Victims of Albanian Communism Struggle for Closure

Former political prisoners of Enver Hoxha's regime want truth and compensation -- but their quest has become entangled in the country's murky politics.

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In this photo taken in March of 1989, footprints are the only remainder of the giant statue of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha that used to stand in the main square of Tirana. (Tom Szlukovenyi/Reuters)

TIRANA, ALBANIA -- After 17 years in a prison camp, Fatos Lubonja tried to retrace his past.

Now a free man, he wanted to discover how, at the age of 23, he had ended up on communist Albania's vast register of incarcerated citizenry, a political prisoner reduced to a name and a number.

His search for the truth led him from the secret police archives to the local phone directory, where he found another name and a number that held the promise of an answer.

"You know what I am looking for," Lubonja said, after dialing the number. "I want to meet you."

At first, the man at the other end of the line seemed hesitant. He was the former secret police agent who had prepared the file that helped convict Lubonja. His name was Lambi Kote, and he knew Lubonja better than Lubonja knew him.

The two eventually met in 2010 in the dimly lit basement of a Tirana bar -- the former prisoner in his early 60s, and the man who had helped jail him, by then in his 70s.

Among the communist dictatorships of eastern Europe, Albania's was the poorest and quirkiest. As well as suppressing dissent, the paranoid leader, Enver Hoxha, banned almost all contact with other countries. Few foreigners ever visited Albania, and hardly any Albanians were allowed abroad.

Within the larger prison of his country, Hoxha created several smaller ones. Enemies of the state were sent to prison camps, modelled on Stalin's gulags. The inmates were forced to work on the government's mining and construction projects, and many died as a result of appalling conditions.

In total, some 200,000 people passed through the camps. In a country of three million, almost one person in every 15 has a family member who was jailed or displaced by the communists.

Today, some 2,700 former prisoners are still alive. Embittered and impoverished, they have received only a fraction of the compensation promised by post-communist governments. During a hunger strike in Tirana last month, two former prisoners set themselves alight. One has since died of his burns.

Lubonja was tormented by questions from his past. Which of his friends had betrayed him? And what had become of the diaries confiscated by the police?

Unsure of reparation, some survivors have instead campaigned for the release of the dirty secrets of the communist state, hidden within the vast archive assembled by the old secret police, the Sigurimi. But the state has resisted calls to open the archive to the public.

In interviews with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), several officials confirmed that much of the archive had been destroyed. Those files that survived were unlikely to see the light of day, they said, because they were being held as cards in a high-stakes game played by the country's modern leaders.

"Rumors about ex-collaborators among politicians have circulated for many years -- but until now the Albanian public has only seen a few files," says Fatos Klosi, the chief of the secret service during the late 1990s.

"This issue is always used for political blackmail, to scare those with good reason to be scared."

Two parties, the Democrats and the Socialists, have dominated Albania since the fall of communism. Both have paid lip service to the requests lodged by victims of communism, while accusing each other of ignoring them.

Rather than aiding reconciliation, Albania's painful past has become an instrument of political coercion.

Many Files 'Destroyed'

Lubonja was at the start of a promising career as an academic when the authorities discovered the secret diaries in which he had criticised Hoxha's regime.

He was sent to Spac prison camp and spent four months in solitary confinement. After five years, his sentence was extended on charges of having joined a dissident organisation within the camp. Jailed in 1974, he was freed in 1991, when communism collapsed.

In the new Albania, Lubonja made his living as a writer, tormented by questions from his past. Which of his friends had betrayed him? And what had become of the diaries confiscated by the police?

At the barroom rendezvous with the former secret policeman in Tirana, Lubonja searched for a closure that has eluded other prisoners of communism. He did not find it. Kote parried his queries with questions of his own. Lubonja was struck by how little had changed.

"I was terrified that he had power over me, and not the other way around," he says. "He knew what had happened, and I didn't."

Lubonja left the meeting frustrated. A gruff man with a beard and a hard-bitten manner, he still sounds astonished as he recalls the meeting with Kote. The former secret policeman revealed that he too had been sent to work in a factory after falling out of favour with the communists.

"He tried to convince me that we were the same, both victims of our time," he says.

The view that all Albanians suffered alike under communism upsets those who lost more than others. The state's policy toward the past, however, seems tacitly to endorse this view -- even if it does not articulate it.

Presented by

Aleksandra Bogdani is a journalist based in Tirana, Albania. She is a recipient of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence.

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