Doctor and activist

Albanian Life under the Communists- a story 23/9/18

I met a 54 year old Albanian man who was keen to tell me his story.  He is now a builder in England where he works with 3 of his brothers.

He was born in a family of 11 boys and they lived with his uncle’s family, so there were 16 boys and no girls in the house. The came from a small village near the Macedonian border.  He described the world under the Communist rule as one where you could not trust anyone- not even your own brother.

He said that he was  beaten twice, once when he was aged 9 in Grade 3 at school where he was hit repeatedly across the face so that he bled  from his mouth and nose because he had said, ‘Tomorrow is Easter’.  His father had been dragged to school and shamed in front of 700 children because it was assumed that he had told his son a Christian message at least enough for him to know that the next day was Easter.

He said that each day he had to work at a task given by the local official.  Tasks differed from day to day and were allocated randomly.  Sometimes he was given an axe to chop wood or work in the forest, at others to water the paddock, which was 8000 square metres.  There was water flowing by sometimes and the channels had to be dug and directed so as to water the whole area where there was corn in rows.  At times there was no water and in this case they did not get paid as the corn was not watered. 

In the village there was only corn bread for half the year. One man had complained at the baker that the bread was ‘Not fit for a pig’.  The following day he received a letter to go to the Police Station, so he went down and was beaten and  put  into gaol for 3 months.  He said that people who upset the authorities a were often gaoled for 3 months or even years when it was not clear how they had offended.  He said that in his village he estimated that 80% of the men had been gaoled at some time. The women were rarely gaoled.  If someone was gaoled, their relatives were often interrogated and beaten to find out further information about the person suspected of being against the state.  It was better to say nothing.  He said that if you wanted to use the phone, a State officer would sit beside you in the booth so as to listen, and he would simply reach forward and terminate the call if he did not like it. Naturally if there was anything considered dangerous to the State further action was taken.

He said that was often the case that people were arrested for weeks or months at a time with no one knowing why they had been arrested.  At times people who had a pretty wife or sister were arrested and the Police knocked on the door and offered the release of their relative in exchange for sex with the officer. It was ‘your choice’, they said.

He himself had tried to escape when he was 19, with 3 of his brothers.  The border was protected by an electric fence with wires 4 inches apart that rang an alarm if one wire touched another. They were not sufficiently electrified to be lethal in themselves, but a signal was received and guard dogs and soldiers would come, the latter with instructions to shoot.  He and his brothers walked to a place where the distance to the guard towers was as far as possible and bound up a number of wires with wool blankets and got through.  They went to Macedonia where people had been given asylum, but towards the end of the regime there were simply too many, so he and his brothers were handed back to the authorities and he was severely beaten and gaoled. This was only a week before the regime collapsed.

I asked him how the people had all been brave enough to challenge the regime, as there was archival footage in the Museum of people demonstrating against tanks and being fired at by water cannon.  He said that he was unsure of this as he had been in his village and not near the action, but the Prime Minister had said that the people could demonstrate without being shot as it was their ‘right’.  This had been something of a surprise to the population and the Prime Minister had enforced this on other elements of the government.  He though that this was because the Ceausesau regime in Romania has shot at the protesters and 30,000 had been shot. The revolution had nevertheless succeeded and Ceausesau had himself been shot.  The Soviet Union had collapsed and he felt that the Albanian regime knew that its time and had come and wanted to survive themselves.

After his attempted escape on 17/1/1991 he had no money to leave Albanian, but had finally done so in 1997 and gone to Italy, and then been accepted by the UK quite quickly where he had got a job digging for the water authority until he was able to set up his own building business with 3 of his brothers.  He had come back to Albanian as his father’s sister had died and he wanted to pay respects, but he still had a deep distrust of the State and was quite suspicious of its corruption, particularly the drug mafia.

I had noticed young men in expensive cars parked in unusual places. They were tough-looking and usually talking on mobile phones with no apparent occupation. He said that these were indeed young mafia, who thought that they could move up the hierarchy.  However, they would usually end up shot or in prison as the big bosses gave them a different drug or operation so that they would be caught by the authorities and gaoled, and thus not be a problem for the big bosses, who would replace them with younger ones.  He said that they never thought it would happen to them, which was why he thought that they were ‘pretty stupid’.  But he agreed that they should not be crossed.  When I had stayed in Gjirokastra, the landlord of the hotel had advised me to close the window and turn the air-conditioning on as the tables in the street from the bar below had mafia talking and drinking until late and would disturb us.  The young men had arrived in expensive cars after 10 just as he had predicted.

The Drug Mafia and tourism seem to be the two main forces rebuilding Albania, which is a fascinating country to visit, with a long-term history fighting for independence from both the Romans and the Ottomans, and more recent history since WW1 with the rise and fall of the Communists. Its history is very well preserved by its long Communist stagnation and it also has good hiking and beaches similar to Greece, Italy and Croatia, but cheaper.

Arthur Chesterfield-Evans

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