The Bunker Mentality In Albania

The Bunker Mentality In Albania

By Carol L. Bowman


bunker-albaniaDrita lowered her head, trying to hide her tears. She stood in front of a mushroom shaped dome protruding five feet above ground. The deteriorated steel and concrete enclosure with a width of six feet at its broadest point caused many claustrophobic panics in times gone by. “I’m sorry.  Whenever I speak about the past, I remember the pain that my family suffered,” our local guide admitted in near perfect English. A hush fell over the group, as Drita’s story unfolded and we stood silent, mesmerized by it.

The horrific memories of ‘bunkerisation’ surfaced as she rehashed the harsh and punishing 40-year period from 1945-1985, when Communist Enver Hoxha ruled Albania with brutal repression. Few visitors know of the cruelty Albania’s people have endured.  Drita swallowed hard, pushing back the emotions and apologized for her momentary breakdown, then continued her story.

Throughout his reign of terror, Enver Hoxha controlled the nation with a paranoid fervor. He brain-washed his people to believe that Greece would invade at any moment and that moderate Tito from next-door Yugoslavia planned on exterminating every Albanian. His insistence on total isolation from any outside influence plunged Albania into severe economic conditions for decades. Initially employing hard-line Stalin-style Communism, he switched to Mao Tse Tung practices when Khrushchev offered reforms. However, after Richard Nixon was invited to China in 1972, Hoxha discarded his alliance with Mao and developed his own brand of Communism with increased suppression against his subjects.

To cement these xenophobic ideas into the minds of the people, between 1967 and 1985, Hoxha ordered the construction of 750,000 concrete and steel, rifle slatted bunkers in the middle of streets, in cemeteries, in the mountains, in people’s back yards; one bunker per every four inhabitants. All Albanian citizens, from age three, received training as civilian militia, which required regular participation in civil defense drills and forced guard duty to be ready to repel ghost invaders. Each bunker came supplied with government issued guns minus ammunition, since the facilities were never used against any attack. Instead, they served their intended purpose of controlling the Albanian people through fear.

“We had very little food, but we all had a bunker,” Drita explained. “No cars were allowed, so no roads were built, businesses were nationalized and we could not own any private property. Hoxha banned all religions, after he proclaimed Albania the world’s first Atheist State in 1967. Religious leaders faced imprisonment and torture.”

Drita turned to her family’s personal experience.“ Both my mother and I had been trained as teachers. The school curriculum for all grades required the Communist Party Doctrine to be the primary, compulsory subject. A guard stood outside our home every evening to listen through the walls, monitoring if any family member ever criticized the government.”

Drita’s voice turned softer, her tears of pain now streaming. “My mother loved Greek romance novels and a friend managed to sneak one over the border for her. My younger brother, a true comrade, told the local Party leader that our mother had the outlawed paperback. The police could have easily imprisoned my father for not controlling his wife better, but fortunately he was able to persuade the authorities that he had destroyed the book. I never trusted my brother again.”

What does Albania do with 750,000 impenetrable bunkers now that it is a free, democratic nation, a member of NATO and European Union applicant? How does the beautiful Ionian Sea port city of Saranda, named the world’s most interesting getaway by Lonely Planet in 2011, explain the pervasive reminders of Hoxha’s rule? How can a country, stunted by isolation and deprived of technological development for decades, become a tourist destination, with its poor system of roads, frequent disruption of electrical service and drab, Communist-grey appearance of the 1960’s?

Construction of over 100 newly built, beach front condos and hotels, reportedly funded by the hard-line Russian and Albanian mafia, line Saranda’s coast. Drita explained that these lodgings serve European vacationers for two summer months, but remain empty the rest of the year because updated infrastructure to support this expansion has been ignored. It reminded me of ‘if you build it, they will come’ mentality.

Albanian citizens, long suppressed by authoritarian rule, have blossomed into a band of innovative entrepreneurs with a shifted ‘bunker mind-set.’ Capitalizing on foreigners’ curiosity about these fear-mongering relics, every guided tour throughout the country now offers bunker-site visits. Drita, teacher turned guide, relives her raw memories with each excursion, but educating travelers eases the ache.

Several larger constructions, designated to shelter past Communist Party leaders, have sprouted into cafés, while smaller bunkers function as hot dog stands, ice cream parlors and trysts for young Albanian lovers. Removing nearly a million bunkers could bankrupt the country, so these resilient people have incorporated them into their economic landscape.

As we left Drita, I hugged her tightly, allowing my awareness of her pain to flow between us. Drifting down Saranda’s main street, we passed a souvenir shop. In the window, I spied pencil sharpeners, ashtrays and refrigerator magnets, all replicas of bunkers!

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