A popular Travel Guide in UK, “Bradt Travel Guides” has published an article about Albania’s communist heritage sites.
For the first 25 years of Albania’s post-communist history, the last thing people wanted to be reminded of was the political repression and economic hardship they had so recently succeeded in getting rid of. Recently, however, national and local authorities have begun to invest in conserving some of the more notable communist sites and curating them so that Albanians and visitors can learn about this difficult and controversial period.
The most interesting communist heritage sites are located in some cities in Albania such as: Tirana Shkodra, Sarande, Gjirokastra and the notorious prison of Spaç.
Site of Witness and Memory, Shkodra
From 1946 to 1991, a rather unassuming 19th-century house on Shkodra’s main boulevard became the regional headquarters of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. This innocuous name belies the political persecution and terror that emanated from this building for 45 years. The storerooms of the former Franciscan seminary were transformed into detention cells and interrogation rooms for the Sigurimi, communist Albania’s secret police. Thousands of people passed through these cells before they were sentenced; they were then either executed or sent on to other prisons or prison camps such as Spaçi. Now the building has been transformed again, this time into a museum that commemorates those who suffered there. Panels in English and Albanian explain various aspects of Albanian communism, including the destruction of religious buildings, the anti-communist uprisings in northern Albania, and the public trials that took place in buildings around Shkodra.
Memorje 78, Saranda
One aspect of Saranda’s communist history can be seen opposite the post office on Rruga e Flamurit: Memorje 78, a concrete pillbox, half-excavated so that you can look through a grille into its interior. Inside, there is an information panel with photographs of different types of bunker and diagrams of their design.
Town hall air-raid shelter, Gjirokastra
During the communist years, when town halls across Albania were known as ‘Executive Committees’, air-raid shelters were built under them so that the Committee Members and staff could continue to administer their town in the event of enemy bombardment. Gjirokastra’s air-raid shelter, now open to the public, is in fact a huge labyrinth of underground corridors with small offices opening off them. Many of the offices still have the signs on their doors indicating which department or functionary would have worked within; even the telephone switchboard operators would have relocated down to the bunker. The functionaries would have slept, as well as worked, in their little windowless offices. The whole structure was designed to resist the impact of missiles of up to six tonnes; exploring the complex gives a unique insight into the Hoxha regime’s permanent state of alert for enemy attack. Maps at the entrance show the entire network of tunnels under the city.
In 1968, the Albanian government decided to use the copper mine at Spaçi as a forced-labour camp for political prisoners. Over the next 24 years, thousands of men were imprisoned at Spaçi, behind three rings of barbed-wire fence that enclosed the whole 12ha of the mine. An unknown number died, sometimes of exhaustion and malnutrition, sometimes shot.
Spaçi was not the only forced-labour camp in Albania, but it was the only one that used exclusively political prisoners. There were also a few non-prisoners employed at Spaçi. Their job was to handle the explosives, which for obvious reasons were not made available to the prisoners. At any one time there was an average of 800 prisoners in the camp; when it closed, in 1991, 830 men were freed.
This eerie place, in its bleak setting amid bare, harsh mountains, has been abandoned to the elements since 1991. Information panels in English have been installed around the site and work has begun to stabilise the buildings so that the the prison camp can be transformed into a museum, along the lines of Robben Island in South Africa.
The House of Leaves, Tirana
The most recently opened of Tirana’s communist-era buildings is the former surveillance centre of the Sigurimi, Albania’s secret police. It was built in 1931 as a maternity clinic, founded by Zog I’s personal physician, and taken over secretly by the Sigurimi for use mainly by the technicians who tapped people’s telephones and installed bugs in their apartments.
Bunk’Art installations, Tirana
Sister-installations Bunk’Art 1 and Bunk’Art 2 are dedicated to the interpretation of aspects of the communist period. Bunk’Art 1 was built in the 1970s but never used. This vast network of underground tunnels was intended to shelter the entire government apparatus in the event of invasion or nuclear attack.
Bunk’Art 2 was a bomb-proof tunnel under the Ministry of the Interior, home to the police force in its various incarnations throughout Albania’s 100-year history. You’ll be able to visit the display of archive photographs and film that illustrate the phases of World War II and the subsequent chilling of relations with one set of former allies after another.