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Wholehearted torture

Albania's dark past

18. April 2019
Magazine > Feature > Wholehearted torture

Gezim Peshkepia and Simon Mirakaj survived the atrocities of the Hoxha regime. Today they see it as their duty to ensure that the crimes committed during the dictatorship are not forgotten. Albania, after all, is still very far from coming to terms with its dark past.

“Beaten bloody with a wooden stick. Red-hot wire driven into the flesh. Electric shocks. Exposed naked to the cold. Genitals burned. Mouth filled with salt. Sleep deprivation. Banished to a coffin.” The Institute for the Studies of Communist Crimes in Albania lists 36 torture methods used by the country’s notorious secret police, the Sigurimi. Some sound like they were lifted from a splatter movie script, some are reminiscent of practices employed by the United States at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and some are simply unmatched in their perfidy. It is impossible to truly know what people like 78-year-old Gezim Peshkepia and 74-year-old Simon Mirakaj went through at that time.

“Our story is very similar to that of many other families in Albania,” says Peshkepia. When the communist regime was in power, he spent four years in prison and later eight years in a labour camp. Mirakaj also survived multiple labour camps and was incarcerated for 46 years. On the morning I meet the two men, they are sitting in a conference room at the institute, in the centre of Tirana. They are here to tell me about their experiences of Albania’s dictatorship.

Led by Enver Hoxha, the communists took control of the small country in the Western Balkans in 1944, after the German occupying forces had left. The regime that they went on to establish was unmatched in its brutality. During Hoxha’s dictatorship, Albania first oriented itself towards socialist Yugoslavia, then the Stalinist Soviet Union and, finally, Mao’s China. It then broke ties with all its allies. For decades, this isolationism made the Balkan state one of the most brutal dictatorships in Europe. The clergy, intellectuals and oppositionists were a thorn in the regime’s side and – along with their families – were persecuted by the Sigurimi. Until 1990, spying, torture, executions, isolation, collective punishment, terror and forced labour were the order of the day. No one knows exactly how many Albanians fell victim to the reign of terror. It is estimated that the regime directly executed between 6,000 and 7,000 people. On top of that, as many as 300,000 people were banished to labour camps where they were imprisoned under unimaginable conditions. A document written by the interior ministry in 1972 stated that “labour is the decisive factor in the rehabilitation of prisoners.”

Tortured and forced to eat faeces

As a dictator, Hoxha stopped at nothing. Even distant relatives, such as the family of Gezim Peshkepia, were not spared the labour camps and executions. Peshkepia’s uncle was married to one of Hoxha’s cousins, so the future dictator often spent time at the family’s house in Tirana. “In his books, Hoxha writes that our house was like his own home,” says Peshkepia. But once Hoxha was in power, even this connection meant nothing. Peshkepia’s father, an intellectual, fell victim to one of the first purges in 1951. He was shot along with 22 other intellectuals. Peshkepia himself spent four years in prison in the Albanian city of Berat. He was released, but then arrested again in 1975 under the pretext of “agitation and propaganda” against the regime in Tirana. A few hours after his arrest, he found himself on a truck, blindfolded and shackled to another prisoner. They were driven 144 kilometres to a camp in Ballsh, “where even 96-year-old men were imprisoned.”

© Roman Wagner
The House of Leaves, situated close to Skanderbeg Square in Tirana, was once the headquarters of the Sigurimi’s spying operations. The government later took ownership of it, and since 2015 it has been home to exhibits of items that the secret service used to spy on the population. Photo: © Roman Wagner

Peshkepia spent eight years doing forced labour in Ballsh, a small town in southern Albania. The prisoners had to build an oil production facility. Today, Albania’s largest refinery stands on the site where Peshkepia paid so dearly for his father’s “crime” of writing poetry. Back then, the country owed its oil to the blood and sweat of its prisoners. Nothing, not even a commemorative stone, marks the site of the former labour camp today. Working here was actually a “luxury,” says Peshkepia. Compared to the conditions in the camps at Lushnjë, Spaç and Tepelenë, those in the Ballsh camp could be described as “harmless.”

Postcards from Albania

Postcards from Albania is a journalistic research project by students of Journalism and Public Relations at the FH Joanneum in Graz. In the early summer of 2018, the 19-member editorial team reported live from the ten-day research trip through the Western Balkans. erstestiftung.org shares selected articles from the comprehensive online and print magazine which resulted from the project and translates them into English.

Graphic: © Margit Steidl / Studiolo M

Lushnjë, Spaç, Tepelenë – these place names are familiar to everyone in Albania. They have come to symbolize the horrors of the dictatorship. A total of 33 labour camps existed under Hoxha. The most appalling of them were on the periphery – small outposts of hell in the remotest corners of the country that were reserved for the worst enemies of the regime. Simon Mirakaj’s father was that kind of enemy. As the son of a leading anti-communist, Mirakaj was imprisoned with his family when he was just two weeks old and spent 46 years in prison. He had to dig graves, fell trees and drain swamps.

He took his first steps while in the Berat labour camp, learned to play football in Tepelenë, reached puberty in Lushnjë and became an adult in the Dschasa camp. So many sad things happened in that time, Mirakaj says. The worst camp of all, he recalls, was Tepelenë. Prisoners there were forced to eat vomit or faeces, and were submerged in latrines as punishment. He tells me how 20 children once died there within 24 hours because of the lack of hygiene. Yet those were not the only reasons why Tepelenë was so feared. “The camp was located on the courtyard of a military site that was still full of mines from the Greco-Italian war of 1941. The mines would explode and we’d see body parts flying through the air,” says Mirakaj. The labour camp drove many prisoners to suicide. In the hope of finding salvation, prisoners would flee so that they would be shot, or they would run deliberately into the minefield. People were very scared. “When we went to work and came back, we would say goodbye and greet each other as if every day was our last.”

The meals were often extremely meagre: “They only gave us food twice a day,” says Mirakaj. “Usually it was a thin gruel full of maggots.” If they had picked out the maggots, there would have been nothing left to eat. The children in the camp often didn’t have the strength to make the journey to school, which was uphill and over a bridge. “Once, a group of girls stopped on the bridge and decided to jump to their deaths. But another girl appealed to their conscience at the last minute. The girls changed their minds and carried on.” If it hadn’t been for the residents of the neighbouring village bringing the prisoners food at night, Mirakaj believes he and his brother would have died.

Even though it often seemed like they would never be free, the pair never gave up hope. Their solidarity and a forbidden radio strengthened their faith. “Many of our fellow prisoners had studied abroad. They told us about the world, which made us hope that we would also be free one day.” Mirakaj and his brother often used their radio to listen to foreign stations: “That’s how we knew what was going on in the world.” People would always stand watch outside to make sure that no one caught them listening to the radio. They heard the news about the 1989 events in East Germany huddled together in a wooden barrack, scared that they would be discovered at any moment. The fall of the Berlin Wall gave them hope. “We heard the people in Berlin crying, and we cried too because we empathized with them.”

© Roman Wagner
An old Hoxha-era bunker at the edge of Tirana has been home to the "Bunk'Art 1" museum since 2014. The museum focuses on the lives of the Albanian population under the dictatorship in general. Anyone specifically interested in the Sigurimi should descend the steps into the underground bunker that belonged to the interior ministry. "Bunk'Art 2" opened here in 2016. Photo: © Roman Wagner

When communism collapsed in Albania a year later, the doors to freedom finally opened for Mirakaj and his brother. They had succeeded in doing what had been denied to so many others: they had survived Tepelenë. “We celebrated,” says Mirakaj. “Afterwards, my brother and I went to visit my sister and then we met our cousins.” At 46 years of age, Mirakaj saw the sea for the first time on Albania’s Adriatic coast. He later fulfilled his dream of studying law, married and started a family. To this day, he has never told his 22-year-old son about his past: “He’s friends with the children of ex-communists. I don’t want to cause conflict between them.”

Coming to terms with the past, and generational conflict

Stories like this are the symptoms of Albania’s efforts, begun much too late, to come to terms with its past. There’s the story of former police chief Dilaver Bengasi, who became deputy interior minister, a lawyer and a professor after communism fell and openly admits in interviews that former Sigurimi agents are still working for Albania’s current secret service, the SHIK. There’s the story of Sali Berisha, who was Hoxha’s personal doctor and went on to serve as president and prime minister in the new Albania. There’s the story of Gramoz Ruci, who served as the last interior minister during the dictatorship. He was later able to become, unimpeded, chairman of the Albanian parliament and is a member of the same party as current prime minister Edi Rama.

© Roman Wagner

Three questions for Jonila Godole

Could you introduce yourself, please?

I’m Jonila Godole and I work at the Institute for Democracy, Media and Culture in Tirana. The institute is about helping Albania come to terms with its past. We train teachers to pass on historical knowledge about this period, and we also work with young people.

Where do you see problems in Albania’s efforts to face up to its past?

Albania only began facing up to its past a relatively short time ago. For 20 years, people thought that this just involved giving material or financial compensation to those who had suffered political persecution. The curricula for schools have changed very little. The persecutions, executions and detention camps don’t appear in the history books. When I ask pupils what they know about the dictatorship, they don’t have an answer. People know that Enver Hoxha was a dictator, but they still find him likable because there’s a lack of background knowledge. And you still see Hoxha everywhere today. Newspapers that print photos of him sell well, so he’s omnipresent. People who are nostalgic buy these newspapers. There’s no decommunization law here. Communist symbols aren’t banned, and you won’t even be punished for denying the dictatorship. To this day, people still take to the streets with portraits of Hoxha.

What’s your personal relationship to the Hoxha era?

As a child, I knew nothing about it. Only later did I find out what my family had gone through during the dictatorship. Of course I realised that many things weren’t right, but how is a child supposed to learn about it if no one speaks to her? My relatives were scattered all over Albania and I only saw them occasionally. It was difficult to find anything out. When I was 12, I began asking questions. By the time I was 15 – when communism was falling – I really wanted answers. I was surprised that young people, some of whom were educated and got consistently good marks, hadn’t seen through the system. It was a personal cause.

Photo: © Roman Wagner

Then there’s the story of Gezim Peshkepia, who was left trembling with fear after seeing Kosta Gazeli on the street four years ago. This is the man who grinned as he knocked out Peshkepia’s teeth in the camp at Ballsh. “After the fall of communism, he was sent to Greece as the deputy ambassador and then became a teacher at a military academy here in Tirana,” says Peshkepia. He recalls how, during his time in the camp, Gazeli tortured him “with all his heart and soul.” Peshkepia and Mirakaj received financial compensation for the ordeal they suffered. Yet even today, some victims of the Sigurimi’s reign of terror have still not received their compensation. And in any case, the sums are very modest. Mirakaj received 20 million lek, which is the equivalent of around €150,000 today. In a country where the average wage is the equivalent of €230, that might seem like a lot of money. But does a lump sum that could buy an apartment really make up for having 46 years of your life stolen?

Memorials and activism

Today, Peshkepia and Mirakaj are committed to helping Albania come to terms with its past. Peshkepia works at the Institute for the Studies of Communist Crimes in Albania. Mirakaj is on the board of the agency that provides access to the Sigurimi files. It was created in 2016 and is led by 49-year-old Gentiana Sula. After a protracted legal reform, the archive finally opened in 2015. Today, Albanians can visit the agency and view their files.

Sula’s 30-strong team are the guardians of the archive, which comprises 30 million pages, 212,000 files and 250,000 audio recordings. The agency is always on the search for new sources, files and dossiers that will allow it to provide the Albanian public with more information. It is sorely needed: “People still know far too little about the Hoxha era. They don’t know how many people lost their lives, they don’t know how many were imprisoned and they definitely don’t know about everything that happened in the labour camps,” says Sula. She explains that the indoctrination achieved by Hoxha’s propaganda is still extremely tangible today, and that many Albanians still take a rose-tinted view of socialism’s so-called achievements. For Sula, the explanation for tragic incidents such as Peshkepia’s accidental meeting with his tormentor lies in the lack of information about the Hoxha era.

Ghosts of the past

Sula’s work is challenging. Her state agency should really employ 60 people, not 30, but there aren’t enough resources. In addition, many files were destroyed after communism fell. Yet one of the biggest hurdles Sula faces is fear among the population: “Many people are scared that their file could be used against them again, because that’s precisely what the files were for in the system they lived through.” The fact that one in five people – some sources say it was even one in three – are thought to have collaborated with the Sigurimi also complicates things for Sula. Who would voluntarily admit that they spied on their neighbours?

In the last four years, three museums and a monument have been built in Tirana as a way of coming to terms with this horrific chapter in the country’s history. Not all of them have been welcomed by the victims. The “Bunk’Art” museums, housed in two subterranean bunkers left over from the dictatorship, leave a bad taste in Mirakaj’s mouth. “They should build memorials in the old labour camps, not in underground bunkers,” he says, shaking his head. He thinks it’s wrong to turn communist relics into “art”. Sula, meanwhile, is just pleased that something is happening: “Of course more needs to be done, but this is at least a sign.”

Peshkepia and Mirakaj think that the House of Leaves is a success. “We often come here to remember,” says Peshkepia as he and Mirakaj pass through the gate and enter the grounds that surround the simple, ivy-covered villa opposite Tirana’s orthodox cathedral. During the early days of Hoxha’s regime, the villa served as a torture and interrogation prison. It was later converted into headquarters for spying. Secret service agents working here read Peshkepia’s letters, monitored his telephone calls, and kept records of everything he did. Everyone in Tirana knew what was happening behind these walls, but no one dared to talk about it. Today, the former spy centre is a museum dedicated to remembering the crimes committed by the secret police. Inside, the villa still retains an atmosphere of a real prison run by a paranoid secret service. Taking photographs isn’t allowed. A nervous museum attendant explains this to some visitors carrying cameras. He follows them into every room of the exhibition.

Peshkepia and Mirakaj had originally planned to tell me about their experiences under the Hoxha dictatorship as we toured the museum – rather than sharing their stories in a meeting room at the Institute for the Studies of Communist Crimes in Albania. But the grim-looking guard at the gate won’t allow it. He says that anyone wishing to give interviews at the House of Leaves needs a permit from the ministry of culture. Peshkepia and Mirakaj acknowledge the rule with a mixture of surprise and resignation. Forty-six years of communism and bureaucracy have left their mark on the country and its people. “The guard looked at us with the eyes of a communist bureaucrat,” says Peshkepia. “That kind of vigilance is the communist mentality, pure and simple. It’s stayed with us.”

Original in German. First published in November 2018 in the printed version of Postcards from Albania.
Translation into English by Jen Metcalf.

This text is protected by copyright: © Nikolaus Pichler / FH Joanneum. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: The Site of Witness and Memory is located in the former torture prison in Shkodra. In 2019, it will have been open for four years. For 150 Albanian lek, you can visit the two-story museum with its interrogation rooms, original items donated by those who were there, Sigurimi documents, and former prison cells kept in their original condition. Photo: © Roman Wagner