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. Albania sitting on communist-era powder keg

by Staff Writers
Bardhaj, Albania (AFP) March 25, 2008
Friends of 12-year-old Daniel Malashi have placed flowers at his Albanian school bench each day since he was killed while collecting abandoned military ammunition for resale.

"Daniel was torn apart by a shell," said one of his friends, 10-year-old Ardi, who lives in Bardhaj village near Shkodra, a town some 170 kilometres (105 miles) from the capital Tirana.

"The army's shells are our livelihood. After school, we go to search near the former military depot. We sell them piece by piece or for 40 lek (2.5 euros, 3.9 dollars) per kilo," he explained.

Earlier this month, a series of blasts at the Gerdec military depot killed at least 22 people, wounded another 300 and destroyed some 2,000 houses.

The devastating explosions, in a densely populated area some 12 kilometres (eight miles) from Tirana, were a new reminder that Albania is sitting on a communist-era powder keg.

Human rights groups and witnesses have said that most of the workers being employed to dismantle shells were badly-paid women, without training or contracts.

Paid on the spot, they drafted in members of their families to help with the work, including children who worked at the factory on Saturdays and Sundays.

Witnesses allege the factory was in a densely-populated urban area, with little security and terrible working conditions.

There are at least 100,000 tonnes of munitions in Albania dating back to when it was one of the most isolated countries in the eastern bloc, according to a recent parliamentary report.

The arms are stored without security measures in some 90 depots.

During an army rebellion in 1997, military stockpiles were looted and arms and ammunition subsequently abandoned and left outdoors. They can still be found more than a decade later.

In Albania, one of Europe's poorest countries, the resale of obsolete military material has become a livelihood for many people.

Old military shells are in great demand from scrap merchants or smugglers as they can contain bronze and even small quantities of gold, according to experts.

In Bardhaj, large numbers of children search for shells to contribute to the 20 euros (30 dollars) their families receive each month in state allowances, but which is insufficient for their survival.

"After school, children rush to go and find munitions that they could resell. The merchants pass by once a week to place orders. They make big profits," said Diana, a teacher in Bardhaj.

Following the deadly munitions blasts of March 15, authorities have become increasingly concerned about military stockpiles close to residential areas and the children who work in them.

"Military depots are often located in inhabited areas, sometimes near schools," said Petro Koci, an official of the parliamentary commission for public security.

"They represent a permanent danger for the population. Those munitions are old and their disposal is dangerous even for specialists," Koci added.

In May 2006, at least four soldiers were killed during the dismantling of munitions in the southern town of Dhemblan.

Since the looting of military depots in 1997, at least 22 children have been killed and 43 wounded, 35 seriously, in arms explosions near former depots in the Shkodra region.

"There is an urgent need to relocate military depots that are close to inhabited regions and to decide how to destroy the old munitions without risking lives," said Alfred Peza, manager of the private Ora News television.

The March 15 blasts in Gerdec revealed a number of deficiencies, according to Peza, who said official institutions charged with overseeing the disposal operations bore a large part of the responsibility.

"That could also be a matter of corruption, abuse and profit," said Peza.

"The Albanian company Alba Demil is to dismantle some 10,000 tonnes of munitions for 2.2 million euros (3.4 million dollars). In order to make good profits, there is no investment," he added.

For Lezimi Gojku, a former manager of an arms factory in Polican, some 180 kilometres (110 miles) south of Tirana, the Gerdec blasts highlighted many problems like the abuse of children.

"Why was the dismantling of the munitions done in Gerdec and not in official plants?" asked Gojku.

"How could women and children work without training, practically like slaves, dismantling ammunition without a single security measure several kilometres from Tirana?" he asked.

Three people were arrested last week for failing to respect safety measures. Two were senior officials with Alba Demil, and the third headed a firm which imports and exports ammunition and weapons.

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Experts estimate that $9 in productivity, health and other benefits are returned for every dollar invested installing toilets for people in countries that today are off-track in meeting the UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for sanitation.

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