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.
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 ›
I’ve started my trip of southern Albania in Pogradec, a relaxed city located on the shores of Lake Ohrid, bordering Macedonia. The city was a favorite hangout for Albania’s ex-king Zog, as well as communist dictator Enver Hoxha. When coming down the Thane pass, one notices the village of Lin, situated on a small peninsula jutting into the lake. I ended up spending a few days in this quiet fishing village. Wandering down the narrow lanes felt like stepping into the past. Old women sat in doorways to escape the afternoon sun, quietly chatting or knitting. Children roamed the streets playing football, while the distant drone of fishing boat motors mixed with the ringing of a church bell.
It was here that I first met Mihal Gjora, riding his donkey Marko, on his way to a plot of land outside Lin. I asked if I could take his photo and he laughed in a hearty way that I would become accustomed to during my time with him. Shy at first, he was surprised I could speak Albanian and invited me to come with him to feed his animals. We walked the trash littered lakeside, greeting farmers working in their fields and talking about life in America. America is like the promised land here, a place of opportunity, wealth, freedom to be who you want, and progress. I sometimes feel as if I see more American flags flying here than back home. Continue reading ›
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.
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.
Church bells mingle with the call to prayer as smoke rises from chimneys and sunlight pours through clouds. Sarajevo is a city of contrasts that somehow come together to make something very special. I must have missed something when I came here in the summer, maybe walking the hills in the stifling heat deterred the development of any romantic feelings for the city. I’ve been staying the last week here with good friend and fellow photographer Cat Norman (http://catnorman.com), who’s shown me lovely tree lined parks, small neighborhood mosques with rugged wooden minarets, a smoke filled speakeasy-esque bar (that’s technically not allowed to be open right now for some reason), and of course where to find the best burek. It’s a city teeming with life and smiles, but also harsh memories of the past. Children play next to buildings riddled with bullet holes, while the hillsides are dotted white with tombstones in what were formerly public parks, filled up with bodies from the 1992-1995 siege. I’m always taken by the dates when I walk in these cemeteries, they all end in 1992, 1993, 1994, a stark reminder of the great tragedies that occurred here twenty years ago.
But all that’s in the past now and the people of Sarajevo have made great strides to pick up the pieces of their city and turn it into something truly lovely. It’s got all the beauty and style of cities in Western Europe, with half the price tag and half the crowds. Some magazine called National Geographic put it on their list of hot places to go in 2014, and I’d definitely put it on my list as well. Plus if you come later in the year, my friend Cat will have opened the swankiest new hostel in town. Should be exciting.
I’m heading to Istanbul tomorrow and will be joining a Reuters journalist down in Gaziantep, near the border with Syria. We’ll be investigating the situation with Syrian refugees trying to integrate and survive in cities along the border. It’s something I’ve been interested in working on for a long time now and I can’t wait to get down there and start working. In the meantime, below are some reasons you should visit Sarajevo!
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.
I arrived in Tirana late yesterday evening. I’m staying here at Milingona Hostel, where I had previously stayed during a visit last Spring. Juli, the owner of the hostel, is a welcoming, knowledgeable, and gracious host. It’s one of the cleanest hostels I’ve ever stayed at, and is well situated for exploring all of Tirana’s sights. I had planned to head up to Shkodra today, where I’ll be staying for the next month or so, but ended up staying an extra day in Tirana to see the Albania v. Switzerland football match. This afternoon I went out to the Pellumbas Cave near the village of Ibe, which proved to be more of a hike than I had planned for but was very much worth the trek. The countryside is beautiful here, and I walked along the trail gorging myself on perfectly ripe figs that were practically dropping off the trees. I almost forgot how friendly complete strangers are here, stopping to say hello, even while I had inadvertently wandered onto their property. I used to think that people were only friendly to me because, being an American, I’m a bit of a commodity here. However, in general it seems people are very friendly and open with each other, there’s much more of a sense of community and common identity than people have back in Southern California. That’s part of the reason I’m staying for the football match, you really can get a sense of the pride people have for their country and culture here. Hoping for a win for Albania!