Tag Archives: Albania

Leaving the Bunkers Behind in Albania

Sofia    One of the most unusual things I saw in Tirana, Albania was a museum of sorts called BunkArt near the central square and the main government buildings.  Using a modern reference, it is fair to say that Albania for fifty years from the end of World War II until the embassy sieges and the fall of the government in 1991 was the North Korea of the 20th century.

The ruling, communist government made it illegal to attempt to leave the country, branding any migrants as traitors.  Internal migration was rigorously restricted in order to keep the population on the farms.   The border was heavily fenced in a way that would please President Trump, though more intended to prevent leaving, it was equally effective at preventing entry.  Hundreds of bunkers were built around the country to guard the borders and hold prisoners before sending them to sentence in camps or worse.

interior minister’s office in bunker

Several of us visited the bunker museum between.  This is one of two in the country, but the only one in the capital.  It could double as a house of horrors.  Tunnels ran from the bunker to the offices of the Interior Minister who was responsible for these policies.  One room showed his underground office and that of his secretary complete with pictures of all of the Interior Ministers from WWII until the 1990s.  There were lists of the executed.  Rooms were allocated to lengthy expositions of the surveillance mechanisms, spy craft, police dog training, and more.

telephones handing to demo phone tapping

I found it both fascinating and repelling.  There was an important story to tell, but if anything, it was almost too heavy handed and as oppressive in its own way as the horrors it was detailing.  There were grotesque mannikins for example in half a dozen rooms that were all seven or eight feet tall meant to represent everything from the mundane, like the dog training protection to prevent bites, which is relatively benign, to robo-cop, Star Wars stormtrooper type representations of the riot police to prisoners.  As important as reconciliation might be in some countries, it was hard to swallow some of this medicine as it crossed the line from history to the same propaganda and brainwashing that it condemned.

Hoxka’s Palace

There were two more symbolic and, in my view, more powerful symbols of the excess and reign of the dictatorship and program of Enver Hoxha.  One was his 1950s style house built during his 40-year reign until his death in 1985.  The house is opened several times a year when Albanians are allowed to visit.  The other is his giant, concrete mausoleum.  Compared to Mao’s or Turkey’s Ataturk mausoleum, that might have been models or inspirations, this was smaller in scale, though the ambitions were as grand. Now, it is being allowed to fall apart.  Looking from a distance past the trees in the small part around the site, anyone could see chunks of concrete being allowed to fall.  The whole affair looks like a giant fallout shelter, but its deterioration seems to say it all.

Hoxka’s Mauseleum


Looking at Albania through the Lens of the National Museum

Tirana      My visit to Albania was winding down.  Only a few meetings left, including a wrap-up and next steps discussion with my colleague and fellow.  An email needed to be drafted to follow up with the half-dozen or so people I had met who indicated a real interest in learning more about community organizing and whether or not they would be interested in an ongoing ACORN project.  Always on my travel list are the botanical garden, which was a hard “no” in the winter in this mountainous country, and the national museum, because it describes how a country wants to present itself.  In this case the museum was open and faced the central square in the capital of Tirana, so I was game, even if it was a backwards way of understanding the country by seeing the museum last, when I probably should have made a point of seeing it first.

The Albanian national museum was huge with spacious exhibits across three or more floors and expansive galleries.  It was also remarkably modern and well stated, having been renovated in recent years.

Going from floor to floor one, I found myself constantly battling several overriding impressions.  One was that for thousands of years the country’s identity was less Albanian, than it was an amalgamation of the countries and cultures that had subsumed or conquered the land and its people.  The other was that the arc of this small country’s history was war, subjugation, and resistance, division and struggle.

Positioned between Greece and Macedonia, across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, and with Serbia to the north, whether in story or costume, beginning 2000 years ago, the country’s architecture, sculpture, and presentation was Greek.  At least it was Greek, until conquered by the Romans, and then part of the eastern division of the Roman Empire directed from Constantinople.  Then it was overtaken by barbarians including Huns, Slavs, and Visigoths who were largely just passing through until five hundred years under the Ottoman Empire moving from Catholic and Orthodox to majority Muslim with a language most closely resembling Turkish.  Then off and on independent until overtaken by a Fascist assault from Italy, then World War II, and communism until 1991.  Map after map in various displays detailed the dates of attacks on various cities in one campaign and war after another.  Many graduating from an Albanian history class must ask themselves where the “there” is, when it comes to defining Albania.

To the degree history is always written by the victors, there are still contradictions and unanswered spaces.  The fight against Fascism by partisans received major attention in the museum, but even as a visitor looking at the pictures of some of the leaders who organized the Labor Party and ruled as communists for decades, that story is only told through the lens of executions and prison camps without any other leavening or even explanation:  heroes in WWII, goats fifty years later.

Though the country is more than 60% Islamic, there is an entire room dedicated to 18th century Catholic iconography, and nothing anywhere to highlight, much less explain, the majority of the population’s conversion to Islam in the same time periods and honor that tradition.

There are simply gaps in the timeline.  The museum’s detailed history pretty much stops forty years ago, other than a room about Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul’s visit.  The Albanian national museum tells many stories, both the ones it wants the public to know, and the ones it is still not sure how to tell.


Please enjoy “For Real” from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Thanks to KABF.