'I gave away son so he could escape squalor'
At the end of a potholed dirt track in an impoverished Albanian port town stands a concrete hut with a small TV antenna fixed to the roof. Outside a scrawny cow picks for grass between shreds of old plastic bags.
Inside, Fatmira Bonjaku, seven months pregnant, explains why she gave away her three-year-old son to a childless Italian couple.
Four years ago, Fatmira’s husband, Kujtim, brought Angello Borelli, an Italian pensioner, to this house. He wanted to adopt a child, he said, and chose Fatmira’s son, Oracio.
Fatmira (37) has not seen the boy since.
“He [Borelli] picked the smallest and the cutest child,” said Fatmira. “I hoped if it went well he might take my youngest daughter, too.”
Borelli returned some time later, Fatmira says, with a colour television which has occupied her five remaining children ever since. Venezuelan soap operas are the family favourite.
Fatmira says she could not bear for her son to grow up in squalor and Borelli was offering him a chance for a better life.
“Of course I miss my child,” she said, sitting inside the bare, peeling walls of her living room. “But we live like animals. I’m glad they took him. He has a chance to have better conditions in Italy. This is not a house. It’s a pigsty.
“It’s a place for cattle, not kids. We don’t have blankets. The window is broken. We don’t know if we are going to eat each day.
“At first we had a deal—I would go and visit [Oracio] once a year. But they could not get the documents.”
The Italian couple, she says, gave her a mobile phone so she could talk to him, but the conversations have now stopped.
Oracio, who was renamed Tomaso by his adoptive parents, has forgotten how to speak Albanian. “He is Italian now,” Fatmira says.
Fatmira’s experience is not unusual. There are many parents living in extreme poverty in Albania. And there are many couples in Italy, and across the rest of Europe, who are looking to “adopt” from them, often going through criminal gangs.
Aid agencies estimate between 5 000 and 15 000 Albanian children have been trafficked abroad since the trade took off in the early 1990s. Thousands are also reported missing in neighbouring Balkan countries and in former Soviet states.
Fatmira’s case was highlighted when police in Italy arrested 69-year-old Borelli, his 57-year-old wife, Iole Rodio, and members of a gang who helped to smuggle Oracio into the country.
The Borellis, who come from Calabria in southern Italy, have been accused of paying the Albanian traffickers â,¬5 000. They have denied all charges.
“The father gave me the little one as a gift because I promised to get the mother a work contract in Italy,” Borelli told Italian television. “Can’t you do that? OK. Maybe I made a mistake.”
Borelli insists he took the child as an act of generosity and sent several gifts to help the family in Albania.
The couple will remain under house arrest in their home town of Sersale, pending further investigation.
The boy, who is now seven, has been taken from them and is in the care of a religious order there.
The gang at the centre of the inquiry is thought to have specialised in child trafficking, smuggling about 70 children into Italy, using couples posing as their parents.
A gang member is thought to have pocketed the â,¬5 000 bank transfer sent as payment for the boy.
Fatmira’s husband is also in prison with several other suspected middlemen. And Fatmira’s role in the investigation is under scrutiny.
She denies knowingly selling her child, preferring to say that she gave him to the Italians because they had no children.
Fatmira offered to help the Albanian police after detectives busted the Durres-based trafficking gang, but detectives remain sceptical of her motives. “We think she came forward at last, because she was angry the money never reached her.
“But both sides claim all they have done is exchange ‘donations’. We hope our evidence can prove the money was sent as a payment,” said the prosecutor, Ardian Ylli.
Durres prosecutors acknowledge that the Bonjakus may be one of the many destitute families in Albania who fall prey to trafficking gangs.
In another recent case, a woman in the small southern town of Pogrodec sold her child, thought to have been only two years old, for less than $1 000. She knows the toddler was then sold again in Greece but has no idea where it has ended up.
The children are often bought for next to nothing by trafficking gangs who then mark up their price to as much as â,¬300 000 or put the children up for auction to wealthy European couples looking for a short-cut adoption.
Other children are thought to end up begging or cleaning cars on the streets of wealthy European cities. Investigators suspect some may be bought for their organs.
After a kind of trafficking free-for-all in the 1990s, when police struggled to get to grips with the post cold war phenomenon, harsh laws were introduced in Albania in 2001.
In Italy, fresh laws are being prepared which would put human traffickers behind bars for up to 30 years.
Increased international cooperation between police means the noose is tightening around traffickers throughout the country. As more high-profile arrests are made, those still slipping the net are working in smaller groups, abandoning Italy as their traditional target country and pinpointing northern Europe, including Britain.
For Fatmira, the decision to give her child away has left her alone, in debt, and fearing for the baby she is going to give birth to in two months time.
“I cannot work any more. I am too far advanced (in my pregnancy) to walk far. And that is the only way I can afford to travel.
“People keep knocking on my door to collect debts all day long. I owe 100 000 Leks. It is as if there is a rope tightening around my neck. And now my husband is in prison and I am pregnant. We have both lost our jobs.” - Guardian Unlimited Â