The Humans of Astir

Astir is a small district of Tirana, sitting on the ring road that connects the city from north to south and east to west. A low income area comprised of flats, houses, and what can only be described as shacks, it is home to several thousand people.

Albanian and Roma communities live side by side, have set up small businesses and do their best to make ends meet.

Twenty years ago, Albania was still in a time of turmoil. Less than ten years since the fall of the communist regime, the country had just dragged itself back from the precipice of civil war and it, and its people were starting to put their nation back together again. Neighbouring Kosovo was in the midst of war and the whole Western Balkan region was reeling from the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia. Laws, rules, and regulations were vague and unenforceable and thousands of people that had been displaced during the previous decades, flocked to Tirana in search of an escape from the poverty that had been forced upon them.

Some of these individuals settled in what were, at the time, the outskirts of Tirana. Some owned the land, some did not, but they started to build homes, communities, and businesses and they made it their own. Over the next 20 years, the area known as Astir grew and grew, and as a result, the government provided them with a legal framework that would allow them to legalise their properties.

The process was not easy- costly and mired in bureaucracy, the residents persevered- paid taxes and fees to undergo the process. Some succeeded with legislation but others still found themselves at the mercy of the authorities some 15 years later.

But now, the Albanian government has decided it wants them out. Those that have legalised, and those that are still undergoing the process are due to find themselves on the street, with no compensation, no livelihood, no home, and nowhere to go.

The Mayor of the city, Erion Veliaj publicly branded them as barbarians and cavemen, and incited hatred stating they are not real Tiranas. Their pleas for assistance have fallen on deaf ears with the country’s Prime Minister Edi Rama, who has also refused to help.

And for what?

In May 2018, Veliaj and Rama presented some images of two new projects that would get underway on the Unaza Road in Tirana. Proposing to widen the road to alleviate traffic congestion, no mention was made of expropriation of those whose houses stood in the way, or any compensation they would receive. It was then announced that it would mean the demolition of 123 legalised properties, 22 disqualified and 163 still in the process of legalisation.

By November, journalists had discovered that the cost of the project would amount to a staggering EUR 38 million for just over 2km of road- no cost breakdown was provided.

The companies that won the bids to construct the country’s most expensive road are all linked to the government and include Biba X (no experience in road construction and with unpaid bills that should have precluded them from bidding) and DH Albania (the Albanian branch of a Delaware shell company). The bidding process was full of irregularities and illegalities, and DH Albania was found to have submitted forged documents in order to win the tenders.

Avdjol Dobi, the administrator of the company is accused of forgery, fraud, and money laundering but he refuses to hand himself in.

Whilst all of this is going on, the citizens of Astir take to the streets night and day to protest against the illegal demolition of their homes. The government responds by cutting electricity to their property.

One young woman explained that her parents built their house back in 1999. They owned the land and had all of the required documents of the time, furthermore, they paid their taxes dutifully every year.

In 2004, in accordance with the law, they applied for legalisation but for 14 years they have been told the file is still processing. One day last year, some men came and drew a cross on their door, refusing to show the family any documents or authorisations and stating that their homes would be demolished. In the absence of any legal documents, her family are unable to appeal.

A member of the Roma community, a man in a wheelchair told me that despite them having all of the papers that are required, the government have already demolished their home and are now threatening to demolish the second one. He explains that 12 of them live in one small property, with the grandmother occupying a shed in the garden. They are starving and impoverished, and with frustration in his voice, he tells me that the government will not even give him disability allowance, despite him having had his leg amputated.

In a neighbouring house, Hazbie a 22 year old girl tells me about their situation as she fights back tears; ““we have all the papers- our family income depends on our grocery shop- our sweat went into this house, they should at least give us the market compensation for the house, this is what we deserve.”

Another man, whose property now occupies what is considered as “prime real estate” tells me how in 2005 they submitted the documents for legalisation and paid the hefty fees to start the process.

He asks “if our houses are illegal, why did they take thousands of euros in taxes from us?”. He shows me reams of paperwork detailing the various fees and taxes he has paid to the Municipality and government over the last 20 years.

I ask him if he thinks the government will refund the years of fees, taxes, and tariffs paid and he looks at me and laughs.

“They were happy to take money from us for taxes, but they refuse to abide by their own laws now”.

Another woman, a mother of six explains how they promised to legalise her house so she dutifully paid over EUR 2600 to do so. Then one day, they told her the process was stopping and she would have to vacate the house immediately, with no compensation, as it was due to be demolished.

Her youngest daughter plays at her feet as she explains the trauma that they are passing through. She tells me that one morning she woke up to find her child had filled the house with paper signs with slogans such as “I love my parents” and “I love my home” written on them.

“How can I raise my children? Feed them? My daughter is scared of the police and she asks me every day ‘where will we go when they destroy our home? Will they take you and daddy to prison?’ I don’t know how to answer her”.

Most of the residents of Astir have been refused compensation for their property meaning that they are set to lose everything they have worked for over the last 20 plus years. Homes, businesses, livelihood, and their community is all set to be turned into dust without them receiving a penny in return.

The unusually expensive project, awarded to a fake company and companies linked to the government who awarded it, is set to continue.

The people that have lived here for a generation and that have either legalised, or spent vast amounts of their income on following government legalisation procedures are set to be left with nothing. Whilst the criminals involved in the project walk free, these people have been left to rot.

“Where was the government 20 years ago when the building started? They robbed us and exploited us and now tell us that we are illegal by putting crosses on our doors? I don’t know who could protect us, the citizens of this country, when our government is not,” one woman tells me with a shrill desperation in her voice.

“Who will help us?”