Zyhra and Halil Gjapi were homeless for four months and lived at the doorway of an apartment block in Tirana after the government bulldozed their house in 2014.
Although more than five years have passed since their home was officially expropriated to make space for Tirana’s Outer Ring Road, the Gjapis have yet to receive half of the compensation owed them by the state for their lost house and land.
“I spend most of my time at various [government] offices but I have not yet received the compensation. I don’t know why, and they do not offer any explanation,” Zyhra Gjapi, 62, said.
“I go to the Road Authority, and they say, ‘Go to the Ministry of Infrastructure’, and the latter says, ‘Go to the Ministry of Finance.’”
This elderly couple are not alone in their sad story. The Gjapis are on a long list of hundreds of families that have yet to receive due compensation, years after they loss their homes or land to make space for highways and roads.
Data obtained by BIRN show that the Albanian government has run up tens of millions of euros in arrears for expropriations executed for dozens of road projects, some going back 15 years. The sum owed totals 50.2 million euros.
The Albanian Road Authority, in a written statement to BIRN, acknowledged the arrears but blamed previous administrations and property registration problems, adding that it had asked the government to increase its budget for compensation in the next two years.
“The unpaid compensation derives from problems with ownership documents. Delays caused by a lack of funds [in the authority] are just a small part of it,” the Road Authority said.
“The Albanian Road Authority remains engaged to pay the expropriated owners as soon as possible. To resolve this problem, accumulated over years, we have demanded a bigger budget for expropriation payments for 2020 and 2021,” it added.
The Ministry of Infrastructure and Energy did not respond to specific questions sent by BIRN on the findings of this investigation.
Documents obtained by BIRN show the government expropriated assets worth 96.7 million euros during the last 15 years.
However, it has paid out less than half of this sum in compensation and it still owes families roughly 50.2 million euros.
BIRN obtained a list of 83 road projects for which the government has not yet fully repaid those who lost their property.
The oldest arrears concern a road built in 2004 to link the town of Kukes with the half-finished and unused local airport.
The Council of Ministers issued a decision on February 20 2004 to pay out 94 million lek, equal to 770,000 euros, in compensation for the land expropriated for the road, but the money has yet to be cleared.
BIRN also found out that the Council of Minister made no decision on the list of properties that were expropriated for a long list of road projects and whose construction started years ago.
In one case seen by BIRN, work on preparing a list of affected properties started in 2016 but has yet to be completed.
The data obtained by BIRN shows that there were dozens of similar projects across the country.
Zyhra and Halil Gjapi were among a group of families whose land was expropriated five years ago to construct the Tirana Outer Ring Road.
Zyrha struggles in the bureaucratic maze to obtain due compensation for the couple’s demolished home, while facing health problems and poor living conditions.
After their home was demolished in 2015, the elderly couple rented an apartment, but were evicted after being late with their rental payments.
A period of homelessness followed. After months on the street, the Tirana municipality was pressured to offer them social housing, after pictures of the elderly couple living on the street went viral.
“I filed three requests for social housing after being evicted but the municipality only streamlined the procedure when the photos of us as homeless were published,” Zyrha recalled to BIRN.
Queried about the delays in compensating the Gjapi family, the Road Authority blamed the late registration of the land where their house was built in the land register.
“We have started the procedure for the added expropriation value,” the authority told BIRN.
Villagers lost land for non-existent road:
In 2009, the land of dozens of families was expropriated in the village of Hekal in the Mallakastra region to build a road from Levan to Tepelena.
But the new highway was never even connected up to the village. To make it there by car, drivers still have to take the old road, which is full of potholes.
On a Thursday in May villagers gathered for coffee in a bar next to the single gas station in the village, glued to the television and watching the parliamentary session – being reminded of the many forgotten promises made by area’s MP on compensation for the expropriated land.
“The Prime Minister told them [the MPs] to roll up their sleeves, go meet the people and discuss their problems,” one local, Agur Agaraj, said.
“But it is difficult for our MP to come back when he has not resolved our problem as he promised,” Agaraj added, sitting in front of the TV, listening to the speeches of the MPs in parliament.
To build the Levan-Tepelena highway, the government expropriated the land of 64 families in the village of Hekal alone in 2009.
Agaraj says the government owes him 1,200 euros, but adds that some families in the village are owed much more.
Queried by BIRN about the expropriations in Hekal, the Road Authority said it sent another request to the Commission for the Expropriations at the Ministry of Infrastructure and Energy on May 12.
It blamed the delays in payment on the fact that, “when the expropriation happened, these properties had not been registered in the land register”.
Leg broken, and home and business ruined:
A few hundred meters away from the Gjapis’ now demolished house, a new plan last autumn to expand Tirana’s Outer Ring Road has been met with street protests.
One of the protestors was Lindita Protoduari, aged 50. She and her husband own a building with a coffee shop on the ground floor, and an apartment above, which have been earmarked for demolition.
She struggles to walk after breaking her leg during one of the many rallies she and her neighbours organised over the last seven months against the road expansion project, which has been marred also by serious corruption allegations.
“I was imprisoned twice and had my leg broken by the police. We have that on video, the police dragged me for five meters,” she told BIRN.
“I have my rights, they can demolish the house, but they should pay a fair price in compensation,” she added.
Lindita and her husband, Flori, never had it easy. Flori, now 60, originally from the city of Berat, was raised in the mountainous and remote region of Skrapar, where his family was interned in a gulag-style labour camp under Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist regime.
His father was imprisoned. Lindita’s father was also imprisoned, in the infamous jail of Spac. She laments that the family’s torments did not end with the collapse of the communist regime.
The couple moved to Tirana in the early 1990s and made ends meets by trading merchandise on the streets of Tirana. They bought land in 1997 and first erected a kiosk. With earnings from the kiosk, they built up a small business and their home.
But eight months ago their lives were shattered when topographers from the Road Authority showed up at their doorstop and put a red cross on the building, which mean that it is earmarked for demolition.
“One day a topographers and some engineer popped up and put a cross on the house, like we were in a fascist state,” Flori recalled. “We want a market price [for it] in compensation,” he added.
The amount of money they will receive in exchange for their lost property is not their only worry. Their son, Dorian, was detained during one the rallies against the road project and is in prison awaiting trial.
They also say that the road expansion project has damaged their business, cutting into their livelihood.
“They accuse my son of clashing with the police, but look at the photo, he is doing nothing of the kind,” Lindita said, showing BIRN a photo of the arrest on her mobile phone.
“They cut the trees, took out the streets lights and don’t clean the roads; it has become like Kabul,” she declared, adding that their neighborhood had become almost unlivable due to the construction.