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Kamëz Part 1

Kamëz is a place best avoided. There is nothing to see and the place is chaotic. Pick the wrong time of day and it can take an hour to travel a few miles. It was not always like this. Kamëz is like one of those new towns planners were so keen on in the 1960's and 70's. This is an Albanian new town, though, so planners were not involved.

Like most communist countries Albania had a rigorous system of internal population controls. When the communist regime collapsed the people, making up for lost time, packed their possessions and left the countryside and the villages behind for the cities - especially Tirana.

With no private property and no functioning state, people picked an empty spot and began to build. In Kamëz, the majority of those who arrived came from the villages and towns of the North. Eventually Kamëz, once a sea of fields, grew into a town of 80,000 people.

In our time here, we had only previously passed through Kamëz on our way to Kruja, never straying off the main road. The road itself is not too bad, but the growth of the town means that it is fed by dozens of little side streets that twist and turn, rise and fall, join and split, randomly. All are lined by a mish-mash of structures, built to no plan or pattern. No twelve story apartment blocks here; no bright colours, just grey cement and red clay.

We never before had a reason to explore more of Kamëz, but on Sunday we had, having been assigned the town by the election observation mission.

We started in the north-west at 6.15 in the morning, in an area called Valias. It was only a few hundred metres off the main road but had more of the feeling of a small village. The streets were narrow and unpaved, the houses mostly single-story and run down. The biggest building was the school - our destination - where we stood in the schoolyard and passed the time with the police officers on duty while waiting for the voting centre commissioners to arrive.

Also to the west but closer to the centre we visited Zall-Mner. Here the roads were paved, but just as narrow and twisting. The area was a little more developed, but most of the houses were still basic and surrounded by wall topped with shards of glass set in concrete. At the school the playground was nothing but rubble where chickens were scratching around. On a narrow strip of grass beside the school - perhaps a playing field - sheep were grazing.

In both places people watched as we drove by, children stared and the braver ones chased after us. In this part of Kamez, strangers are a rarity.

Later in the afternoon we headed out to the east to find some of the more scattered voting centres. We found one in the end, though it wasn't the one we were looking for. On the way we passed through the worst part of Kamëz. Turning off the main road we started on asphalt, passed onto rubble and ended up swaying and bouncing down a mud covered, deeply rutted dirt-track.

Here there were still fields, and scattered randomly in the fields were half-built houses - whether unfinished or abandoned it was hard to tell. Every once in a while one of these building turned out to be a little grocery store. Few people appeared to own cars - not that cars would last long on these dirt tracks; our Landcruiser was a necessity for getting around. The people who live in this area seem to be trapped in this area. From there, even Kamëz centre seemed like a long way away, let alone Tirana.

I have seen poverty in Albania before, but often the poverty is picturesque - little comfort for those who are poor, but it mitigates the effect for those of us from outside, giving us somewhere else to look. In this area, though, the human poverty is more than matched by the poverty of the environment.

On our way, we passed two women. They balanced precariously on the side of the muddy road while we trundled by. The older one was dressed in black with a white headscarf. The younger one seemed to be throwing down a challenge to the reality around her by wearing white high-heeled boots. I glanced down a driveway just after we passed this pair. A young girl stood bare-footed in the mud, tentatively swinging an axe at a lump of wood.

In another post I will say a little more about what we saw while observing the election.


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