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Erion Veliaj
Erion Veliaj

One of MJAFT!'s founding members, Erion Veliaj headed the movement from 2003 to 2007. Erion was a child when Albania's communist regime collapsed:

"On my way to get drinks for a family lunch, I came across the largest rally ever held in Tirana. This was the rally that culminated in the violent removal of Enver Hoxha's mega-statue from downtown Tirana's Skanderbeg square. It was the most exciting event of my boyhood.

At the time, I was finishing 4th grade. The system degenerated in front of our eyes even in elementary schools. Shouting that we were 'fighting for the causes of the party – always ready' every morning was no longer mandatory. Reciting communist poems was no longer required.

In economic terms the situation changed for the worse – at the time only dilled baby-onions were seen in the state-owned stores. The bread queues were a daily agony."

Erion lost his father to a terminal illness in autumn 1991. His mother was left alone to take care of two sons.

"She realised that she could not bring us up alone and had to let go of me. With an uncle I set out to cross into Greece, illegally. After 20 hours walking through the mountains on foot across the southern border near Gjirokaster, always trying to avoid Greek border patrols, we ended up working with relatives. I washed dishes in a restaurant and worked on a farm, for about 6 months.

When I returned to Tirana the steady exodus of people was also visible in my neighbourhood. As we would meet other children for our daily football games we realized that we could not keep our regular teams together. Kids went missing, teams shrunk. It wasn't until later that I realized that our friends had left for good, picked up by their daring parents and headed mostly for Italy and Greece."

Erion left Albania in 1998. He went to the US where he studied at Grand Valley State University (GVSU). After a semester he returned to Albania to help with the Kosovar refugee crisis, working in a refugee camp in Peshkopi.

"After TV images showed Kosovar refugees pouring across the border, Albanians mounted one of the largest hospitality operations of their history. Every city, town and village had a refugee welcoming center, families lined up to take people home and thousands of young volunteers from schools, NGO-s, churches and mosques were involved in running the relief operation of their lives. Many knew they would meet a Kosovar at some point in their life, but none had predicted that the two halves of a nation would have a 'date' of this scale. For most Albanians this marked an unprecedented life-time experience. My mom hosted a young couple from Gjakova, and with other co-workers was permitted a leave from her regular job to helps serve in the assigned refugee camps during daytime."

In June 1999 Erion moved to Kosovo to help rebuild and refurbish the six main regional hospitals as well as clinics in the Dukagjini valley. r A year later, his university, GVSU, agreed to allow him to work internationally and study through distance learning at the same time. He spent most of 2001 in Central and Latin America, and in 2002 working and doing research for his thesis in Africa.

Erion Veliaj
Erion Veliaj

In December 2002, Erion came back home to Tirana and met up with three friends, including his high school friend, Endri Fuga, who was also studying abroad.

"By Christmas 2002, we were all home for the holidays – Endri and myself planning to go back abroad after the New Year. We met at a café, catching up with each-other after years away. At some point, we couldn't avoid the million dollar question: 'What the hell is wrong with this place? Why is it lost in transition and led by incompetent politicians'? Our relatives would argue that the 500 years of Ottoman rule were to blame, or others would blame the communists. Yet, we couldn't help but realize that in few years we'd most likely have our own kids, and we couldn't blame their broken schools and hospitals on the Turks and the communists any more. We must find better answers, there must be something we could do, at least address one problem. Which problem was the question, which was Albania's biggest problem?

During that Christmas break we made it a mission to find that answer. We met with UNDP to hear how poverty was the biggest problem, the World Bank claiming it was unemployment, the IOM talking trafficking, the Interpol blaming organized crime, UNEP saying it was the environment, and so on – each organization declaring their turf was Albania's biggest problem.

Granted, all were important, we realized back at our café reunion. But there's probably one invisible thread that connects all of these, we figured. It was APATHY! Indeed, the average person had resigned themselves to a reality they thought they could not change, the everyday citizen had simply ceased to care. One either got a visa and left for the West, or gave up, letting sometimes clueless internationals and certainly incompetent politicians take charge. We had found our niche: a smart, provocative, offensive campaign against civic apathy – call it MJAFT – Albanian for ENOUGH! Enough of this apathy, enough of an agonizing transition, enough of sitting idle while all goes wrong!"

MJAFT's symbol became an instantly recognisable red hand:

"We needed a strong image. A stop sign, a fist, a stretched palm – indeed, the latter worked great. We painted our hands in Ina's red lipstick, then stamped them on A4 white paper to see which one looked best. Later we framed it on the red and black colour scheme of the Albanian flag – why not make activism the new patriotism?

In February 2003, we printed a few hundred posters with the red hand logo, and the date MARCH 15 beneath it – signalling our launch. It worked well as people got puzzled and wondered what this could mean. Some said it was another 'international day of something', or that U2 was coming to town, or that the Albanian flag would be changed on that date - although this latter one couldn't have come from someone sober. On March 15, together with a few hundred friends and curious onlookers, we launched MJAFT - the new brand of civic activism. Everyone was invited to dip their hands in red paint and sign-up to civic engagement by stamping their palm on a white cloth board."

MJAFT has spoken out whenever it felt it could make a difference:

"Albanians have grown weary of classical politics and the inflated rhetoric of transition and reform. Most have grown into pragmatic citizens who care less about demagogy and more about the pricing of utilities, quality of education and health, and administration of their taxes by politicians. In this regard, MJAFT became a self-appointed 'people's ombudsman' advocating for issues of basic importance to everyday lives."

"There was one unique campaign to stop the construction of a waste incinerator in the heart of Albania, intended to burn imported refuse from southern Italy. A shady group with links to the eco-mafia had bribed Albanian officials into accepting a very rotten deal for the country that would bring a daily intake of tens of containers with unclassified waste. Our role in exposing the deal, mobilizing NGO-s and citizens to take part in large organized protests, changing the legal provisions for the import of waste and ultimately reversing the deal, made this one of our most effective campaigns."

After four years, Erion and his three fellow founders felt that the time had come to pass on the baton. They stepped down in September 2007 from their positions in MJAFT. Since early 2008 Erion is a senior analyst at ESI.

 

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Erion Veliaj at the "Talking Balkans" Symposium in Vienna on 3-4 April 2008 © 2008 ERSTE Foundation/Igor Bararon. All rights reserved.

May 2008
ESI

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