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The Gjirokaster National Folklore Festival (Festivali Folklorik Kombëtar i Gjirokastrës) is one of Albania’s most important cultural events, held every five years atop Gjirokaster’s ancient fortress. The weeklong festival showcases traditional costumes, dance, music and songs from all of Albania’s regions, Albanian communities in other Balkan countries, as well as the diaspora. There is perhaps no better location to host such an event, with the castle providing jaw dropping views of the old city below, and the Gjerë mountains across the valley.

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Gjirokaster was the first town I visited when I came to Albania in 2013, and I remember it being a sleepy city with people seeming surprised to see a foreign tourist wandering around. This year was a little different, with streets being jam packed with performers, family, friends, spectators, journalists and a handful of foreigners. Every evening crowds of people made the journey up to the fortress, vying for the best seat to take in views of the performance as well as the spectacular sunsets. Continue reading ›

The following article was published on Kosovo 2.0 on April 29th 2015: http://www.kosovotwopointzero.com/en/article/1641/kosovars-in-konik-where-is-home

 

Montenegro is currently home for around 16,000 refugees from the 1990 wars in the former Yugoslavia. Displaced Bosnians, Serbs and Croats are spread out in camps throughout the small country. Last year I read an article about Konik, a camp that currently houses around 1500 ethnic Roma who fled Kosovo during the 1999 war. Situated near a garbage dump on the outskirts of Podgorica, residents have been in a state of limbo for fifteen years, in increasingly deteriorating conditions. In 2012, a fire and subsequent flood made conditions even more appalling, leaving over 800 refugees homeless. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance has described conditions at the camp as being “inhumane and hazardous,” and recommended the swift closure of the camp. Improving the situation of refugees is currently a key issue for Montenegro’s possible ascension into the European Union.

Now the Montenegrin government wants refugees to sort out their citizenship. They must apply for foreign residency status in Montenegro, go back to Kosovo, or remain as illegal residents devoid of any health, education or economic assistance. However, for many the options are not so simple. Many of the refugees lack their residency documents from Kosovo, a requirement to apply for permanent residence in Montenegro. For a family to return to Kosovo to apply for passports and the necessary documents would require hundreds of Euros, far more than most currently have. Their current non-resident status means finding legal work is impossible, making it difficult to even imagine saving enough money to return to Kosovo.

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I’ve returned to Albania to start what I hope will be an ongoing project for a year or two. When I speak to people back in the US about Albania, most cannot even imagine what it’s like here, much less find it on a map. From my previous time here I have found Albania to be an incredibly interesting, culturally rich and beautiful country. It is also still one of the poorest countries in Europe, and very much in the midst of transforming itself from over 40 years of communist rule. So I’ve decided to work on my first book documenting modern Albania, it’s transition into modernity, and how it’s people are reconciling their tough past while trying to hold onto the traditions and customs that make this country feel so unique. I’ll be living in the town of Shkodër for a few months before traveling around the south of the country. Albania still seems to be a little known country, even in Europe, and it’s fascinating to spend time in a place that hasn’t been overrun with foreign investment, development and tourism. Unfortunately it is these very things that stand to improve the lives of the average person in this country, but will also be instrumental in vastly changing the landscape and customs here. I look forward to bringing you periodic updates and the eventual publishing of my book. Stay tuned.

Yesterday saw more protests throughout Albania, against the US’ request to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons there. The issue greatly mobilized and united the people of Albania, who came out en masse to voice their objection to the offer. Thousands took to the streets in Tirana yesterday as the government was set to make an announcement of their decision at 5:00PM local time. Here in Shkoder the demonstration was smaller, but the people no less determined to make their voices heard. Starting at 3:00PM, people gathered in front of the local municipality building, making speeches, singing, playing music by John Lennon and Michael Jackson. While people were firm in their convictions, the overall atmosphere of both the protests here and in Tirana, was peaceful. They were not anti US protests, or even anti Albanian government protests, it was simply the people of Albania uniting in their opinion that they did not want dangerous weapons brought to their backyard. In the end the government listened to them.

In my opinion, this was a huge, mature step forward for Albania as a country. Rather than sitting back and allowing the government to make an unpopular decision out of apathy, the people united and the prime minister listened to them. I think this is the first step in restoring some level of trust between the people and their elected leaders. It’s a mark of a functioning democracy to have the common people tell their leaders how they feel about an issue and have them respond appropriately. It’s also a sign of self respect to have stood up to the US’ demands and not accept their country becoming a dumping ground for harmful chemical agents, regardless of what incentives might have been on the table. I hope Albania can use the energy I saw in the last few days, and take pride in this victory, and use it to keep moving forward. They have the potential to be every bit as successful as their EU brethren to the West, if only the people will it.

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I was in Tirana yesterday afternoon to shoot the ongoing demonstrations there, against the United States’ request to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile on Albanian soil. The issue has brought Albania into the international spotlight recently, and the outcry from the public here seems to have been a resounding “NO.” The issue is a tough one for the new prime minister, Edi Rama, who is torn between keeping placating the constituency who voted him in, and keeping good relations with the international community, who expect Albania to “pull it’s weight” as a member of NATO. Either way Albania currently lacks a proper facility to handle the over 1000 tons of chemical agents that need to be destroyed or neutralized. Albania was the first country to dismantle it’s chemical weapons stockpile in 2007, for which they built a facility capable of handling the 16 tons of weapons. Firms in the United States, France and Germany are already making bids to build a facility large enough to handle Syria’s considerable stockpile. The prime minister has promised transparency with the public about the government’s decision on the matter, but has yet to come to any arrangement with the international community about the issue.

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I had a productive week last week. Upon arriving in Shkoder I contacted a local NGO, the Diocesan Commission for Justice and Peace, who do a lot of outreach work with blood feuds and other issues. I was told they were heading out to meet with some isolated families in the villages outside Shkoder and that I could join them to take photos. This was quite lucky as they often have a difficult time contacting and finding families.

Blood feuds are not unique to Albania, they have been a common practice throughout the Mediterranean and other cultures throughout history. However, Albania is one of the few places where feuds are taking place in any large scale, with violence occurring from ongoing feuds, and new feuds happening yearly. The practice is part of an old system of Albanian customary laws, known as the Kanun, which was codified around the time of the Ottoman invasion of the 15th Century. The Kanun was widely observed until the 20th century as a means for the Albanian people to retain control over themselves and their culture in the face of outside occupation. It’s observance faded during the time of the communist regime, but since the regime’s collapse in the early 90s, there has been an increase in the practice of blood feud and other traditions surrounding the Kanun. In the case of blood feuds, it is largely symptomatic of a lack of functioning in the legal and judicial systems of the new democratic government. Mistrust of the government is rampant, so people are more willing to take matters of justice into their own hands. The government has chosen to stay out of matters involving blood feuds, often leaving families to settle the matters themselves, with tragic results.

Feuds can start from something as trivial as who has the rights to a path running between two properties. Often a heated argument will get out of hand, a man will kill another man and the feud starts. The victim’s family seeks revenge to pay for the “debt” by going after the killer, or as is often the case if he isn’t around, other male members of his family. Aside from the loss of family members, blood feuds often result in abysmal economic situations for the families involved. Usually the breadwinners in the house are either killed, in jail or go into hiding and are unable to provide economic assistance. One family I met with had been in hiding for the better part of 3 years. The father had been driven to alcoholism due to stress from being in the feud, so the wife had to work a low paying job to support her family. She and her sons live in a two room house in the outskirts of Shkoder, the family sleep in one room together and have only a basic stove, refrigerator and very small TV set. The children had been unable to go to school for some time because they feared being killed, but have recently started going to school as the other family said they would not kill them. Their mother is still concerned for their safety and pays a private driver to take them to school daily, and bring them back to the house when they are done. Continue reading ›