In Lezha, for three years “there is no more room for graves”, while in the suburbs of Tirana informal cemeteries flourished. As a result of the expansion during the Covid-19 pandemic, in the coastal city of Durrës, graves have “surrounded” the houses of 300 inhabitants. Between chaos and legal uncertainties, trade with a place to the “afterlife” varies from 60-100 thousand new lek for a grave.
Autor: Elvis Hila, Kloida Gjuzi and Esmeralda Hida
Bujar is demolishing the old graves of the Berishaj in Lezha, to provide a place for those who have recently passed away. To find a plot of land for eternal rest in the public cemetery of Lezha, is almost impossible.
“We started putting two people in the graves. So we break down the existing burial and burry other family members. I have had many cases recently and, at the mother’s grave, who has died, we buried the son, we buried the father and the son, in the same grave”, – Bujar Berisha tells Investigative Network Albania.
Bujar Berisha in the public cemetery of Lezha
The Municipality of Lezha is facing a critical situation. For 3 years in the public cemetery of the city there is no place for new graves, even the alleys inside the cemetery have been used.
The demographic growth of the city by 5 times the original size after the `90s has made it impossible to find a plot of land for eternal rest.
In 2019, the Municipality of Lezha took a large area of land in the village of Gocaj for the construction of the city cemetery, but the investment was halved due to floods and those cemeteries are not functional.
“Water springs from the new cemetery and it is impossible to use them. They would have made tunnels for us rather than putting our people in water,” Berisha added.
The emergency for new spaces in the public cemetery is also accepted by the Municipality of Lezha. The deputy mayor, Ermal Pacaj, promises that the situation will be finally resolved next year, where the cemetery erected in the village of Gocaj is expected to become operational.
“With the budget of 2022, we have foreseen investment there. We will build the bridge, the road, as well as make it possible to raise the ground level and open the drainage canals, so that the ground does not flood. We will normally close the existing ones. “They can use them, only those who have family graves, who have them ready”, – explains Pacaj.
This situation has led to the flourishing of the trade in tombs. A citizen admits that she had to pay to find a place for a relative.
“It is scandalous, not to have a place to bury the dead. We had to pay and bring in a friend to bury a relative of ours, here in the alley, near the main door. The municipality must urgently find a solution. It is a shame! ”, Says the citizen on condition of anonymity.
Without a resting place for the dead, residents of the villages of Grash, Gjadër and Zojz in the Dajç Administrative Unit, in the Zadrima area of Lezha, are pushing the boundaries of graves towards agricultural land.
“I will open the grave on my land and get buried at home. There is no other way, because they did not leave a place where to put the dead,” says Gjovalin Hila, a resident of Zojzi.
Due to the lack of places, graves without criteria have sprouted in holy places, damaging the history of centuries-old churches in the area of Lezha. The church, where the Assembly of Arbri was held, has been occupied all by the graves of the surrounding inhabitants, putting in difficulty the implementation of projects for its maintenance.
“In Mërqi, the church cell and the streets near the territory of the old church have been occupied. Now comes the project to invest for the church, where the Arbri Assembly was held. We have set some milestones here and we will convince the people that there will be no more graves without criteria, until the new cemetery is opened”, – Preng Shtjefni, caretaker of Mërqi Church, tells Investigative Network Albania.
Preng Shtjefni, keeper of the grounds of the Church of Mërqi
The clergyman of the Catholic Church and scholar Dom Nik Ukgjini says that the lack of space for graves has become a concern and the authorities must provide a solution to this problem.
“It is incomprehensible how the municipalities or the Catholic churches do not enable proper and ample space for the cemetery,” says Ukgjini, who joins Shtjefni on the damage being done to places of worship.
“The graves are erected on the edges of old, cultural monuments, damaging not only them, but also archeology. By removing the old graves, the graves of different personalities have also been damaged “, – adds Dom Nik Ukgjini.
Trade with the informal cemetery on the outskirts of Tirana
In the village of Bulçesh i Ri, part of the Administrative Unit of Zall-Heri, a private cemetery has been operating for several years. Without any documentation, without a list of data on who rests in this place and where, without set tariffs, it operates on the property of Idriz Sheftelia. Sheftelia passed away a few years ago, but the property is managed by his son, Bajram.
Bulçesh Private Cemetery
Although it has been operating for almost 7 years, this cemetery is not licensed, although the authorities are aware of the activity that takes place on this property.
The Funeral Services Agency in Tirana, which was supposed to administer this territory, has been verifying its status for years.
“The cemetery is in the process of verifying the legal status of real estate, for all administrative units, according to the documentation submitted by these units in function of this process”, – gives a vague answer, the Municipality of Tirana, without explaining what will happen to it.
The Administrative Unit Zall-Herr, where this cemetery is located, has forwarded the documents to the Funeral Services Agency, Tirana since 2017, but the legal status of the property has not been verified yet.
That this cemetery has been operating for years in complete illegality is also revealed by the correspondence between the institutions that INA MEDIA has at its disposal.
According to the letter no. protocol 1847/1, dated 5 October 2017, Mr. Bajram Sheftelia has been notified by the Zall-Herr Administrative Unit to immediately stop the construction of the cemetery on his property, otherwise it would be subject to the Inspectorate of Territorial Defense.
“From the date of notification, you must not allow the construction of graves in this plot, without being provided with a grave construction permit by the Municipality of Tirana. If you continue to build graves, without being provided with a construction permit, you will face the blocking of this property by the IMT of the Municipality of Tirana”, – it is said in the letter of the beginning of October 2017, that this unit has sent the owner of the land where this cemetery was built.
Warning letter to the private cemetery in Bulçesh
Despite this “threat” Sheftelia has continued this activity, while no institution turns out to have intervened to date to block this cemetery, which continues the activity without permission.
Contacted by INA MEDIA, Bajram Sheftelia claimed that the cemetery has regular papers.
“My father received a letter by the municipality at that time. I even have that letter at home to this day. Only she has been. “Now the land is all occupied and we do not sell anymore,” said Sheftelia, who promised to give us a copy later, but did not answer the phone.
The construction of a private cemetery has been legally opened since 2004, by law no. 9220, “ON PUBLIC BURIAL SERVICE” and they are established by government decision or decision of the Municipal Council. The law stipulates that for the basic units of local government only one private cemetery can be erected per 100 thousand inhabitants and with an area of not less than 10 ha.
The information shows that the Bulçesh cemetery has an area of 3300 square meters, i.e. very far from 10 hectares, as provided by law, which is another violation.
Local government expert Agron Haxhimali says that although private cemeteries are erected by government decision, this does not absolve local authorities from responsibility.
“In the case you are referring to, the municipality should be held accountable for the publication of service fees. It must exercise legal control over procedures as administered. The administration of the cemetery is obliged to guarantee full access and at any time to the public on the relevant information”, – says Haxhimali.
The scandal becomes even bigger, because this cemetery, being not controlled, does not have a register of persons resting on this land, there is no caretaker or maintainer of the cemetery and the prices are set by the owner.
“I paid over 500 thousand old lekë for a grave, but the sale continues, now I do not know from whom, as different people have bought land and sold it,” said a resident, Vladimir Kaloshi, for INA MEDIA.
The residents themselves do not prefer to talk, but say that they have often contacted Afrim Elqeni to buy grave plots, who according to data from the Zall-Herr Administrative Unit, was an investor with Sheftelina in the application made in 2017.
Contacted by INA MEDIA, Elqeni stated that he has nothing to do with the private cemetery.
“I only have the marble workshop for graves, I have no connection with the private cemetery that is there,” he told INA MEDIA by telephone.
But, Bulçeshi i Ri is not the only area in Tirana where the trade of informal graves has flourished.
Paskuqani is another area where graves are being sold privately.
To provide solutions to thousands of residents of this area, in 2015, the Albanian government approved decision 452, dated 27.05.2015 “On the establishment of a private cemetery in the Administrative Unit Paskuqan, Tirana Region”, a decision which was repealed five years later, specifically in January 2020.
The Ministry of Infrastructure at that time justified the annulment of this decision with the lack of investment by the private sector.
“Consequently, MEI requested the abrogation of this nominative DCM, in order to give way to other investments, private, which may be interested in developing this project”, – stated MEI at that time.
But the non-establishment of a licensed, private cemetery has put residents in difficulty to find places in public cemeteries. Consequently, they turn to people who trade in graves.
“There is no more cemetery space, they have completely blocked it. A grave costs 60 thousand new lekë”, – explains Hekuran Koçi, resident of Paskuqan, who adds that the investor, who came, did nothing, but they have already put another one.
Karaman Hoxha, another resident of Paskuqan, points out that many people have taken up residence on private land for cemeteries.
“They took up residence there, on a hill, near the Babrru cemetery. There are some empty places in the public cemetery, but they have surrounded them for themselves. To be honest, the place for a grave has gone up to 800 thousand old lekë here”, – explains Karaman Hoxha.
Private cemetery in Paskuqan
In both Bulçesh and Paskuqan, private cemeteries have been opened mainly near public cemeteries, where residents, who have land near them, have sold it for graves in complete informality.
For experts, this informal and vague situation with the cemetery is not only a concern for securing a place of eternal rest, but is fraught with legal violations.
“The first violation starts from the fact that there are people who sell the land for cemeteries. In every country of the world, a study is first done on that property and then the decision is made, whether the land is allowed to be used for funeral services or not. A person, who leaves the property for this service, must get permission, that these cemeteries will be maintained, space will not be sold without criteria, because there is a rule how far the graves should be from each other”, – lists some violation lawyer Romeo Kara.
“First, to continue this activity you need an environmental permit. Secondly, it should be the municipality and other local institutions to see how this phenomenon is turning into a business issue”, – he insists.
Lawyer Kara thinks that especially during the pandemic the trade in graves flourished.
“We have to take seriously the fact that burial sites turned into a real business during the pandemic,” said Kara.
On the other hand, urban planning experts attribute this chaos to the lack of strategies by local government.
“During the process for the development of cities, a lack of attention was noticed to the design of areas intended for cemeteries. Considered as public spaces with a special function, it is the local government that is charged with responsibilities according to the legislation in force”, – says Doriana Musai, urban planning activist.
Durrës, the cemetery reaches the houses
Numerous deaths, recorded by Covid -19, brought the coastal city of Durrës to collapse, in providing space in both public cemeteries.
Before the pandemic the average burial in this city was 3-4 burials per day during the summer months and 6-8 people per day in winter, while during the pandemic it reached the record figure, with 12 burials per day.
In this situation, the Funeral Sector at the Utility Company found as a temporary solution the opening of new, public graves on a plot outside the perimeter wall.
“About 1 year ago we found that the last plot, which we owned in front of the perimeter wall, was being exhausted at a rapid pace. Immediately we made a request to the Municipality of Durrës, where we asked for additional space for the coming years and to solve this problem for a long period of time”, – explains the deputy director of the Municipality of Durrës, Soren Dedja.
However, this provisional remedy did not provide a final solution to the problem. As this new plot was heading towards exhaustion, the Municipality of Durrës again found a solution to obtain a new area, adjacent to the current cemetery, but the expansion of the cemetery has worried about 300 residents living in this area, who complain that the graves have reached their backyards.
“There are residents who have entered the cemetery 5 meters from the house. It is creepy because there are people who come at 5 in the morning and cry for their relatives, while we are normally asleep and sitting listening to people screaming. It is very serious,” Ervis Nurqellari, a resident of the area, told INA MEDIA.
Gjergj Gjoka’s apartment, built in 2000, at this rate that the cemetery is growing, will soon be surrounded by graves on all four sides.
Is the expansion of the cemetery legitimate enough to reach the doorsteps of the citizens? We find the answer in Albanian laws.
Article 4, item 1 of the Law on Funeral Service states that the cemetery must be isolated from residential areas through the reserved area.
Item 2 of this article sets the distances.
“When the community has over 10 thousand inhabitants, the distance from the cemetery should be 100 meters. When the inhabitants are less than 10 thousand, the distance of the houses from the graves should be 50 meters”, – is further specified in the law. From the field observation, it results that after the opening of the two surrounding walls, no other wall was erected with the justification of lack of funds.
Surrounding wall to the southeast
“I asked for a perimeter wall to be built, but I was told that they have no funds, but there are not even 20 days, that even though there were no funds, the municipality made a concrete road to the graves. Why was not the perimeter wall built once and then the inner road, we have to do business as much as possible?! ”, accuses Jurgen Rica, a resident of the area, while holding the request addressed to the municipality.
Surrounding wall to the southwest
Jurgen and his father, Lleshi, have lived here for many years. Their property from the graves is separated by a distance of no more than 5 meters. Llesh Rica holds in her hands the documents of the apartment, in which 3 families live.
“I ask and ask the state to find a solution for this issue,” he said in despair.
On the other hand, the Municipality of Durrës extinguishes the hopes of the residents for expropriation.
“All the lands that the National Expropriation Agency has expropriated have been arable land and vineyards. None of the apartments, which are close to the new cemetery, are affected by this expropriation”, – explains the deputy director of NSHK in Durrës, Soren Dedja.
Desperate and abandoned, the inhabitants of this area appeal for at least a perimeter wall to be placed.
“I came here for a better life and not to have grave fields where my 15 children live. Please, put a perimeter wall, be a regular border and do not make my children sad! I ask the state for that,” Rica told INA MEDIA.
Resident of the area for 25 years, Gjelal Markaj raises charges of abuse and self-interest.
Gjelal Markaj, resident of the area
“They came, they broke down the previous walls, for the interest of money, here money is at play, not human life. They brought the graves right at the doorsteps, we have nowhere to go, so let the state find a solution, or at least come and build a perimeter wall”, – concludes Markaj.
The solution, difficult
Without clear and well-defined rules to administer this delicate process, experts find it difficult to find a solution, especially when thousands of citizens have already turned to the “illegal” cemetery for the eternal resting place of their families.
“What I do not find elaborated in the law, has to do with the fact how complete and clear the law is so that there is no abuse. The bylaws, which I saw, do not set a ceiling (limit) for funeral fees or indicators that avoid abusive fees”, – says Erida Skëndaj, head of the Albanian Helsinki Committee.
Others think that the “there is no more room for graves” situation will end only after an open debate with religious communities, to apply other alternatives.
Suddenly found between the graves, the residents of the area accuse the Municipality of Durrës of abandoning this community.
“We are in the middle of a cemetery. It is better for the state to come and bury us, because just like these people have died, we are dead and we, who are alive in the house, that, while I see every day crying mothers, fathers, daughters, I too, even though I am inside, will cry because it makes me feel miserable,” said Gjelal Markaj, one of the oldest residents in the neighborhood.
Ky shkrim është pjesë e projektit që mbështetet financiarisht nga Zyra e Mardhënieve me Publikun e Ambasadës së SH.B.A. në Tiranë. Opinionet, gjetjet, konkluzionet dhe rekomandimet e shprehura janë te autor-it/ve dhe nuk përfaqesojnë domosdoshmërisht ato të Departamentit të Shtetit. / This article is part of a project that is financially supported by the Public Relations Office of the US Embassy in Tirana. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of State.