By Richard Eilers/Bunkers from the postwar Hoxha era still litter Albania’s landscape and, in the capital Tirana, are being opened to the public as the country explores its communist past.
Spend just a few days in Albania and you’ll get a sense of how the country was suffocated in the iron grip of its communist dictatorship for nearly 50 years.
The land, from gorgeous beaches to remote valleys, is still dotted, 25 years after the collapse of the regime, with tens of thousands of bunkers, concrete testament to the paranoia of Enver Hoxha, who led the country from 1944 until his death in 1985. They were built to withstand invaders who never came and most are still standing. And now that examining the legacy of the communist era is on the political and cultural agenda, some have found a new role.
“We hope to help Albanians to reconcile with their own history and their own past,” said Carlo Bollino, curator of Bunk’Art. “There cannot be awareness of your own present and confidence in the future without knowing the soil in which your own roots are planted.”
Bunk’Art (entrance 300 lek, about £1.70) has just opened in the huge bunker built in the outskirts of the capital Tirana to accommodate Hoxha and his cronies in the event of attack.
I found visiting it disquieting. The ticket office is reached through a 200-metre tunnel where eerie piped music plays – musak with menace. Then I descended into the five-storey bunker – past a sign warning visitors that the lights might fail at any time, but not to panic – and wandered endless corridors and dozens of rooms. Static and white noise bore out of the concrete walls. I was the only visitor in the place and, I confess, I felt spooked. I kept looking over my shoulder expecting to find Hoxha padding a few paces behind.
Some of the rooms are used to tell the story of the dictator’s times through photographs, items and documents. Other rooms are used for art displays but most are bare. In the heart of the bunker is an assembly hall, designed for Hoxha’s government in hiding, but now used for jazz concerts.
I emerged into the sunlight and took a grateful breath of fresh air.
Bunk’Art will be joined soon by other secret spots turned tourist sights. The House of Leaves is a red-bricked villa (hidden by trees, obviously) in the centre of Tirana that was the HQ of the Sigurimi secret police and the heart of the regime’s phone-tapping network. It will open as the Museum of Surveillance next year, but I talked my way past the guard and into the building. One room had metres and metres of wire leading to a switchboard – apparently no foreign embassy could expect to keep its calls private. The museum plans to house a collection of cold war spy equipment such as bugs in spectacle cases and suitcases with hidden cameras.
A few hundred metres away is the biggest bunker in the city centre, off Skanderbeg Square. It used to connect all the ministries and will open to the public early next year. I persuaded a friendly local to get me past the workmen preparing it for visitors, but he grew increasingly nervous as we went deeper into the labyrinth, muttering about the police and jail.
Hoxha still casts a shadow here.(Cortezay:THE GUARDIAN)