The vanishing of Greece’s traffic-light children

The young man with demure manners reins in Lona, a white mare he’s looking after on the Korce Plain in southeastern Albania. His nickname, “Papi,” is painted on the side of the stables. His real name, Alban, is tattooed on his right arm. He’s 23 years old with a rider’s build and hands that are rough from hard labor.

Alban Seriani was 6 when a man knocked on the door of his family home in Korce. The man asked his father whether he could take the young boy to Greece, where he would work at the traffic lights as a beggar, with part of the proceeds being sent to the family. His father consented and for the next few years of his life, Alban bedded down at squares, in streets and on buses in Thessaloniki and then Athens. He remembers his trafficker hitting another boy over the head with a telephone because he didn’t bring enough money back. Sometimes alone and at others paired with other children, Alban earned his keep by singing for change or selling tissues.

In the late 1990s, the number of traffic-light children – mainly Albanians and Roma – was estimated at around 3,000 in Athens alone. A few hundred – the fortunate, one would think – were placed with child protection services by the ministries of Public Order and Welfare. The aim was to put the children into foster care for a few months, to ascertain their true identities and eventually to reunite them with their families.

Alban was sent to Aghia Varvara on Syngrou Avenue in Athens, the only institution of its kind to offer the first-step services envisioned by the authorities trying to tackle the phenomenon of traffic-light children.

“They told me there would be games there,” Alban remembered. In early 2000, however, he vanished.

He was not alone. More than 400 traffic-light children are confirmed to have gone missing from the Aghia Varvara children’s home in the period from 1998 to 2002. No one knew what had happened to them; whether they were abducted by their traffickers or sent back home.

Kathimerini conducted its own investigation into the disappearances, following the information trail from Athens to Albania and then back to Thessaloniki. We found three of the children, who spoke about their ordeals.

The program

The program for the protection of traffic-light children was introduced by Greek authorities on December 10, 1998. It entailed the police taking children caught begging to Aghia Varvara, which until then had served as a home for boys and girls.

“Using the police was not the ideal way to collect these children but we couldn’t send psychologists to the places where they begged; it would have been too indirect an approach,” Theodoros Kotsonis, the man who came up with the plan while serving as deputy health and welfare minister at the time, told Kathimerini.

According to Kathimerini’s archives, 34 children were taken to the institution on the first day of the program. One was Bulgarian, four were Iraqi and the rest were Albanian. Of these, 17 escaped.

In 2004, two years after the program ended, the Ombudsman said in a report that the number of children who vanished from Aghia Varvara was 502, arguing that the reason why they went missing was that the institution lacked the staff and failed to guard them. The issue of the disappeared children made it back into the headlines in August 2013, when a Democratic Left deputy, Maria Yiannaki, brought it up in Parliament. The investigation file was reopened on the orders of then Justice Minister Haralambos Athanasiou. Athens prosecutor Panayiota Fakou headed the new probe based on older findings that made a case for criminal charges to be brought against unknown suspects for multiple counts of abduction of a minor.

The records

The Aghia Varvara children’s home kept a handwritten record of admissions and exits, which was seen by Kathimerini. It contains 663 admissions in the 1998-2002 period, of whom 488 appear to have escaped. Another 43 were transferred to other childcare facilities in various parts of Greece, 24 were handed over to the police, 88 were returned to their parents or other relatives and 14 were never claimed. The fate of five is not recorded. Regarding one boy, Alexi L., the ledger claims he was “abducted by his father.”

The numbers, however, just don’t add up. At least 47 names appear from two to five times in the records, such as that of Memeti M. Children would often run away from the home and return for a plate of food before taking off again. Others would declare false names. The maximum period that a child stayed was 74 days, the minimum a few hours. Memeti M., for example, is shown as spending a day here and there or dropping in.

The list of children who seem to have run away or gone missing includes the name of Juli Suli. Today he is 24 years old and lives in the southeastern Albanian town of Pogradec. We meet him at his house, located on the top of a hill overlooking Lake Ohrid. The house consists of one room, big enough to hold a wood stove and a bed for him and his wife.

“I was 10 years old when I went to Greece to beg and make money for my family. We were caught by police and sent to Aghia Varvara,” Souli told us, adding that he remembers the food and care being good. One day, though, he jumped from the first-floor window and ran away.

The windows were a common escape route for the children at Aghia Varvara. On January 9, 2000, one of the workers wrote in the institution’s journal: “Ioanna, remember to tell the director that the windows above the staircase are completely unfit. On Tuesday when the traffic-light children arrive, they’ll be sneaking out in groups.”

Fear led some of the traffic-light kids to make their escape. Alban said that most of them returned to their traffickers because they were worried of retribution against their families.

“If I had had a number where I could reach my parents, I would have stayed,” he said. “Things were good there.”

The traffickers

Other children were kidnapped from the institution by their traffickers, according to the records. On March 15, 2000, another child, Meidan I., was taken by a woman claiming to be his mother. On July 15, 1999, an entry tells of the appearance of a Roma woman claiming one of the children as her own. When questioned, “the child said she was part of the mafia,” the entry said.

On May 18, 2001, another staff member reported that another Roma woman, who had appeared several times at the institution posing as a translator or a relative of one of the children, grabbed Gellular M. and took him to two men who left with him in a taxi.

Kotsonis, the deputy minister, was told that children were running away from Aghia Varvara just a few days after the program started.

“I immediately thought of ways to prevent it,” he said. “But it would mean security, the police, a wall or more fences. I was not prepared to do that. It was a place for the protection of children.”

Before running away, Juli had seen his brothers, Genji and Fation, at the children’s home.

“The guy who took them treated them badly,” recounted their mother, Vassilika Kovac. “He made them beg but he never gave us any money. He said he would take care of them and not leave them out on the street.” On the wall of her home she has a photograph of Fation, or Toni as his family calls him. Juli and Genji returned to Albania, but not Toni, who stayed in Greece.

Meeting Toni

We traced Toni to Thessaloniki, living in an apartment with his wife and baby son. He is 21 years old and has his mother’s eyes.

He has tattoos on the palms of his hands, which read, “The world is in my hands.” His chest is inked with the two-faced figure of a woman symbolizing the good and evil in all men. “My parents sold me. I saw them giving money to the Gypsies to take me.”

Toni was brought to Greece when he was 6, like Alban. He begged alone or with his brothers.

“They would take us from Albania, from the mountains, and put us at the traffic lights as soon as we arrived in Athens,” Toni said. He remembered living in an apartment near Omonia Square in central Athens with his two brothers and four girls. There were no beds, just one couch used by the two couples assigned to supervise them.

He spent all day on the streets of the city. He didn’t speak any Greek and communicated with a handful of words and gestures. He remembered being chased by some men that other traffic-light children said were trying to steal their organs.

Toni found himself at Aghia Varvara several times.

“The police would grab me from here,” he said, pointing to his shirt collar. “They wouldn’t put me in handcuffs because my hands were too small and they’d slip out.”

Once back at the institution, the staff would scold him and tell him not to run away again.

“I was just a child. They yelled at me and I thought they wanted to hurt me so I ran away. We would open a window, go to the soccer field, climb the iron gate and run.”

The institution did not employ a translator even though the majority of the children were Albanian. The carers comprised mainly untrained women who used to run the sewing workshops organized for the girls Aghia Varvara once accommodated.

Most of the people who worked in the program have now retired and are not willing to talk about that time. One psychologist and a carer agreed to speak to Kathimerini on the condition of anonymity, saying that the failure of the program was due to the fact that it was not properly staffed, the building was unsuitable and there were no translators.

Another entry in the ledger recounts the events on the night of June 26, 1999: “The Albanian kids got into a fight again at around 22.30. They even used the bed planks to hit each other.” At 2.15 a.m., the entry continues: “The situation on the first floor is chaos. I eventually lost my temper. It’s unacceptable that I’ve been left alone to look after such children, without any help. This isn’t a shift; it’s Dante’s Inferno.”

The carer eventually called the police.

“They told me that they sympathized with my predicament but there was nothing they could do. They had kids in the holding cells and their supervisors were not there. One of the officers said the he knew exactly what kind of children they had sent us,” she writes.

Given the circumstances, whether a child managed to stay for any significant period of time at the institution depended on nothing more than chance. The last time Toni was sent there, after one of his brothers was deported, he decided to stay put. He was eventually sent to the Paidoupolis childcare facility in Volos and then to the Papafeio Institution in Thessaloniki. When he was 12, he was cast as a co-star alongside Michalis Iatropoulos in the award-winning short film “Protection,” directed by Christos Nikoleris.

“He had the guts and that proud look in his eye that I wanted,” the director told us about his encounter with Toni.

Toni went on to work at a car repair shop and then distributed advertising pamphlets. Today he is unemployed and performs in a hip-hop bond called Orfanes Psyches (Orphaned Souls) he started with a friend he made at the Papafeio. Their lyrics, needless to say, speak of their experiences.

Alban did not spend as much time at Aghia Varvara as Toni did. He and a friend kicked a soccer ball over the gate, climbed out pretending to retrieve it and ran away. He made his way back to Korce on his own by begging enough money for his airfare. When he returned he found support at the nongovernmental organization Terre des Hommes. He took a course in hairdressing but ended up tending the pigs and horse of a man from his own village.

Mirela Panentani is an Albanian social worker who recorded Alban’s story in a small notebook he still likes to carry around. “He grew up and became a man before his time,” she writes.

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