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:

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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


Newshost:

Bill, you were part of the first western television team to gain free access to Albania back in 1991 after the collapse of communism there. What you found was pretty appalling. Can you tell us what you saw when you got there.


Bill Hamilton:

It was absolutely appalling. One of the cardinal rules of a journalist is to report a story impartially and never to assume a personal role in it. But having got to this home for disabled children up in the northern city of Scodra and opened the door it was just unbelievable to see what was happening.

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.


Newshost:

Ben Heywood, St Andrews, Scotland: How did the horrors you witnessed in Albania ten years ago affect you personally?


Bill Hamilton:

A lot of reporters when they go into a situation they become almost like a fireman, they switch off and they see the situation and the number one priority is to get the story, get the facts and get them on the air. I think it is sometimes delay shock - when you come away you think my goodness what was I witnessing there, what can I do about this. I think too as a journalist, we are in a rather privileged position - charities often send back reports or the aid workers come back and they tell meetings about what is going on and nothing seems to happen. But as a reporter and a television reporter you come back and get something on the television bulletins suddenly people start to respond. So we are in a very privileged position but one that we should not abuse.


Newshost:

Ben goes on to ask: Was there an urge for you to do what you could to alleviate the suffering personally, or did you try to preserve your detachment?


Bill Hamilton:

You could hardly preserve detachment in situations like that. Albania was the only country in Europe that had a network of what they called dystrophic hospitals. These were hospitals for malnourished children. Many Albanian mothers had 6 to 10 children - they were so malnourished themselves that the babies were born prematurely. They'd nothing to feed the babies on and they ended up in these hospitals. Now the hospital medicine cupboards didn't even have an aspirin never mind anything resembling a respirator or a ventilator or anything that was going to keep these babies alive. So apart from a little love, care and attention these children were really only in holding centres and death was approaching for them. In fact there were two babies that we saw who died at six months old weighing a pound less than when they were born which was just quite appalling. So obviously these things make a marked impression on you and you feel something has got to be done.


Newshost:

Matthew Simpson, Knutsford, UK: Why did you seek permission to film in Albania in the first place? Did you expect conditions to be as bad as you found?


Bill Hamilton:

I went there with the England football team when they played in the World Cup qualifier in 1989. I couldn't get out with the England team but I got a visa at the very last minute to go and I had to go in with the only airline that went in once a week which was a Swissair plane from London where you changed at Zurich and got in.

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.


Newshost:

When you started getting into that community how shocking was it?


Bill Hamilton:

It was absolutely dreadful. They had had subsistence farming. Everything was run on state farms - people worked on the state farms. They got paid a very small wage to keep themselves alive but they didn't do anything special for the state. As communism collapsed they were allowed to keep one animal and it was if their whole life was invested in that animal - they were as thin as a rake but the cow was as a fat as anything.

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.


Newshost:

Edward Johnson, St Albans, UK: Could you explain why doctors and nurses treated those mentally disabled children so abysmally when you first visited the Albanian hospitals ten years ago?


Bill Hamilton:

As I said, most mothers there had 6 to 8 babies. In fact I have seen in the old communist offices, a certificate that was given to a mother on the birth of her thirteenth child - she became a heroine of the state. So obviously the old dictator, Enver Hoxha, was trying to create more slaves, as it were, for his own society. Obviously families like that couldn't feed all those children.

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.


Newshost:

So it was malicious?


Bill Hamilton:

Yes. But secondly, Enver Hoxha had decided that children with disabilities should be shut out of sight and out of mind and the psyche told these doctors and nurses - we are doing them a favour by keeping them alive. It was almost as if they were dealing with a sub-human species - which is awful. No incentives whatsoever were offered to those children and they were just left there to stay alive as best they could. But no favours were offered to them - no books, no toys, no stimulation, no education, terrible food and left in rooms with no heating - terrible.


Newshost:

As a society isolated for so many years - how can a society like that change?


Bill Hamilton:

It is changing and it is changing fast. I think a lot of people have had a fascination for Albania. Britain and the rest of Europe and the rest of the world in fact traded with countries like Romania and Bulgaria, so they had an idea what Ceauescu was up to. But they no idea what Enver Hoxha was doing because he had cut his country off from the rest of the world for 50 years and he had built 800,000 concrete pillboxes which defended every street, every factory, every home from this perceived invasion from the West.

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.


Newshost:

Edon Cana, London: Don't you agree that the West has not helped Albania the way it helped other ex-communist Eastern European countries despite the fact that it went through one of the most horrible communist regimes that ever existed?


Bill Hamilton:

They were in a difficult position with Hoxha having cut them off they did tend to be ignored. Until the Kosovan crisis, a lot of people just had no idea where Albania was. So that was a problem.

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.

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 ON THIS STORY
Bill Hamilton reports on...
..school children helping Albanian orphans
See also:

21 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Albania
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