Albania: Saying farewell to Hoxha’s bunkers

3 August 2012
Gazeta Wyborcza Warsaw

Playground bunker in Tirana, Albania.
Playground bunker in Tirana, Albania.

During the paranoid Hoxha years, hundreds of thousands of concrete bunkers were meant to protect communist Albania from invasion by its enemies. Today they are now used by young people to party and to make out, or by others to recover steel and fuel the economic boom. Excerpts.

A bunker is first covered with old rubber tyres and set ablaze. Or you put inside a bag of high-potassium fertiliser. This creates a primitive bomb and the bunker explodes.

“When the concrete bursts, we crush it with hammers to get through to the steel”, explains Djoni, a construction worker from Berati in central Albania. “Sometimes there is as much as three tons of it. One kilogram pays 15 eurocents at the collection point, so you can make as much as 300 euros on a single bunker! But sometimes you have to work for five days for the concrete to crack. And my boss takes most of the money anyway. I get 20-30 euros per piece."

Still, Djoni doesn’t complain. Albania has experienced a major construction boom in recent years and steel prices are high. The boom hasn’t even been impeded by the crisis in Italy and Greece, where hundreds of thousands of Albanian immigrants are employed.

But experts say the boom is but a bubble pumped up by the Italian mafia which is building high-rises no one needs – more than half of apartments in some of them are still vacant – to launder dirty money.

“We don’t feel any crisis here”, says Djoni. “Our prime minister has recently boasted that Albania is the only country in Europe besides Poland that isn’t in recession."

Djoni too spent several years working in Greece, in Piraeus, but then he grew fed up playing hide and seek with the local border police, which regularly apprehends illegal Albanian immigrants. “My health is not the same”, he says. “Here I earn less, but I also spend less. The balance is more or less the same."

During the day Djoni works at a construction site and in the evenings makes extra money working the bunkers. He has renovated his flat and sent his kids to a good school with the income.

750,000 bunkers for 3 million inhabitants

All over Albania, from Shkodra on the Montenegro border to Konispol near the Greek one, hundreds of thousands of bunkers spoil the countryside.

Gjergj’s bunker is painted all green but across the front wall runs a bright inscription: “Bunker Bar”. And although the beach in Shengjin where it stands is not the most beautiful one, Gjergj isn’t discouraged: “Perhaps we don’t have that much sand. But we have the concrete mushrooms, the champignons of Uncle Hoxha. People from all over the world come to see them!”

Gjergj invites me inside and lets me look out of the Italy-facing embrasure. He shows me a metal stick he keeps here. “I used it for drunken customers who sometimes refused to pay. But today I keep it against those who come to destroy the bunkers. I’ve been running this bar for twelve years now and I won’t let anyone touch it with their little finger."

Indeed, the Albanian bunkers are unique in the world. The communists reportedly built as many as 750,000 of them, and that in a country with a population of barely 3 million.

“Back then, everything that concerned them was top secret. And then democracy came, they lost the documents and today no one is able to say precisely how many of them there are”, says Ina Izhara, a political scientist who, like many young Albanians, divides her life between Albania and Italy.

“The whole world was planning to invade us”

The bunkers stand in cities, in backyards, right next to houses, in cemeteries and playgrounds. They stand on mountain tops and half-submerged in the sea. When ploughing, farmers have to give them a wide berth. On the twenty-mile train journey from Tirana to Durrës you will easily count several dozen of them.

Why were they built? Enver Hoxha, the Albanian de-facto dictator between 1944 until his death in 1985, feared an invasion. “He was paranoid”, says Ina Izhara. “He believed everyone was out to invade Albania. Shortly after the war he was tight with Yugoslavia. But he quickly fell out with Marshal Tito and for a dozen or so years formed an alliance with the Soviet Union. He became disillusioned with it in the post-Stalinist years and turned towards China. Seeing enemies everywhere, he rapidly built up the country’s arms industry and built the bunkers.

The bunkers’ second life

“We use them most of the time to lose our virginity,” laughs Ms Izhara. “A friend of mine recently went on a holiday to Sarandë and played a trick in a bunker with a girl he’d met at a disco. And you know what? He complained. It was cold as hell and in the end he stepped in a shit."

For years no one touched Hoxha’s bunkers. “Until 1999, when the Serbs started bombing Kosovo,” says Elton Caushi, a Tirana-based tourist guide. “Albania, including the bunkers, got her share too. And suddenly it turned out that the structures, which were supposed to survive a nuclear attack, fell apart as if made of clay! That was a shock for many people. They suddenly saw that the whole power of communism was a phantom, an illusion, sham."

And then began the bunkers’ second – civilian – life. People lost their respect for them. In the country, people keep cows, goats and pigs in them, and in the city they served until recently as refrigerators. Today Albania has become wealthier, almost everyone has a fridge, so the bunkers have been turned into waste dumps.

“The beginning of our way out of communism”

But it is a different case in the capital. Blokku is the former “closed quarter” of Tirana, here, well guarded, lived the dignitaries – Hoxha, his ministers and friends. Each building had an underground shelter.

“Today Blokku is Tirana’s largest party area”, laughs Kamelja, a law student. “There are some really cool bars and discos in the former shelters."

In downtown Tirana stands another bunker – a large pyramid built shortly after Hoxha’s death by his daughter-in-law, Pranvera. It was to be his mausoleum and a pilgrimage destination for students, workers and soldiers. Today the graffiti-covered structure stands empty. The bravest of the local skateboarders practice tricks on its steep walls.

“I pass it on my way to work”, says Gjergj Ndrecën, who spent seven years in jail during the Hoxha era for “anti-state propaganda”.

So what should be done with the pyramid, I ask.

“The same they’re doing with the bunkers! Cover it with fertiliser and rubber tyres and burn it down. Demolishing the bunkers would be just the beginning of our way out of communism. As long as we live a communist-designed space, Hoxha’s spirit will continue to reign here.”

This article was wrote for the Next in line project, by Transitions on line, and co-financed by the EU.

Translated from the Polish by Marcin Wawrzyńczak

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