When a powerful earthquake struck Albania more than two months ago, buildings collapsed like houses of cards atop sleeping families. As the country struggles to put the pieces back together, it is facing a structural reality that the disaster exposed: the scourge of illegal construction that has allowed unsafe homes to sprout up across the poor Balkan country.
For decades, builders, engineers and officials have flouted safety codes, piling story upon story on top of homes that were not built to support such weight.
When the magnitude 6.4 quake shook the country on Nov. 26 last year, nearly 90 buildings were reduced to rubble, while more than 80,000 were damaged, with 51 lives lost.
While not all of the devastation could be blamed on illegal construction, experts say it was a key factor in the extent and deadliness of the disaster.
Two months on in the town of Thumane, one of the hardest-hit areas, Vjollca and Meleq Mesiti consider themselves lucky to be alive, but are still grappling with the loss of their home and bakery, which was turned into a pile of bricks.
“A whole life’s work collapsed in a matter of seconds,” said Vjollca Mesiti, 49, as the couple search through the rubble for expensive equipment.
“We’re still in shock,” 53-year-old Meleq Mesiti said.
After hurling brick after brick out of the rubble, Vjollca Mesiti starts pulling out dozens of baking pans, some still brimming with baked loaves covered in dust.
“Life goes on!” she said.
The Mesitis, who are staying with relatives, were among 17,000 people made homeless overnight by the earthquake.
About 10,000 of those are still living in tents in the heart of winter, according to official figures.
Albanian authorities say they are finally cracking down on those who have shirked building laws, a practice that dates back to the unbridled construction boom that followed the fall of communism in the early 1990s.
Regulations could not keep up with the crazed urbanization as developers rushed to scoop up land and erect buildings.
“One thing is certain, in the majority of cases, the loss of human lives is due to the violation from A to Z of all building regulations,” said Luljeta Bozo, an engineer and university lecturer in the capital, Tirana.
Since the earthquake, more than 80 people have been arrested, including builders, engineers, officials and former mayors, said Elisabeta Imeraj, Tirana’s chief prosecutor.
“We’ve been able to prove that in some cases there was not even the minimum amount of documentation needed to issue a building permit,” Imeraj told reporters.
Some applications had no earthquake risk assessments at all, she said, adding that in some cases buildings had up to four extra floors illegally tacked on.
In a country with a widespread corruption problem, experts say bribes have helped get some illegally constructed buildings made “legal” after the fact.
The government has pledged to toughen penalties for those who ignore regulations, for example by seizing or demolishing illegal property — generally not easy to carry out.
The government has costed out a 1 billion euro (US$1.10 billion) rebuilding effort ahead of a donor conference in Brussels on Feb. 17.
Authorities have chosen 18 sites where new housing blocks are to be erected for those made homeless by the quake.
However, in a country still emerging from its communist past, when private property was banned, some are strongly attached to their land.
Elvira Leka, for example, refuses to leave the site of her badly damaged white house in Thumane.
Since the earthquake, the 45-year-old has been living in a tent next to the house with her ailing husband, and their son and daughter.
A cow, donkey and chickens mill about outside.
Leka said that she has no interest in moving to the new apartments to be built just a few hundred meters away.
“My life is here, I’d rather live with animals than with human beings,” she said.
Nearby in the hamlet of Likesh, the Subashi family has been luckier.
A non-governmental organization is rebuilding their homes on the ruins of the old ones, thanks to funds raised from the Albanian diaspora.
“During the earthquake, the roof collapsed on my back, I couldn’t understand where I was,” said 87-year-old Halil Subashi. “Today, I’m happy that they’re helping us build our houses, it’s as if I was born a second time.”
‘SUICIDE’: Media reports said Park Won-soon went missing on Thursday after a staff member filed a sexual harassment claim against him this week Seoul mayor Park Won-soon, viewed as a potential candidate for the 2022 presidential election, was found dead of an apparent suicide hours after he was reported missing, police said, adding that he was the subject of an undisclosed investigation. In a note he is thought to have left behind on his desk, Park offered his apologies. “I thank everyone who was with me in my life. I apologize to my family for only making them suffer from pain,” according to the note that was released by his office yesterday. Park, in his letter, asked to be cremated and have his remains spread
RISKY BUSINESS: The Chinese firm has stockpiled 500,000 pieces of 5G equipment not covered by US sanctions, but fears a wider ban could be announced in the UK Huawei Technologies Co believes it can supply 5G hardware unaffected by US sanctions to the UK for the next five years, sidestepping the expected conclusion of British emergency review on Tuesday. The company has stockpiled 500,000 pieces of kit, but fears a wider ban on its equipment is to be unveiled to placate rebel British Conservative Party lawmakers, who say that the Chinese supplier represents a national security risk. The British government on Friday said that it was “very likely” that British Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden would make a statement to parliament on Tuesday
Scientists in Singapore are hoping to perfect a new method of power generation driven largely by shadows, with the hope that it could one day help highly urbanized cities power themselves. The shadow-effect energy generator (SEG) being developed by the National University of Singapore has the potential to harness power like solar cells, but without needing open spaces with uninterrupted light. To work effectively, the SEG requires both light and dark and, like solar panels, relies on light to shine on silicon to energize electrons. However, using panels that feature a thin layer of either gold, silver, platinum or tungsten, the difference in
ALLEGED CONFLICT INTEREST: Two family members of the Canadian PM have received money from an organization that was later granted a larg e federal project For the third time in as many years, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday found himself at the center of a political firestorm — this time over the awarding of a lucrative government contract to a charity that also paid hefty sums to members of his family. Canada’s Conservative opposition has demanded a police investigation to uncover whether fraud was committed in the granting of the C$900 million (US$662.064 million) contract to WE Charity in June. The organization has admitted paying nearly C$300,000 to Trudeau’s mother, brother and wife for speaking engagements. Trudeau said he had part in negotiations with the charity