Transrural in the Balkans

An isolated homestead in the Albanian Alps, typical of Transrural's beneficiaries.
An isolated homestead in the Albanian Alps, typical of Transrural’s beneficiaries.

The Balkans is the collective name of a group of countries in south-east Europe comprising most of the former Yugoslavia plus Albania, Greece and Bulgaria. It is an area where political instability and ethnic strife continue to cause division, poverty and mass migration.

Transrural works in poverty pockets within Albania and Kosovo at the heart of the Balkan region. For nearly half a century, Albania was the most isolated of all the communist regimes in eastern Europe. Its people lived under the iron rule of the dictator Enver Hohxa, and worked in state-owned farms and factories. As the influence of foreign technology and advancements were kept away from Albania's workers, industry and economy declined. By the time Hoxha died in 1986, Albania had gone back to manual labour and reliance on its own resources. The overthrow of communism liberated the population from a tyrannical rule but farms and factories had been destroyed. Large areas of forest had disappeared, the wood cut down for fuel and the soil left to erode. Later, in1997, there was widespread civil unrest and violence after the failure of a “pyramid” savings scheme deprived many people of their savings.

Transrural is active in the mountainous north, a region of scattered homesteads with poor soil on bare hillsides. Rural families struggle to survive without jobs or income following the collapse of the state-run mining and agriculture industries. Women are often left to look after families and farms on their own because their husbands have emigrated. In spite of these problems and the area’s isolation, several local groups had come together for mutual support. They asked our Albanian partner organisation how their groups could become more effective.

And so began a seven-year programme of collaboration with Transrural, aimed at empowering rural people to represent their interests and obtain the training and services they need. In its sixth year at time of writing, activities are based on building community associations whose members share a common area of interest, such as horticulture, beekeeping, cattle rearing, herb production or food processing.

Springtime in northern Albania.  The town of Kukes, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 in recognition of its role in hosting 400,000 Kosovar refugees in 1999, can be seen in the distance.
Springtime in northern Albania. The town of Kukes, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 in recognition of its role in hosting 400,000 Kosovar refugees in 1999, can be seen in the distance.

The densely-forested western region of Kosovo is still suffering from the trauma of the 1999 conflict, during which thousands of men and boys were murdered in the fields and in their homes, sometimes in front of their families. Other families were forced to leave their homes at short notice, taking only what they could carry, and flee to Macedonia or Albania. When they returned, they found the area in ruins, their houses burnt and possessions and livestock destroyed. One family that has participated in our programme recalls living in an unheated barn during their first winter back home, of straining drinking water from the river through old curtains to make it fit for the children to drink, of having nothing to eat for three days. Those who stayed hid in cellars for months on end or were constantly on the move to avoid detection.

The economy does not function, unemployment stands at around 70%, and widows struggle to care for their families on 60 euros a month. The declaration of independence in February 2008 helped national pride but made little difference to everyday life. Opportunities for widows, and women in general, are greatly restricted by family obligations and codes of honour.

In 2000, six months after the end of the conflict, Transrural received a request, via Albanian contacts, to help the region’s beekeepers, devastated by the loss of their bee colonies. Long-term partnerships with the Gjakova Beekeepers’ Association and with devastated village widow communities followed, and during this time Transrural has come to know many of the families who suffered. We also continue to respond to requests from widows to help them make better use of their land and develop small rural enterprises.