the betrayed city
Text by Alessandra Briganti
Pictures by Ivo Saglietti
Petrolia’s Broken Dreams: The City of Black Gold
Walking down the streets of Kucova is like taking strides through Albania’s history. A history made of countered invasions, betrayed ideals and shattered hopes. There is all this amongst the ruins of what once used to be one of the country’s most important industrial cities. Its subsoil, rich in oil, turned out to be both its fortune and its misfortune. Even the air is thick with the intense and pungent smell of oil. The black gold gushes from the wells scattered all over the city. On-street corners, in courtyards, between cemetery tombstones. Rusty iron car skeletons continue to dig into the ground, pumping to the surface a few thousand tonnes of crude oil.
All around is desolation. Herds of sheep graze on oil-covered grass. Run-down time-worn oil wells open wide cracks in the city streets and pavements. The chimneys of the old extraction plant loom over the centre of Kucova, ominous like the feeling of dereliction they convey. To understand the history of Kucova, we need to start from Italy. In the 1920s Italy was hungry for oil and found a rich supply of it in Albania, drawing 10% of its annual need from the Davoli river valley. From a small village, in just a few years Kucova grew into a great industrial city.
Kilometres of roads, bridges, oil pipelines, railway and extraction plants were built. Also, a small refinery to process the oil in loco and a military airport. The village population increased with the arrival of labourers and office workers, both from Albania and Italy. And so it happened that during the Fascist occupation Kucova was even renamed Petrolia, the city of oil. Those were the years of the booming economy, but also those of betrayal: Italy betrayed its promise to build refineries in the city’s outskirts. Most of the oil extracted was shipped to Bari where it was processed and kept for internal use. The plundering lasted until the end of the Second World War. Once the invaders had been ousted Kucova went through yet another metamorphosis.
At Kucova airbase you have the feeling of being suddenly transported back to Cold War times; godforsaken, cluttered with discarded fighter jets dating back to Enver Hoxha’s communist dictatorship. The carcasses of planes built between the 1950s and late 70s by the Soviets and the Chinese when, in a divided world, the land of eagles stood to the east of the iron curtain. Then Kucova was no longer called Petrolia but became known as Qyteti Stalin, the city of Stalin. Its industrial activity however continued. The Italians had been ousted from Aipa and so the oil extraction plants passed into the hands of the regime. And yet the city took on the bleak appearance of a segregated military district, just as communist Albania under Hoxha appeared to have been segregated.
Forty-five years went by before Kucova resumed its original name. It was 1990. The regime had toppled, collapsing under the weight of misery. Every trace of that past had to be removed and the utopia of an open free world embraced, that same utopia which had brought about the fall of the Berlin wall. And yet it was not just the pyramids that were brought down, but also hope. After only seven years Albania was hit by an economic crisis which pushed the country to the brink of civil war. Kucova bore the scars of those clashes for a long time. Buildings were riddled with Kalashnikov bullets, the military airport building was damaged. It was then that the city’s slow phase of decline began, with most of the facilities shutting down. Kucova was left with nothing but disillusion.
It is midday on a sunny March day. In a semi-deserted city, the cafés are teeming with people, young and old, their heads hanging down over their coffees. Images of the protests in Tirana are broadcast on the TV. For months the opposition has taken to the streets asking for Albanian premier Edi Rama’s resignation. Some defend him, others attack him, but all are discontent. Offering miserly wages and precarious employment, today Kucova is the waiting room of a future which has trouble unfolding. However last summer the future seemed yo suddenly appear on Facebook in the shape of a post by Rama, announcing that Nato was investing 50 million Euros to modernise Kucova military base. The aim is to turn into a centre, the first in the Balkans, for logistic support, air force police, training and drills. The works will officially be launched in January.