Text by Alessandra Briganti
Pictures by Ivo Saglietti
The Wounds To Be Told From Albania’s Bunkers
In the city suburbs, along country lanes, in mountain villages and on the Adriatic coast, between playground swings and cemetery tombstones. In Albania, bunkers are everywhere, sprouting like reinforced concrete mushrooms. They are the fruit of Enver Hoxha’s paranoia. «Every drop of sweat shed to fortify our Nation is one less drop of bloodshed on the battlefield,” the communist dictator was known to say. Over a decade Hoxha turned the land of eagles into a vast Maginot Line. Seven hundred thousand bunkers to protect the country from an invasion which would never take place. Yet, Albania always had to be prepared, «gjithmone gati», ready to defend itself as much from western as from Soviet imperialism. The “syndrome” first began in 1968, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia together with its Warsaw Pact allies.
At the time Albania stood isolated. Ideological and political schisms had led Tirana to cut off relations first with Tito’s Yugoslavia, then with post-Stalin Soviet Union. Only China, with its cultural revolution, remained as the expression of Communism in its pure ideological form. And it was Beijing itself that supported the bunker program decided by Hoxha to defend a country where Fascist occupation was still a vivid memory. It had taken the Italian forces five days to annihilate the Albanian resistance. The events of April 1939 were not to happen ever again. And so general mobilisation was set off. In the event of an attack, each citizen was to keep watch of streets and villages. For years the population was trained to this end. The fortification system consisted of shelters of differing dimensions connected by a communication network. There were the qendër zjarri, firing positions which housed groups of two-three people, while the larger commanding posts, the pikë zjarri, were planned to resist continuous fire at close range. There were also trenches and deposits for arms, food, clothing, oil. Albania’s bunker process drained of its resources a country already plagued by poverty and economic backwardness.
In Kepi and Rodonit the shelters stand out on the beach like supernatural statues of a past which marked the country’s identity with fire. A deep wound standing as a testimony to the surreal brutality of Enver Hoxha’s communism. And yet present-day Albania wants to put the past behind it. The bunkers, destroyed, converted, left to dilapidate, have become the litmus test of the controversial relation with years of communism and present-day contradictions.
Some ten kilometres south of Durres, Golem’s sunny and wind-swept beaches are a sequence of old scars and new ones. On the shores devastated by pollution and illegal constructions, the relics of communist isolation can be seen, converted into restaurants, cafés and resorts. Take Kujtim Roci’s story. A former plumber, he left his job when the regime fell and began distilling raki in a pikë zjarri near his home. The bunker made his fortune. After obtaining authorizations from the Ministry of Defence, Roci built a restaurant and a hotel there. Many have followed his example. And so, yesterday’s obsession has today been turned into a tourist attraction, outplayed by that very capitalism which it was trying to defend itself from. The silent remains of a communist past have been transformed into all sorts. In the country’s rural areas, it is quite common to see shelters which have been transformed into animal pens or cellars for food conservation. However, many of them have been destroyed. The sale of iron extracted from a bunker can bring up to 300 Euros, the equivalent of a monthly salary in Albania.
To this day, a national program for the preservation of at least some of the historically more significant bunkers has not yet been drawn up. However, recently the demand to preserve these monuments of the past is making itself increasingly felt. A demand which has led to the conversion of two of the capital’s bunkers, two of the largest built-in Albania, into museums.
An unnatural light illuminates the Bunk’Art 1, the fallout shelter built to house the entire communist nomenclature in the event of an attack: members of the politburo, Parliamentary members of the people’s assembly, the heads of the armed forces. Three thousand square meters with rooms, tunnels and halls dug deep into the hills surrounding Tirana at the foot of Mount Dajti. A place made of concrete, lead and glass, conceived to allow the establishment to continue to govern the country for months, maybe even years, buried alive beneath the ground.
Beyond the showers which were to be used to wash away nuclear fallout, lies the scant and austere apartment of dictator Hoxha and his wife. A study, a bedroom, and a bathroom. In the thirteen years between its construction and the fall of communism, Hoxha never spent a single night in the refuge. Smaller rooms open up on endless corridors, all identically claustrophobic.
Now those roughly one hundred rooms host images, video projections, relics of war and antiques, testimonies of the country’s history, from the Ottoman invasion to the fascist occupation, and the resistance to the communist regime. A museum buried underground reflecting the desire to bury the past.
Rruga Abdi Toptani is crowded with tourists and businessmen. Directly behind the National Theatre only a few metres away from Skanderbeg square stands Bunk’art 2, a 1000 square meter nuclear shelter which was to be used to house the heads of the police force and the Home Office in the event of an invasion. Some twenty rooms which have now been turned into a police force museum, a place to reflect on the methods used, in particular by the Sigurimi, the Albanian secret police operating under communism. Preventive arrests, false incriminations, confessions coerced through torture. A shocking list of names commemorates the victims of 45 years of communism: 6,027 death sentences, 34,000 prisoners, over 50,000 interned in work camps.
A crack gapes open in the bunker’s concrete dome. One year after the opening of the museum to the public in 2014, the building was stormed during protests organized by Sali Berisha’s Democratic Party. They accused premier Edi Ramer’s Socialist Party, who decided to build the museum, of using it to celebrate a dark page in the country’s history. The marks of destruction have intentionally been left there by the government.
A military area, no longer used and abandoned twenty years ago offers an extraordinary view of the mountains surrounding Tirana. Here, a group of students of Eastern European Studies at Berlin’s Freie Universitat in collaboration with the alternative art group Tirana Ekspres have given life to Tek Bunkeri, a requalification project which transforms bunkers into renovated cultural spaces.