A shepherd near the village of Bilisht, Albania. There are an estimated 1000 Albanians from Bilisht that now live in greater Waterbury, most coming to seek economic opportunity in America.
Story and Photographs By John Murray
I rounded a corner in Fier, Albania, and encountered ten police officers standing on the side of the road gesturing towards me. Crap, I thought, here comes the shakedown. I pulled my rental car over and fumbled for my passport and rental agreement. I wondered how I’d manage with the few words of Albanian I knew; mirëdita, (good afternoon), faleminderit (thank you), jo (no) and po (yes).
It was too late to learn, “Hi officer, Albania is a beautiful country and I look forward to writing about my experience with Prime Minister Edi Rama in my newspaper back in America.”
As I watched three uniformed police officers surround my car I wondered how much this was going to cost me.
Albania is twice the size of Connecticut and is one of the most beautiful countries on Earth, it also has a reputation of being one of the most corrupt. In 2015 the United Nations issued a special report about corruption in Albania and stated that eight out of ten Albanians had paid a bribe in the past year, with the majority being payments to doctors and nurses to receive better care.
Bribes were also common to bureaucrats and police officers, with the average bribe being $5700 Albanian leks, or about $41 U.S. dollars. I was two weeks into my road trip exploring the life of ethnic Albanians living on the Balkan Peninsula and had safely navigated past dozens of police road stops entering and exiting almost every city in Albania. This was the first time I was a target.
Taking a wrong turn in a roundabout just outside the city of Elbasan brought me up a winding road and to this scene at the top of a mountain. Islam arrived in Albania during Ottoman rule when the majority of people converted to Islam. It is reported that 59% of the population now is Muslim, and 17% Christian.
Albania is twice the size of Connecticut and has a population of 2.8 million, 800,000 whom live in the capital city of Tirana. Rugged mountains dominate two thirds of the landscape, with a rich fertile plain running along the western portion next to the Adriatic Sea.
It’s a high fashion show for the young women in the heart of Tirana, Albania. While the guys dress in jeans and sneakers, the girls don’t step out of their apartments without high heels and make-up.
I spent several hours wandering through Bilisht taking pictures and striking up basic conversations with strangers. A legion of old men occupied their regular seats in the center of town, while a group of creative boys used a piece of wire as a volleyball net in a dirt alley (below).
Adjusting to foreign currency on the Balkan Peninsula was an adventure. I started with U.S. Dollars and made my first transition during an unexpected 20 hour layover in Belgrade, Serbia. They use a dinar and the exchange rate is 116 dinar to a dollar. At 2 am the next day I arrived at the airport is Skopje, Macedonia, and got denars (different than dinars) with an exchange rate of 57 denars to a dollar. Two days later I crossed into Albania and they use a lek, which is 128 lek to a dollar. During my first purchase in Albania I handed over Macedonian denars and the clerk looked at me like I was an idiot, which at that moment I was. The numbering system of the currency in Albania changed some years ago and some people still speak and write using the old system adding an extra zero to the end of the number. Instead of 100 lek for a loaf of bread they will write 1000. They aren't trying to rip you off, but you have to pay attention and always try paying the smaller number first. Further complicating transactions is that almost everyone in Macedonia and Albania has been quoting me prices in Euros, because that currency is more stable and they'd rather have Euros than denars and leks. Every Euro is worth $1.06 in U.S. dollars. Getting leks out of an ATM has also created problems in Albania as they disperse 5000 lek bills that no one wants to break. It's the equivalent of handing someone in America a $50 bill for a piece of gum. I avoided some confusion in Macedonia by using a credit card, but outside Tirana, the biggest city in Albania, no one has accepted a credit card - not for gas, food or a hotel. I was told yesterday that most places had the ability to accept credit cards but they were forcing cash transactions to avoid paying a VAT tax to the government. Serbia, Macedonia and Albania all hope to join the EU in the next decade and would then all use the the Euro. Now travelers need to have cash and pay attention. Carrying cash is the easy part......
One day my road trip was halted in the Accursed Mountains in the north of Albania by snow and ice and sub-freezing weather. Several hours later I was on the Albanian Riviera, in the small town of Dhermi, drinking raki with a local, smelling flowers and oranges, and enjoying a beautiful hike across a beach in 70 degree weather.
A stop for lunch at a tavern in the old village of Dhermi led me to this jovial fellow who offered me a glass of Raki, a fruit brandy popular in the Balkans. One glass later and he could have extracted my front teeth with a pair of pliers and I would have enjoyed the experience.
The Albanian Riviera is blessed with unusually warm winters and flowers were in full bloom in late November, and there were banana trees in Dhermi and Sarande.
The road leading down to Dhermi is an intersection of mountains, sky and sea.
All along the Albanian Riviera are tens of thousands of olive trees.
A vendor sold chicken and rabbits at the bazaar in Korce, Albania, and the customers shoved the animals in little boxes on the back of their bicycles and pedaled home.
Skanderbeg is the national hero of Albania, He was a military commander in the 1460s that revolted against the Ottoman Empire and thwarted Ottoman expansion into western Europe. Outnumbered, Skanderberg successfully held the Turks at bay for 25 years. Theatrical reenactments of his victories continue to stir Albanian nationalism.
Albanian cuisine is fancy and upscale in Tirana (lots of fish and lamb), and in the countryside the food is hearty, simple and fresh; soups, specialized meatballs, and byek (spinach and meat pies), pictured below on the streets of Korce.
Espresso and a sweet dessert at a cafe in Struga, Macedonia.
Roadside vendors (mostly children) sold fruit from arbutus strawberry trees on a small stretch of road from Tirana to Korce in Albania. The fruit was bland and is used primarily to make jelly and jams.
Breakfast almost every day was an omelette, a slice of feta cheese and fresh raw vegetables for about $2 US dollars.
Looking down at Elbasan. Albania, a city of 150,000 that gained prominence after the Chinese built a steel mill there in 1974.
A three day conference of the Albanian diaspora featured an opening night reception in the King’s Palace, a dozen panel discussions about business, art and language, a Q&A with Prime Minister Edi Rama, an evening of opera and theater, field trips around the country, and a gala awards dinner to cap off the weekend. One of the the panel discussions was held in a National Art Gallery surrounded by propaganda art from the Enver Hoxha era (above).
At the end of WWII communist Albania linked itself to communist Yugoslavia and the two countries had a very close relationship. In the 1960s Yugoslavia severed ties with the Soviet Union, and Albania reacted by severing ties with Yugoslavia and strengthening relations with the Soviets. In the 1970s China and the Soviet Union had a falling out and this time Albania cut ties with the Soviets and embraced the Chinese. Eventually Albania was completely isolated and its people suffered years of oppression and a shortage of food. The Chinese did help build refineries in the city of Elbasan, above, while everywhere I drove in Albania I saw laborers working the fields (below), and shepherds tending to cows, goats, sheep and turkeys.
Foot and hoof traffic dominate on the isolated roads of the Accursed Mountains. The mountainous region in the north of Albania is home to a medieval code of conduct that results in blood feuds between families that can last generations. The "kanun” is a tribal code of 1,262 rules created by Albanian nobleman Lekë Dukagjini in the 15th century which states that “spilled blood must be met with spilled blood”. In the first four months of 2016 it was reported that there had been 36 blood feud killings in Albania. A farmer was killed after cutting down his neighbor’s tree and a lover shot his girlfriend’s brothers after being denied her hand in marriage. A villager in the Accursed Mountains, (below), used a donkey and cart to move a mattress.
The weather beaten face of a man who has spent his life working in the fields around Bilisht, Albania. This small village in the southeast corner of Albania has had a strong influence on greater Waterbury as a 1000 residents of Bilisht (below) now live in Connecticut, and most of them are affiliated with the Albanian Community Center on Raymond Street in the South End of Waterbury.
Sarande, Albania is a city of 40,000 people and enjoys an average of 300 days of sunshine a year.
The waterfront in Sarande is lined with palm trees and a cobblestone promenade.
Sarande has become an important tourist attraction since the fall of communism in Albania. Sarande as well as the rest of the Albanian Riviera, is on the cusp of a tourism boom.
Sunset in Sarande, Albania, with the Greek island of Corfu in the background.
I’d driven up impossibly beautiful roads in the Accursed Mountains in the north and hugged the tight switchbacks along the Albanian Rivera where mountains merged with clouds and light along the Adriatic Sea. I’d steered around goats and sheep and donkeys and carts and old ladies walking cows tethered by rope. The roads in Albania are a carnival, and now the carnival threatened to swallow me. It was my turn to dance, and I wound the passenger window down and an imposing 40-year-old police officer with a square skull stuck his head inside the car.
“Tirana?” he asked. I said yes, and handed him my official documents. He ignored my paperwork and climbed into the front seat of my rental car and closed the door. The back doors swung open and two more police officers climbed into the car.
I was surrounded and confused. I had read an article in National Geographic published in October 1980 that communist dictator Enver Hoxha had very strict rules about the appearance of foreign visitors allowed into Albania. No men with full beards or long hair or "other signs of bourgeois decadence" were allowed into Albania. Many visitors were escorted to a barbershop inside the Tirana airport to get sheared before entering the country.
I've worn a full beard the past 30 years and have a pony tail half way down my back. Was I being kidnapped and taken to the nearest barber? What was happening?
The police officer in the front seat asked if I spoke Albanian, I said I didn’t. He asked if I spoke Italian, I said I didn’t. I asked if he spoke English, he said he didn’t. I asked if he spoke Spanish, he said he didn’t. I tried to hand over my paperwork again and he waved me off. I locked eyes with my lumbering front seat passenger and he said, “Tirana”, and nodded his head.
Tirana is the capital of Albania and was a hard two-hour drive away from where we sat. I suddenly realized that the police had used a slight waving gesture that was the Albanian equivalent of an extended thumb in America, and I had just unwittingly picked up three Albanian police officers hitchhiking to Tirana. At that point, with all three men inside my car, what choice did I have? I said, “po (yes) Tirana” and pulled back out into traffic.
We drove in silence for a few minutes as the car was engulfed in a fog of testosterone and body odor. We drove past a young man holding out a puppy he was trying to sell on the side of the road, we swerved around a horse and cart and sailed through several rotaries before I broke the silence.
“Americano.” I said thumping my hand against my chest. “New York City.”
“Ahh, New York City,” the officer in the passenger’s seat said. “Americano.”
He turned around and explained to the other two officers that I was an American, from New York City. The officer directly behind me was already asleep. I said I was a journalist and then started saying any word that might connect: periodista, reporter, media, correspondent, newspaper, and scribbled imaginary words in the air.
“Ahh, gazetar (journalist),” he said.
At the next traffic light I tried to explain that I was in Albania to cover an international conference of Albanians (diaspora) living around the world. There are more ethnic Albanians living outside of Albania, than in it. Prime Minister Edi Rama had invited 1000 members of the Albanian diaspora to attend a three-day summit in Tirana to explore ways Albanians in the United States, Australia, Greece, England and Italy could help facilitate economic and social growth in their former homeland.
The opening of the three-day summit on diaspora began with a rousing version of the Albanian national anthem - Himni i Flamurit - inside the King's Palace in Tirana.
The youth in Tirana have fully embraced western style and fashion.
The conference broke out into a dozen panel discussions with experts sharing their views on many subjects, including the difficulty preserving the Albanian language in the ethnic Albanian community scattered across the globe.
The three-day summit of Albanian diaspora was big news in Albania and had received extensive media coverage on national TV and in print. I waved my hands around and said, “diaspora”, “Edi Rama”, “Tirana”, “conference”, and my front seat passenger understood. He then pointed ahead and said, “Tirana, bebe.”
Okay, I thought, he’s going to the capital to visit with his child. I held my hands two feet apart and repeated “bebe”. He laughed, pointed to a wedding ring on his left hand, and held his hands out wide. His bebe was his wife. After a few more minutes of silence I turned on the radio and we listened to political speeches from the parliament (in Albanian) and cruised north across the fertile plains of Albania.
Twenty-five years ago Albania was the final country in the eastern bloc still holding onto communism. It had been one of the most isolated and poor countries on the planet, and when communism collapsed in 1991, Albania and much of the Balkan Peninsula (Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro) was engulfed by organized crime, pyramid schemes and systemic corruption.
Crooked judges are for sale in Albania and bribes can facilitate land ownership transfers with a swipe of a pen. Widespread distrust of the legal system in Albania has hampered foreign investments and stalled the country’s entrance into the European Union. Prime Minister Edi Rama has publicly stated that cleaning up the judiciary is one of his top priorities, and he is trying to clamp down on a higher education system that had allowed students to purchase university degrees without attending classes. “Everyone in Albania is a lawyer,” he said at the diaspora conference. “this must stop.”
For much of the past sixty years the Albanian police were an arm of a brutal communist dictator. Police could take what they wanted, people were beaten and shot, and an encounter with a police officer was a life-threatening event.
Now Albania is a democracy and is one of the most pro-American countries on Earth. Edi Rama is reforming the culture of police, and said during the conference it is no longer acceptable for police to stop tourists to demand money, a sandwich or a beer.
I’ve been in unusual situations in my travels, but sharing a rental car with three police officers felt surreal, dream-like, and my mind wandered back to Waterbury and to the local Albanian community that triggered this journey.
There are an estimated 12,000 ethnic Albanians living in greater Waterbury and they have made a significant impact in the social and political life in the city. The Albanians have come in two main waves. The first was at the end of WWII when Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha established communist rule in Albania and tens of thousands of Albanians escaped over the mountains to freedom and scattered around the world. The Bushka family fled Albania in 1950 and spent several years in a U.S. refugee camp in Greece before making their way to Waterbury and eventually opening a lumber and construction company in the Town Plot neighborhood of the city.
While I was exploring Albania in late November, back in Waterbury Kenneth Bushka was being touted as Albanian Mayor for the Day and had the unique honor of swearing in Jetlir Kulla as the city’s first Albanian-born alderman. In 2011 Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary hired two Albanians to work in his administration and has often touted the positive Albanian influence on Waterbury (including the Bushka construction company rebuilding his childhood home when it was ravaged by a fire in the 1970s).
Less than 10% of the students in Waterbury public schools are of Albanian descent, yet year after year they are at the top of their class. “The Albanian community has embraced education as the key to success in America,” O’Leary said. “And they are excelling at it.”
The second wave of ethnic Albanians to arrive in Waterbury came in the 1990s when communism collapsed in Albania, Yugoslavia splintered, war erupted on the Balkan Peninsula, and Kosovo was carved out of Serbia. The history of the Albanian people is complicated, and the politics are a tangled mess. A simple explanation is that there are millions of Albanians living on the Balkan Peninsula and when political borders were drawn in the past century the architects left hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians living outside of Albania where they became a persecuted minority in Macedonia, Greece, Serbia and Montenegro. Many ethnic Albanians still dream of uniting all the Albanians on the Balkan Peninsula in “Great Albania”, a concept that would merge Albania, Kosovo and a third of Macedonia. There is a fierce nationalism in the Albanian people, but their political leaders strongly advocate joining the European Union instead of igniting a new war in the pursuit of Great Albania.
Several years ago the Albanian Ambassador to the United States, Gilbert Galanxhi, attended a symposium in the Albanian community center on Raymond Street in Waterbury to meet with Connecticut's two U.S. Senators and the local Albanian community. Media coverage of the event drew reactions from authorities in Macedonia and Greece.
Many of the second wave of ethnic Albanians to come to Waterbury were from the western region of Macedonia, and Kosovo, and they came seeking economic opportunity. Waterbury has two Albanian cultural centers, the first one was established in the South End of Waterbury on Raymond Street and is primarily comprised of Albanians from Albania. The second center is on Columbia Boulevard in the Overlook neighborhood and is primarily made up of ethic Albanians from Struga, Macedonia.
Publishing a newspaper in Waterbury has allowed me to befriend city residents from all over the world, and has been a catalyst in helping to organize The Gathering each year in downtown Waterbury. While some ethnic groups have hesitated to fully participate in the most diverse festival in Connecticut (more than 100 cultures were represented on September 24th in Library Park), the Albanians have been “all in” since the concept was announced in January 2013, and they even helped sponsor the first festival.
I rented an old farmhouse in Morris, Connecticut, for nearly a decade before I fully realized that my landlord was an ethnic Albanian from Struga, Macedonia, who was building a little empire in Litchfield County making pizza. Many of the pizza shops in greater Waterbury are operated by Albanians and they employ family members as cooks and waiters to keep the revenue in the family.
Islam Isa Etemi is from Struga, Macedonia, and continues to enthusiastically embrace his Albanian cultural identity in Waterbury. Islam is pictured here at The Gathering parade in downtown Waterbury in 2013, and has performed with Grupi Renia all four years of the festival. Pictured below are cultural dancers performing on the Green in downtown Waterbury several years ago.
The Albanians have made a splash in Waterbury and it is their intense love of culture, and their openness for sharing that culture, that led me to climb on an airplane and visit their tiny country on the Balkan Peninsula.
And now here I was listening to Prime Minister Edi Rama address the Albanian parliament on the radio while cruising along a highway through Lushnje, Kavaje and Durres with three silent Albanian police officers shoe-horned inside my rental car. We made our way past roadside vendors selling fruits and vegetables and old mismatched shoes. I saw laborers in the fields harvesting hay and oranges and tending to flocks of sheep, goats and turkeys. Once we reached Tirana, a city of 800,000, and growing, the car was ensnared in a massive rush-hour traffic jam and it took an additional 90 minutes to make our way into the city center. The officers jumped out one by one as we passed through their neighborhood until finally my friend in the passenger’s seat signaled me to pull over to the curb. He was the last one out and he thanked me profusely, clasped my hand in a soul-brother handshake and said, “Thank you amigo, thank you.”
And for the first time in three and a half hours I was alone again. I made my way to a hotel next to a hipster-like restaurant called “Proper Pizza”, checked in, and then went to the hotel bar for a cold beer and a deep breath.
I walked along the Black Drin River and watched ancient men try to catch tiny fish with long bamboo poles. The river sliced through the heart of Struga and magnificent promenades lined both shores. In the afternoon it seemed like all 16,000 residents of this small town were walking along the river visiting friends, catching up on gossip, seeing, and being seen. The river isn’t wide, not much wider than Bank Street in downtown Waterbury, but on a warm afternoon in Autumn there were thousands of walkers strolling along the promenade and I felt the warmth of community and wondered why anyone would ever leave this place?
The Black Drin River flows out of Lake Ohrid and slices through the heart of Struga, a small town of 16,000 residents in the country of Macedonia. A majority of the population in Struga is ethnic Albanian and they are governed by Mayor Ziadin Sela, a former doctor who is now running to be a member of parliament where he hopes to champion human rights for Albanians living in Macedonia. Mayor Sela traveled to Waterbury in 2014 to establish a sister city relationship between Struga and Waterbury. There are thousands of ethnic Albanians living in greater Waterbury who emigrated rom Struga.
The main shopping artery in downtown Struga (above) is bustling all day long. The beautiful natural surroundings and robust community life left me wondering why so many people had left, and the answer was lack of economic opportunity. Jobs are difficult to find and pay between $180 and $450 U.S. dollars a month. For children in Struga, though, it is a rich life of exploration, friendship, fishing, swimming and climbing atop a monument in the city center (below).
Muslims and Christians live side by side in Struga, but there is a small junkyard separating a mosque and church on the west side of Struga.
Hundreds of bicyclists cruise around Struga, and almost all of them are older men. I was in Struga for 30 hours and didn't see one woman - young or old - riding through town.
A shepherd's salad (shopska) and cold beer on the north shore of Lake Ohrid.
The Black Drin River begins in Struga and flows through the Albanian mountains and eventually ends at the Adriatic Sea. All along the banks of the river there are dozens of fishermen trying to catch tiny fish that they sauté or fry at home (below), or larger fish caught out in the open water are sold alongside the roads of Lake Ohrid.
Several stray dogs appear to be community owned by Struga residents. They roam in the main business district and residents collectively feed them and stop to pet them. I fed this dog leftover meatballs from lunch and he followed me around Struga for three or four hours. When I stopped, he stopped. When I went into a cafe he would lay down and wait for my return. Clearly these were memorable meatballs.
Ten miles from Struga is the picturesque town of Ohrid, a major tourist destination for Macedonians. The town's sizable population of ethnic Albanians was pushed out of Ohrid and is now mostly Macedonian.
Struga is nestled on the north shore of Lake Ohrid, one of the deepest and oldest natural lakes in Europe. The lake was declared a World Heritage site in 1979 and it straddles the border between Macedonia and Albania. The official census declared that nearly 60% of the population is Macedonian, and only 34% is ethnic Albanian, but nobody believes those numbers, Struga is an Albanian stronghold and is only a few miles from the Albanian border.
In 2014 the Mayor of Struga, Ziadin Sela, traveled to Waterbury and met with Mayor Neil O’Leary, and the men forged a sister city agreement between Struga and Waterbury. Mayor O’Leary had planned to travel to Struga in the summer of 2014 to cement the sister city agreement, but for various reasons he never made the trip. I had met Mayor Ziadin Sela inside Waterbury City Hall and decided to try and track him down while I was in Struga. I thought it would be sisterly to at least pay my respects.
My first challenge was to find the mayor’s office in Struga, which wasn’t that difficult. My second challenge was to try and engage someone in conversation, and since my Albanian language skills are non-existent, this was going to be a challenge. I repeatedly asked for the mayor’s office and I was passed from one person to the next until I was seated in front of Armend Zhakhu in the information technology department. He spoke halting English at first and told me Mayor Sela was out of the office and they were trying to reach him.
It turns out that Mayor Sela was registering his newborn child with Macedonian authorities and would be back in the office within the hour. So Armend got me an espresso and we began to talk, and the more we talked the sharper his English became. I asked him why so many people left Struga for Waterbury?
“Struga has the lake and the river,” he said, “Who has such beauty? We have long coffees and we have conversations. We don’t eat fast and life here is beautiful, but we don’t have money. Most of us would love to live our lives here, but we don’t have money to feed our children. That is the problem.”
The view of the Black Drin River in Struga from my hotel balcony in the early morning. Hotels are 100% booked in July and August, but in late November I was the only guest in the Hotel Blue Sky and paid $10 US dollars for my room. There was no heat and I ended up wearing two pair of pants, four shirts and my winter jacket to make it through the night. I was camping out in downtown Struga and the view was spectacular (above), and the balcony provided a memorable office (below).
Armend and his co-worker, Burim Pollozhani, both have repeatedly applied to get a visa through a U.S. run lottery system to come to America. Burim said he is, “trying to catch the chance to chase opportunity in Dream Land”, but he doubts he will ever get a visa. “There are thousands of people who apply each year,” he said, “and there are only 50 chosen. Maybe my time has passed? It is all luck, and we don’t have the luck.”
The IT Department turned out to be a vein of gold for this prospector. Armend and Burim explained that life was very difficult for Albanians living in Struga. “There are many young men standing around with nothing to do but smoke cigarettes and drink coffee,” Burim said. “And if they are lucky to get a job it never pays enough. A good job pays $400 Euros a month (about $110 U.S. a week), and some jobs pay only $150 Euros a month (about $30 U.S. a week) This is not enough money, and that is why people leave.”
But why Waterbury, I asked?
“People will go to a place that they find better conditions for living,” Burim said. “And they will go to a place where Albanians have already settled. It makes it easier to be socialized and it’s easier to get a hand up from someone wanting to help you.”
The phone rang and I was told the mayor had arrived. As I entered Mayor Sela’s office he greeted me with an enthusiastic handshake and we sat down to talk. I hadn’t remembered hearing him speak English around Mayor O’Leary and I asked if he spoke English. “Of course,” he replied. Mayor Sela offered me a cigarette, I declined and said, “I thought you were a doctor?”
He shrugged his shoulders, laughed, and said, “What can I do? I will quit some time.”
Struga Mayor Ziadin Sela spent more than an hour with me explaining the difficulty of being being an ethnic Albanian in Macedonia, and the challenge of seeking a political solution to the systemic discrimination Albanians endure from Macedonians.
And then for the next hour Mayor Sela gave me a history lesson on the struggle to be an Albanian in Macedonia, and the complexities of governing an ethnic Albanian community inside a country still intent on purging Albanians from their country.
“Albanians are discriminated against and exploited in Macedonia,” Sela said. “The ethnic cleansing is not any better, but they are using economics on us now, and the Macedonian secret police have let Albanian killers loose on our streets to frighten people to leave.”
Mayor Sela said Albanians in Struga pay a very high tax to the central government in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, but very little is returned to the community. The tax revenue is pulled out of the Albanian community and invested in projects and infrastructure inside Macedonian communities in the central and eastern part of the country.
A massive cultural project in downtown Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, is going to cost $1 billion U.S. dollars to complete. The project has been approved by the Macedonian central government (controlled by ethnic Macedonians) and has stirred controversy throughout the country. This colossal statue of Alexander the Great is one of hundreds of statues and monuments being erected in the heart of Skopje to give appearance of an ancient and cultured city. Stunning buildings are being erected along the Vardar River, and two massive pirate ships serve as tourist hotels. Protestors use the cover of night to hurl paint onto monuments and statues in defiance of this cultural excess (photos below). Taxes collected from the Albanian communities in the western region of Macedonia are not returned as roads and bridges and have been siphoned off to help finance the Skopje faux-historical project, or in infrastructure in the ethnic Macedonian communities.
Mayor Sela has devised a way to circumvent Macedonian politics by using a creative book-keeping method to build bridges and roads in Struga without relying on cash from Skopje. “They may sue me one day, but I must do something,” Sela said. “We are in a game of nerves.”
Sela is a candidate for a seat in the parliament in Skopje, and if he should win on December 11th (he expects to), he said his first intention would be to try and unite the Albanian political factions in Macedonia to speak with one voice.
Is that possible, I asked?
“Everything is possible if you believe,” he said. “Macedonians will never have stability in this country without the Albanians, and if we stick together, we can make progress and begin to equalize the conditions here.”
Sela cited two examples where he has had to take action in Struga without the official consent of the central government in Skopje.
The first project was at a major entrance point into Struga that was a four-way intersection with no traffic lights or stop signs. Mayor Sela said it was called the “crossroads of death”, and there were 100 accidents at the intersection a year. Despite pleas for help there was no money from the parliament to address the situation, so Sela had the municipality of Struga install a round about at the intersection and there have been no accidents in the past two years. “We have a conscious,” Sela said, “we had to take action.”
The "crossroads of death" in Struga is now safe because Mayor Sela had the initative to build a rotary at the intersection.
Another regional road into Struga had earned a deadly reputation for bicyclists forced into traffic with trucks and cars that resulted in several fatal accidents every year. Sela himself witnessed an accident that killed a young girl and he vowed to take action. “We fixed the road without permits and built a bicycle path,” Sela said. “It was not about permits, it was about our humanity.”
Struga Mayor Ziadin Sela didn't wait to get permits and permission to build a bike path along a deadly stretch of road controlled by the central government in Macedonia. People were dying, so he took action and built a route for villagers to ride their bicycles safely into the city of Struga.
Mayor Sela is a passionate man, and several people I spoke with in Struga said he has improved the quality of life in town and they are hoping he can make a similar impact at the next level to improve the lives of ethnic Albanians living in Macedonia. Sela believes the time for equality for Albanians in Macedonia is now. As Ziadin Sela looks to build a bridge to equality he isn’t going to get bogged down in the permitting process. He is a man of action - this is about humanity - and he is going to act.
Ervin Shehaj is a dreamer, but before he created magnificent dreams of cleaning Albania’s polluted environment, his family and friends called him, The Inventor. “I was always taking things apart and putting them back together,” Shehaj said, ”and when I was six years old everyone started calling me The Inventor.”
Now The Inventor forges dreams so impossibly big, they even surprise him. Ervin Shehaj has inspired an entire country to begin the colossal task of cleaning thousands of tons of garbage that scar the Albanian landscape. Everywhere you look is plastic. It’s in the mountains, and all across the beaches and fields and meadows of this beautiful country.
Ironically none of the garbage existed during the 50 years of communist rule in Albania because the people had nothing. There was no packaging, and no one had a clue what plastic was. Once the communist state collapsed there was a massive influx of goods and products from around the world, and millions of small plastic bags to carry an apple or pencil home from the store. 25 years of plastic being littered across the landscape has created an environmental nightmare.
Ervin Shehaj, "The Inventor."
Three years ago Shehaj and his wife, Luli Hajdini, went for a walk and were depressed by what they saw. Instead of complaining, they decided to take action and create a national cleanup day. They engaged politicians, celebrities, the business community, and took their campaign to the people. Within three months the cleanup happened and 147,000 people volunteered and they picked up 15,000 tons of waste.
When the results from around the country came flooding in that night, The Inventor stepped out on a balcony and bawled his eyes out. “It was beyond what I imagined,” Shehaj said, “but it was not enough.”
So they planned a second cleanup, this time focused on the beaches along the Adriatic Sea, and they had another astounding turnout. They formed a group - Green Line Albania - and have organized six cleanups in the past three years.
One of the thousands of dumping scenes that developed after the collapse of communism in Albania.
Albania is a country dominated by mountains and rivers, and Shehaj believes the country can become an eco-tourism destination if the landscape can be cleaned. Pictured above is the plastic-littered beach in the coastal city of Shenjin.
Remarkably, the small group has been able to gain traction in every political arena, and across wide swaths of Albanian society. I asked Shehaj how he was able to get so many people to act?
“We didn’t point fingers. We said we are all guilty and if we don’t act we will all be more guilty,” Shehaj said. “In Albania we have a saying, “fault is an orphan”, but with the environment we said it was everyone’s fault, all of Albania, and the people responded.”
During its first two years the group met in small neighborhood bars and would plan cleanups during marathon days of coffee and cigarettes, relying on the goodwill of shop owners who would stay open as long as the dreamers needed to plan. Now Green Line Albania has a small storefront office on a non-descript road on the edge of the pulsing heart of downtown Tirana.
I attended a meeting one night with Ervin, his wife, Luli, four university students from Tirana, and Albanian-American Geni Pacani, who works in the hospitality business in Norwalk, CT. Shehaj and Pacani met through social media, and now Pacani is spearheading efforts to raise money for Green Line Albania by tapping into the economic muscle of the 200,000 Americans of Albanian descent.
At one point during the meeting I was asked my opinion about the group’s goals. When I said I hoped they were able to reach their goal, one of the students, Rrahim Jeta, said he didn’t like my use of words. “I don’t like the word hope,” he said. “It gives someone else the power. I like the word believe, and I believe this will happen.”
A passionate meeting of Green Line Albania inside a tiny storefront office in Tirana.
The tiny office was filled with smoke and passion as the group hammered out plans to expand their mission to create sustainable green projects throughout Albania. Cigarettes, coffee, beer and chocolate fueled the two-hour meeting, and afterwards I went out to dinner with Ervin Shehaj to dig deeper into his story.
Their plan is to take the success of their cleanups and recruit 100 leaders at the universities, and then get each of the leaders to recruit ten friends to build an army of change agents. The mission is to develop green ideas and implement them across Albania. Ervin is trying to inspire university students in Tirana - there are 100,000 of them - to put down their smart phones, cut short their afternoons lingering over coffee and conversation, and take action.
He will go to campuses and ask leaders to step forward, and he believes they will eventually have thousands of students ready to take concrete action. Shehaj told me there had been tension during their meeting earlier in the evening when several group members challenged whether his goal was too lofty and unobtainable.
“I refused to budge,” Shehaj said. “This is my vision and I will not compromise.”
Shehaj is 35 years old and said he has been asked to enter politics, but he has refused. “I don’t like to compromise and that’s all you do in politics,” Shehaj said. “I like my freedom to decide.”
The group had no idea what they were doing when they started, but they were determined to act. They learned by doing and now they have experience they want to pass along to others determined to act. There has been an increased awareness to the impact of plastic on the environment, and on June 5th shops in Tirana will begin charging customers for plastic bags.
“We’re trying to go to the source to stop the garbage from getting into the environment,” Shehaj said. “This will take years, perhaps a generation of inspiring and educating, but the process has begun.”
Shehaj said the younger generation in Albania is hungry for change and he believes he can tap into their energy to make a sustainable and green Albania.
“In Albania we know the problems,” Shehaj said. “We talk about the problem. We study the problem, but there was little accomplished, so we decided to act.”
The King’s Palace
The catalyst for my Albanian adventure was the opportunity to rendezvous with Visar Tasimi in Tirana for a three-day summit of Albanian diaspora. I have gotten to know Visar the past several years by attending the annual Albanian Festival on Raymond Street in Waterbury, and planning The Gathering. Visar is in his late 20s and is the president of the Albanian Center in the South End of the city.
Visar and his two siblings were born in America, but their parents only spoke Albanian to them in the home. Visar is passionate about his heritage and spends a week or two a year visiting his father’s tiny village in the Prespa region of Macedonia. Recently the old men in the village have invited Visar to pull up a chair next to them and watch the world go by, a high honor he cherishes. “There is no where else I’d rather be,” he said.
Visar Tasimi was born in America and is passionate about his Albanian heritage. He is seen here dancing an Albanian valle at the The Gathering September 24th in downtown Waterbury with representatives from Ghana and Brazil.
Visar traveled to Tirana with his older brother, Krenar, an engineer and a fanatic for Albanian meatballs (Qofte te ferguara). Accompanying the two brothers was their charming father, Tasim Tasimi, who might be the most social person I have ever encountered in my life. Tasim befriended everyone he met, the waiter, the store clerk, and the vendor on the street. Tasim was credentialed for the summit by signing up to be my translator, but the organizers provided English headsets, so Tasim was free to wander and make new friends, which he did with gusto.
Visar Tasimi and his brother, Krenar Tasimi, were two of the youngest attendees at the conference in Tirana. They had both hoped to share their experiences and suggestions at the three day conference, but the opportunity never presented itself. Despite the frustration, Visar said, "Representing Waterbury's Albanian community at the international conference was a high honor."
The opening reception of the summit was staged at the King’s Palace, a magnificent building built by King Zog eighty years ago. Before he was king, he was Ahmet Muhtar Zogoll, and served as prime minister and president of Albania in the 1920s. Under his leadership Albania was transformed into a kingdom and he declared himself king. The other royal families in Europe ignored him and he fled the country in 1939 when Italy invaded. King Zog relocated to London, and then Egypt, and died in 1961 without ever stepping foot inside the King’s Palace, which is now used for special events.
While Visar and his family chatted with ministers of culture and the Albanian ambassador to the United States, I swung into photojournalism mode and worked my way onto the edge of a stage where the prime minister was scheduled to speak. Edi Rama is a mountain of a man, 6’7” inches tall and he must weigh in excess of 250 pounds. A former basketball player I suspect that if you took all the world’s leaders and had them fight it out, that Edi Rama would be the last man standing.
Edi Rama is the prime minister of Albania and a physically imposing man. A former member of the Albanian national basketball team and an artist, he has vowed to reform politics in Albania, and has tackled systemic corruption that has plaqued the country for two decades.
An elaborate spread of food and pastries welcomed 1000 guests to the King's Palace on the opening night of the conference.
After delivering an opening night speech inside the King's Palace, Edi Rama was mobbed by an over-enthusiastic crowd jockeying to touch him or get a selfie with the prime minister. A physically smaller man might not of fared as well in the crowd, but the 6'7" Rama bulled his way forward.
Hashim Thici is the president of Kosovo and was on hand to greet the Albanian diaspora. Kosvo is predominantly made up of Albanians, and the two countries are exploring ways to work together in cooperation to save money and strengthen the Albanian culture. Thaci ws the first prime minister of Kosovo and was a leader in the Kosovo Liberation Army during the Kosovo War. Using years of photojournalism experience I worked my way onto the edge of the stage to photograph the event before getting the boot a minute before Edi Rama took the stage.
Afterwards I waded into the mob as Prime Minister Rama entertained hundreds of selfie requests. I'm the bearded dude on the upper right side of this image, which appeared in newspapers around Albania.
I enjoyed watching these two men talk at each other for several minutes inside the King's Palace. They wagged fingers, they argued, they laughed and they put their hands on each other. They were old driends having a traditional Albanian conversation - emotional and animated.
After dictator Enver Hoxha died in 1985 communist officials in Tirana built a pyramid-shaped museum dedicated to his legacy. With the fall of communism it became a conference center and is now abandoned an empty. There is talk of tearing it down, while others want to leave it intact as a reminder of the communist era. Earlier this year an Albanian rock band broke into The Pyramid and staged a free concert and party. Climbing the sides of the building has become a rite of passage for many young Albanians, pictured below.
My favorite part of the symposium was in the afternoon of the second day when I explored a new museum with Visar that was dedicated to the atrocities that occurred during four decades of communist rule in Albania. The museum was inside an old communist bunker in the middle of Tirana and took visitors through a series of rooms, hallways and chambers exploring secret police, spying, torture and murder. It was a chilling exhibit and in one room dangled placards with the names of the 5000 people murdered under Enver Hoxha’s reign of terror.
Under the brutal leadership of communist dictator Enver Hoxha the Albanian people were isolated, controlled, spied upon, tortured and murdered. A museum exploring the dark period of Hoxha’s rule from 1944 to 1985 was opened last month in a bunker in the middle of downtown Tirana. Upon entering the bunker visitors are greeted with images of some of the 5000 citizens murdered under the Hoxha regime.
Each room in the museum examined an element of the Hoxha dictatorship; eavesdropping, spying, torture and murder. Below is listed a few of the torture methods used by the communists.
During four decades of communist rule the government built 700,000 bunkers across the landscape, and soldiers were given a “shoot to kill” order to stop anyone coming or going from Albania. The result was that Albania became the most isolated country on Earth. Many of the bunkers still exist today.
Visar started scanning the exhibit and within seconds found the name of Ajdin Kulla, a 34-year-old teacher who had been executed by firing squad in June 1945. Before dying Kulla wrote a letter that said, “I leave this fake life as an Albanian burning for an Albania I wished for.” Kulla had been a member of the National Front Party that supported a Great Albania that included Kosovo, and regions of Macedonia and Greece heavily populated by ethnic Albanians.
A visitor scanning a placard with names of the 5000 murder victims of the Enver Hoxha regime.
The communists were opposed to a Great Albania and when they rose to power they executed members of the National Front, including Ajdin Kulla. In 2012 the Albanian government awarded Ajdin Kulla the nation’s highest medal of honor for opposing fascists and standing up to the communists, and he was declared a “martyred teacher and an unyielding patriot.”
Ajdin Kulla was an English teacher executed by communists in 1945.
Kulla’s family spent two decades living in an internment camp before making their way to Waterbury, and Visar Tasimi is friends with Ajdin Kulla’s grandson, Jetlir Kulla. Six days after we discovered Ajdin Kulla’s name memorialized inside a bunker 20 feet beneath Tirana, his grandson, Jetlir Kulla, took the oath of office in Waterbury and became the first Albanian born American to serve as alderman in the city of Waterbury. Ajdin Kulla would be proud.
Jetlir Kulla was born in an internment camp in communist Albania, and is now a member of the Waterbury Board of Aldermen.