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.

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.

Former political prisoners have been promised compensation -- but are, in effect, treated little differently compared to other citizens. The secret police's archive, which would reveal who spied upon whom under communism, also remains sealed.

Similar disclosures elsewhere -- as with the files kept by East Germany's reviled secret police, the Stasi -- are said to have helped traumatized societies address their past. In Albania, however, the past is being swept under the carpet.

The archive originally contained the records of suspected enemies of the state. Much of the information in them had been provided by their close friends, relatives and colleagues. Of the hundreds of thousands of files amassed over 45 years of dictatorship, officials estimate that only about 14,000 remain intact. Some have been lost. Others were deliberately destroyed by former communists.

"A good portion of the files was destroyed in the early 1990s," says Kastriot Dervishi, who became director of the archives at the interior ministry in 2005.

Through much of the last decade, it seems the archives were allowed to deteriorate. Klosi, the former secret police chief, says that he took office in 1998 to discover that the majority of files had been left to decay in sacks.

"We found open files, with whole pages torn out and scattered across the floor," he says.

Political Tool

Politicians on both sides, however, defend their management of the archive. Mesila Doda, an MP for the ruling Democrats, insists her party is committed to releasing the files.

"Although 20 years have gone by, it is essential for Albania to face the past," she says. "The files should be opened."

Doda accuses the Socialists -- currently in opposition -- of torpedoing her party's lustration initiative, launched back in 1995.

The Socialists, however, accuse their rivals of making empty promises to the victims of communism.

Pandeli Majko, a former prime minister from the party, says the archive is just one of several thorny problems inherited from the dictatorship.

He blames the deadlock over the files on the current political elite, which he says is composed of former communists, and former dissidents.

"The marriage between the two has created an overlapping identity, which makes it controversial -- and difficult -- to deal with the past," he says.

The ranks of senior Socialists and Democrats today do indeed include many former communists, as well as those who can claim to have been dissidents. In reality, however, the dissidents who are now in politics were often also close to the center of power during the dictatorship.

This is because Hoxha's regime blurred the distinction between dissidents and loyalists: its most senior officials could simultaneously be suspected and monitored as potential enemies of the state.

Many Albanians believe top officials from both parties have something to fear from the archive -- either because they were spies, or were spied upon. Selective leaks from the sealed archive have already been used to attack or blackmail prominent figures.

Moreover, former secret service chief Klosi argues that the fear of the unseen files is far more valuable to politicians than the information within them.

"Nothing will happen if we open the files," he says. "But nobody is interested in doing so because the past is being used as a political tool."

Fading Legacy

Elsewhere in eastern Europe, communism's political prisoners were welcomed back into society. Some even rose to the highest offices of state: Vaclav Havel, Arpad Goncz and Lech Walesa became leaders of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland respectively.

Albania remains one of Europe's poorest nations. It has had a hard journey out of dictatorship and isolation, enduring bouts of anarchy during the 1990s. Amid this turbulence, the country's former political prisoners have struggled to find their feet.

Their property had been confiscated when they were imprisoned. Often, their families were also packed off to labor camps. Those relatives who remained behind were usually ostracized.

Released into the chaos that followed communism, the prisoners lacked the resources to build new lives. Some have made their homes in abandoned buildings, and still fear eviction.

Lavdrim Ndreu is in his early seventies and spent most of his life in a prison camp. For the past 20 years, he has been living in a structure that once housed the lockers of the Partizani soccer team.

"You see, our lives haven't changed much since then," he says. He shares the building with other former prisoners -- "my cousins from the camp," he calls them. They are petitioning the government to grant them the right to remain at the property.

According to Simon Miraka, the head of a body that oversees the rehabilitation of former prisoners, many of the detainees suffer from ill health as a result of their internment. Many also married late in life, after their release, and are now struggling to support their young.

Successive governments have promised compensation, but little has been delivered. A law passed in 2007 said former political prisoners were entitled to €14.3 for every day they had spent incarcerated.

The government divided the payment into eight tranches. Over the past five years, however, only one of those segments has been disbursed.

The hunger strike -- and the self-immolations -- in central Tirana this autumn swept the former prisoners into the headlines. Politicians traded blame, accusing each other of instigating the protests, or of ignoring them.

The strike is now over. It is not clear what it achieved, beyond publicity for the former prisoners' cause. Some observers question whether the state can actually afford to pay the compensation it has promised. The projected cost is around €400 million.

If nothing else, the passage of time may relieve the government of some of its obligations. The number of people who have been promised compensation is getting smaller, as death catches up with the aging gulag survivors. Their descendants often lack the enthusiasm to chase redress.

The first-hand accounts of communist brutality are also fading into oblivion, like the details hidden within the archive. There is little interest in modern Albania in the tales of suffering from the prison camps.

This summer in Tirana, BIRN tried to reach Kote, the former secret policeman who had prepared the case against Lubonja. He was not available for interview.

His son, however, said that Kote was losing his memory. "There is no point in talking to him," he told BIRN, as he fended off phone calls from the premises of his currency-exchange shop. "Lubonja was lucky to have met him two years ago."

For the former prisoner, however, the neglect of the past amounts to denial. Lubonja believes his country will never truly know itself if it carries on ignoring what happened under communism.

"The regime was like a straitjacket that moulded the people," he says. For modern Albania, he offers another simile. It is like a jungle, he says, where the former prisoners are at "the bottom of the food chain."