Jennifer Carpenter
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This is what I see.

January 25, 2010 @ 2:25 PM | Permalink
Most days, I walk past a small Roma boy on my way to work. He can’t be more than three years old. Even on rainy, bitter mornings, I find him on my street corner wearing only a ripped t-shirt and flip flops – dozing off on a thin stack of cardboard, saturated in his own urine. He shivers from his knees, letting his shutters and spurts gyrate his entire body into an uncontrolled, swaying spasm. His back hunches forward and his head flops down, letting his face, caked in snot and dried blood, swing from side to side. And he doesn’t cry. 
 
I’ve seen dozens of passersby reach out to him – seen them kneel at his side and rub his forehead – seen them thrust a bit of bread or byrek into his soiled, fumbling little hands. Many people drop coins at his feet. It’s what most of us have been conditioned to do, expected to do even, in response to this sort of begging. A reaction to the sight of him – the performance, in a way.
 
10 or 20 Lek coins are tossed onto his lap like pennies into a wishing well. They drop onto the soaked, stinky cardboard and yet he doesn’t take notice of them. He’s never flinched at their silvery shine – at what they mean or what they might mean – 
 
– because moments later they are gone. His mother suddenly appears from out behind the alleyway and scoops up the money in one silent swoop. And as fast as she comes she disappears again – ducking back into the shadows and leaving her son where he sits – coughing and quivering and undeniably desperate. Desperate for everything and at some level absolutely nothing.
 
I don’t give anything to the boy on my street corner. I don’t know how to. Not yet.
 
***
 
Yesterday I joined UNICEF officers Leon Shestani and Elvana Pernaska on an UN-Emergency visit to the northern city of Shkodra – where months of heavy rainfall and a faulty dam system has flooded more than 25,000 acres of farmland and forced 5,000 families out of their homes. A rush of international aid and a well-organized Albanian military response have successfully organized relief efforts for the main city’s inhabitants. The dams have been fortified, and the Drini River (on the southern border) has been dredged. And while the worst is over, the smattering of small villages around Shkodra are still only accessible by boat. 
 
The UN is focusing on relief. Shkodra’s (already shoddy) public water system is contaminated by sewage, and drowned livestock have polluted the floodwaters. The seemingly endless mountains of trash that once lined the city’s streets has now been spread about the countryside – braided and knotted like twist-ties into bushes and trees. Previously vibrant green grasslands are now muddied, desolate brown plains encrusted with plastic bags, tin cans, and the unavoidable smell of abuse.
 
The UN has pledged $240,000 to help flood-victims return to their homes, clean up their properties and rebuild their livelihoods. The question is how: how to identify, organize and distribute these funds to all victims equally, efficiently and without delay. 
 
That’s what brought us to Shkodra. But that’s not all we did.
 
After a morning of sipping coffee and exchanging good graces with the city’s prefect and an assortment of government officials – we took the afternoon to visit two communities affected by the flood: Obot, a village six miles north of Shkodra, and a relocation site for the Roma community on the western outskirts of town.
 
The Albanian government has “moved” the Roma to an abandoned, communist military barrack. The very compound is rotting and collapsing around them – it reeks of abandon. Crumbling brick walls covered in thorny vines. Modest, gray cement buildings (many without roofs) wrapped in rusted barbed wire. Old green and brown military tanks clustered under trees, shattered and dented from years of neglect. And in the midst of it all, the Roma have settled. 
 
Their laundry hangs like garlands from the barbed wire. Their few possessions are piled in the drier, sunnier rooms still standing. Their horses graze among the tanks. 
 
Roma people live to move. This settlement is only temporary, Leon assures me. Once they have absorbed as many relief materials that can be offered to them, they will leave.
 
On arrival to this new space, two Swedish aid organizations donated several cases of bottled water and cans of food to the Roma leaders. These were immediately sold on Shkodra’s streets, for much less than their asking price. No child saw these returns.
 
Some Tirana elementary school donated a few dozen children’s books. The paper has been used to roll cigarettes, as the children search for firewood in the surrounding woods.
 
Upon arrival, I was introduced to a tall, lanky Roma girl named Angelina, who invited me into the forest. We hiked up the hill, through the mud and brush to join the children in play – far away from their loud, aggressive parents in the barracks. I was ambushed by a handful of squealing, smiling kids – swinging from tree braches and wrestling one another in the leaves. It was Lord of the Flies.
 
Dirty, freezing faces. Cold, fierce eyes. Bruises and cuts and handshakes and snot.
 
A quiet boy with large dent in his forehead becomes attached to my leg. Angelina shoves him aside. Everyone wants a picture. Everyone wants a picture with everyone else. I am happy to oblige. They delight in each pose, each pairing, each deadpan gaze – it’s a surge of unexpected fun. Belligerent, demanding, compulsive fun.
 
Leon calls for me from down below. I march the children to the barracks. It’s suddenly obvious that there are at least three times as many children (under 10) than adults. Leon introduces me to two Albanian soldiers who are spitting and smoking near the entrance. They motion to the green and yellow smoke seeping from one of the buildings.
 
“That’s the last of it,” one of the officers says, in rough Shqip.
 
“They’ll be gone soon enough.”
 
Leon, Elvana and I follow the smoke and noise to the largest building on the compound, where most of the Roma families reside. Angelina yanks me up to the second floor, and we wiggle between fallen beams and stones to a roofless set of rooms.
 
We’re greeted by heat – a smoldering fire of putrid, damp cloth. The stench makes me gag.
 
From across the hall – I see a large room filled from floor to ceiling with warm, dry clothes – sweaters and gloves and blankets and hats – donations from non-profits, churches, international bodies and the like. 
 
They are burning it. 
 
An old woman explains to Elvana that the clothes are “not proper” for them. Leon then asks her why they do not sell the clothes and make a profit, she replies that they only sell clothes that they steal.
 
The little boy from the woods has found my leg again. Angelina kicks him off me – I help him to his feet. He scurries away into the hall.
 
They are burning all of it.
 
I listen to the elders gulp down the brandy and raki from their day’s earnings (often what the children got from begging). I listen to them hiss and laugh and stare. I listen to their demands from Leon – more water, “proper” blankets, better shelters. I am deaf to whatever truth lies beneath it all.
 
I see the children weave among the elders. I see them barefoot, wearing little more than long-sleeved shirts and shorts – often less. I see their breath in the cold, damp room. I see their teeth chatter. Their eyes water.
 
And I see them dance and sing and scream around the fire.
 
This is what I see.
 

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