There’s an echo of heavy soled boots coming from the fifth floor. Moving from room to room, our upstairs neighbor is getting ready to go out. It’s the only day in the year he dresses in the very best clothes he owns. In reality, they were the only things left him after the theft of his possessions by the “Liberators”. The boot-falls continue over the threshold, out the door of the apartment, down the stairs and mingle with the laughter of children who live on the second floor. Lots of children. The Ulloria couple, their parents, work night and day just to provide for them.
Whenever Hysni, their father, is asked how many kids he has, he jokingly answers:
“I have a whole soccer team!”
“Uncle Petrit, your boots shine like mirrors” says the youngest Ulloria to the neighbor.
The second youngest also approaches and runs his hand over the patent leather. Petrit reaches into a pocket of his overcoat and produces a small bag of candy. It falls to the youngest child to hand it out to his siblings. The oldest of the brothers wears prescription glasses and has the look of a fine student in the making.
“Why should we offer felicitations to uncle Petrit today” he asks squinting behind the lenses.
They all scamper down the stairs and out of the building buzzing around Petrit like a swarm of bees around a hive. Laughing with joy, Petrit responds loudly enough for the adults in the vicinity to hear:
“It’s the 28th of November. It’s OUR holiday!”
The smartest of the Ulloria kids, the fifth grader, steps in front of him:
“Teacher told us our holiday is tomorrow.”
Petrit pats the boy on the head and turns to his mother, who’s talking with the bakery saleslady, and says:
“Riku, your mom can explain it to you better.”
Head held high, black fedora on, Petrit crosses the building’s courtyard and walks down the street towards the center of the city. Bound with a wide shiny black silk ribbon, slightly tilted to the left with the front of the rim gently shading his eye, the sides and back gently curved up, the hat is visible from afar. He wears a long white scarf which peeks just a bit along the lapels of his midcalf length, black as midnight, overcoat. Well-cut of fine cloth, double-breasted, it looks good on his slightly paunchy body. Two rows of big shiny buttons, one on each side of the open coat, make the garment even more beautiful. With each step the unbuttoned coat flares open showing a pair of black pants made of a different kind of heavy, shiny black, material. They’re tucked loosely into the knee-high elegant leather boots, which resound with every step on the cracked and dirty sidewalk. The image evokes memories of famous actors from golden days long past in our country.
Seated at some tables across the street from the local branch of the post office, some war veterans, wearing Chinese caps and plastic shoes produced by “NISH Goma, Durrës”, are playing dominos. They stop the game and resentfully watch their neighbor, the only man celebrating Flag Day, walk proudly down the street.
I got to know Petrit Guranjaku from the stories my grandfather told me. They were imprisoned in Elbasan prison at the same time. Later they were both sent to “The Swamp of Death”, the forced labor camp in Maliq. Petrit showed exceptional moral clarity. He came from a family which had high hopes the “Liberators” would make come true centuries old national dreams. Instead of dreams, the son of intellectuals would taste German chains, not at the hands of occupiers but at the hands of the Communist “Liberators”.
Grandfather said, “They took Petrit to the underground cell where they tortured us around midnight and brought him back at six in the morning, the time the sergeant would come to let us go to the privy.”
After they demolished our house, they sent us to the “Banesat” neighborhood on the outskirts of town. There we found out Petrit would be our upstairs neighbor…
“His face was swollen, and his mouth was bleeding profusely. They were accusing him of denouncing the surrender of Kosova to Yugoslavia.”
“Ceni, they hit… I kept… ‘You surrendered it to the Slav enemy’…”
Petrit once worked outside the borders of Albania created by the London Agreements. It was at a time when most of Albania’s long severed lands had been freed and reintegrated.
“I was being tortured by Thanas Caku, who was after the money my family had earned honestly and saved over generations.” Grandfather’s hands shook as if throttling the thieving criminal right then and there.
“They wouldn’t let us go to the privy. It was the time of day when Caku tortured me. I was in such pain! My kidneys felt like they would burst. I asked to be permitted to go urinate, but the sergeant pretended not to hear me. Petrit grabbed my hand and said, ‘Pee right here, in the corner!’ I did it in my shoes, my only shoes. It was icy cold, and they didn’t dry out for days…”
Petrit and my grandfather were later sent to Maliq together, to the “Swamp of Death”. They were assigned to the same forced labor brigade and were given sleeping space next to each other. In that place, heavy workload and very little food quickly changed men into blind skeletons.
“We couldn’t see. We couldn’t find our way to the work let alone do the work of digging ditches…”
Grandfather fell into a coma after the sergeant who was after our family money struck him in the abdomen, in the liver area, with an iron rod. Petrit took care of him and saved his life.
“Petrit saved my eyesight too. Prison administration brought a truckload of onions and had it unloaded at the center of the camp. Skeletons threw themselves upon the onions like hungry animals. There was little chance of getting my hands on a single onion but Petrit, strong man that he was, got a few and we ate them dirt and all. Little by little, our vision began to return…”
Many years later, after his return from “The Swamp of Death”, Sali Myzyri, a man from the neighborhood, asked my grandfather for help fixing his leaky roof. The work took many days. Feeling penitent, the man said to my grandfather:
“If I wanted it that way, you wouldn’t have suffered even a prick in your foot.”
His words left my grandfather speechless.
Petrit was retired and spent a good part of each day up on the roof where he kept a flock of pigeons. He had the door leading up under lock and key. For Petrit, the birds were like balloons soaring high into the sky and disappearing from sight, flying wherever and for as long as they wanted. To him, those birds symbolized freedom. During the years I was forbidden from continuing higher education, I made it a point to walk upstairs to the roof to hear the stories he would tell about his and my grandfather’s lives. Petrit was a great intellectual but above all, he was a great Albanian.
“November 28th found me in the city of Gjirokastra, for an inspection. It was beautifully adorned for the celebration. An old school chum of mine, now the ranking officer in the Royal Gendarmerie, and I were getting out of a vehicle at the “Bazaar Square.”
Petrit hated the Communist system and he hated “Nero” even more. Judging from his origins one wouldn’t think he would have a reason. Some of his family members had fallen in the Civil War on the Communist side. “Nero” called them national heroes. Heroes, while Nero needed them to be, but as half a century of terror evolved, they too would join the huge segment of the population already declared enemies of the people. He denigrated their families, sent them to forced labor camps, elimination and more…
“Two young men, well dressed for the holiday, were walking towards us but on the other side of the street. The taller fellow, obviously effeminate, wore a black beret cocked over one eye. He was animated, his hands moving as he spoke to his companion. When they got close to where we were standing, he offered a greeting with a servile smile. ‘He’s one of the Hoxha’s. He’s got… an undesirable moral disposition but, we have use for him. He serves our needs.’ My friend offered.”
Not even blinking an eye, Petrit spoke of “Nero” as if just of a neighborhood bum. He was a very brave man indeed.
“In the ‘Swamp of Death’, two or three people died every day. The family brought your grandfather Cen, a small wooden cask of cheese, which he couldn’t keep himself because the sergeant was always looking for something to use as a reason to torture him some more. He entrusted it to a peasant who slept next to us, and we all shared it equally, eating it with the stone-hard bread we were given. When the cheese was all gone, we stuck our fingers in the cask and wiped them on the hard bread just for the scent…”
Petrit was being enticed by “The Liberators”. He was being invited to return to the fold. Offers were being made. Positions of great responsibility would be entrusted to him if…
“For the first celebration of November 28th. after the takeover by the ‘Liberators’, I put on the best clothes I owned, these you see on me today, loaded a truck with more things I bought over the years and headed for Elbasan. At ‘Qafë-Thana’, I was intercepted by three soldiers and a civilian. I recognized the civilian as being an Elbasan and I stepped towards them offering my hand in greeting.
‘What have you done to us Petrit? You wanted to make us, and our Yugoslav brothers become enemies? If you weren’t of the last name that you are, only a bullet for you today!’ Even before Jorgji Shuteriqi finished speaking, all three of them threw themselves at me and forced me into the truck which was parked on the side of the road.”
Jorgji Shuteriqi’s brother, Haqim Shuteriqi, lived two floors below Petrit’s apartment. He was a graduate of a religious school. That culture had made him into a better human being. However, for Petrit, he was a Shuteriqi and that was enough for him never to speak a word to the man.
“You are young. You will live a long time and will get to witness what’ll be said of the degenerate”.
When “Nero’s” statue was toppled, my friend Petrit Guranjaku threw a Banquet!
With a glass of wine in his hand, he said: “If I were to die today, I wouldn’t feel a bit sorry for myself because I lived to see them drag the monster down”.
I was in the United States when Petrit passed away. I felt deeply touched and honored when my father informed me of the final request my dear, anti-Communist, friend had made of his son.
“You are to receive condolence visits at the home of Muç Xhepa!”
It was done as he wished and with deep respect, Elbasan bid farewell to the great Albanian.
Translated from the Albanian by Dita Gjuraj