The loneliest children at Christmas

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The Independent Online
Christmas is for children, they say. But this year, thousands of Albanian children are living a lonely and loveless existence in stark orphanages. While British children look forward to a glut of toys and entertainment, some British volunteers are trying to give these abandoned young Europeans a future.

The outside of the children's home is a slum. Piles of rotting rubbish lie alongside broken cars, rolls of wire, old hubcaps. Stray dogs, some covered with sores, forage for food. There is a strong smell of sewage.

Not that the 52 abandoned children in the old Albanian orphanage would know anything about their surroundings. They have never been outside in their lives. They spend their time in five filthy, over-heated rooms, some three to a cot, deathly pale with lack of sunlight - the curtains are never drawn and the windows never opened for fear of "germs" - and they stand in sinister silence, many just rocking from side to side or picking the walls, staring at the door and waiting for a human being to come in and, if they're lucky, pat them on the head. Up to the age of three the cot is their home.

Except for the attentions of British volunteers, no one comes to pick them up or talk to them. They are fed and watered - and that's it. It is an absolutely heartbreaking scene.

I went with my cousin, Caroline Cook and her husband Colonel Mark Cook, who set up the charity Hope and Homes for Children three years ago, to see the opening of a new home in Durres, Albania, in which these children will have a chance of a more stimulating life - and, hopefully, a chance of becoming reunited with the parents who abandoned them.

You cannot resist picking up the children, though they hardly know how to smile or hold out their arms to anyone, so rarely do they experience the warmth of a hug or the security of a cuddle. And once you pick them up they like it. The moment you put them down they spring into agonising life, screaming, rocking, banging their heads against the bars, pleading wordlessly to be picked again. I left one room in floods of tears having stupidly picked up six silent children between nine and 18 months in turn and left them screaming and begging for more contact.

"When we first came here conditions were even worse than they are now," says Caroline, whose husband started Hope and Homes after rebuilding a bombed orphanage in Sarajevo with the help of his troops when he was stationed there during the war in Bosnia. The organisation now has homes in Lipik, Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Eritrea.

"There was a playroom, but it was always locked. The toys were put on high shelves or locked away in cupboards. It was just too difficult for the staff to get them out and clear them up. Sometimes the children would be taken out of their cots and sat for hours in front of a huge television and if they moved they were ticked off. Now, with the help of our British volunteers, the children get a little more stimulation, but with the cots jammed up against each other, there just isn't space to get them out, teach them to walk or let them run around."

The new home is vast, full of light, with playgrounds, a softball room, proper kitchens and laundry. It was opened last week: the bronze plaque, to thank members of Britain's Rotary Clubs which have put in pounds 150,000 to get the orphanage set up and have promised pounds 300,000 more, was made of the melted down figures of Stalin and Lenin. The Rotarians also provided 50 teddy-bears from the memorials to Diana, Princess of Wales.

Albania has had a dreadful time. Never a prosperous country, its economy was devastated by Socialist rule, and then further damaged by the great pyramid selling scam. A new Socialist government is now in power after a short and bloody civil war, but although the curfew has been lifted, there is still anarchy.

"Setting up the home was a nightmare which has taken two-and-a-half years fighting with corrupt politicians, bureaucracy and armed squatters," says Mark. British volunteers find it hard to take. Three live in a one bedroomed flat with no telephone and spasmodic electricity. After 4pm they are virtually confined to the flat as it is too dangerous to go out at night, even accompanied. Some find conditions unbearable and more volunteers are desperately needed.

Most of the children, unless they are adopted or reunited with their families or looked after by Hope and Homes, face a future in mental hospitals because they become so apathetic and institutionalised there is no other way they can live.

Caroline says: "We want to have a high turnover of children and encourage parents to come back and get to know their children again. Sometimes we've taken a mother back with her child to her parents who simply don't want to know. We then ask if we could have half an hour in private with the daughter, and leave the baby with the disapproving grandparents. Often when we get back they are dancing their grandchild on their knee."

l Hope and Homes for Children, East Clyffe, Salisbury, SP3 4LZ (telephone 01722 790111)