A hot summer. Those in the Party had settled in resort encampments. Some families which were able to find cabins or tents were at the beach. Others made more modest arrangements, the waters of the river Shkumbini. Our group, under the shade of a pine tree in front of Hotel Skampa. Drinks of boza, a corn malt, and buttermilk, as we brainstormed about finding work. We needed clothes. Our wardrobes: a shirt and a pair of pants. September was approaching, the start our third year in High School. Sixteen-year-olds. But we were looking for work.
“My father said to try tomorrow because these days the sawmill was looking for seasonal workers,” said Namik Shehu lighting a “Partizani” cigarette. He had started smoking at an early age. Of short stature, muscular, strong as iron, but with a heart soft as cotton, generous as no other in our circle of friends. It was decided.
Early the next morning we started out on foot. Not everyone was allowed past the big iron gate of the sawmill. We waited until the last of the shift workers went in. The guard was an acquaintance of Namik’s, and he showed us to the Human Resources office. We decided that Petrit Karabina should go in first. Tall, athletic, serious, he would have it easiest to convince the official to give us work without inquiring about our age. Roseni, the Chief Engineer entered as we were getting our written orders. He looked at us in amazement. He knew Namik.
“Have you come to teach us foreign languages?” He said laughing.
“No, Chief Engineer! They’ve come to work the last two months of the Summer.” Said the HR official as he handwrote the work assignments.
“They should be at the library, not here.” Laughed the Chief Engineer again slapping Namik’s shoulder.
“We only have work requests from Gatri.” The HR official didn’t understand the meaning of that statement. We cheerfully took the work permissions and left. Petrit and Namik were to work loading freight cars and I, dragging logs. It was Saturday, we would start work Monday.
Gatri, the most difficult section of the sawmill. Two types of workers were sent there: ex-convicts, sent for re-education, and political opponents, the cream of society, whom the “Sons of Stalin” called the vanquished class. In prisons too they used this sort vileness. Political prisoners were housed together with thieves and criminals. The later were not enemies of the Party and therefore not dangerous to the State. They were appointed to trusted jobs, were used for dirty work. Cell rats. Tactics learned from the Elder Brother, the Soviet Union. In Kolyma, the heart of the Gulag Archipelago, thieves and criminals were used to control the political prisoners who were in far greater numbers. So, there really was no need to employ paid guards.
I passed my first week learning how to use the Capini, the only tool used in handling the logs.
“It was invented in the Iron Age, when man first thought of tying two elements together, wood and iron. The New Society, with new technology. No kidding. The last word in science. We’re building Socialism with our own means, without the need of machinery.” Mark, with two broken front teeth, would say. He bombarded you with devastating truths. His words came out in lisps. You had to concentrate to understand the word, let alone the sentence. He was brought in for re-education. He served some years in prison, as an ordinary convict. His sentence was spent in a labor camp in the south of the country, in the village of Borshi near Saranda. He was “spoiled” because he worked alongside a political prisoner.
“They stole my youth for a simple brawl.” Chortled Mark lighting a filter, “D.S.” cigarette, a rare luxury for the time and place.
Capini was sleek and long made of well cured wood, finely planed. It had a great iron hook secured at the top with thick nails. Four modern day slaves thrust the capinis into the giant body cut in the forests of Biza. A friend of mine, a Skoda truck driver, Llambi Leka, almost lost his life descending the heights of Biza as the weight of the logs forced his truck off the road, straight into a ravine.
We dragged the logs, one worker at each end and two in the middle. With great effort the logs were dragged the length of a field until they ended up at the great saws, which turned them into boards. I met Edmond Trebicka there. He graduated high school as an electrician but could not find work in the trade, so he too worked in Gatri.
“Here it Is, as it is,” said Edmond, “but it’s unendurable when they post you inside on the night shift.”
“Rrapini is the most challenging, but heroic.” Mark interrupted with great conviction. I didn’t fully understand what he wanted to say, so I asked him to repeat.
“Rrapini, the Great Saw, as you enter. Stalin’s gift. Standing in the center like a giant OAKTREE …like THAT poem,” laughed Mark. Mark emphasized forcefully the name Stalin. He admired Stalin. He imagined him brave, strong, invincible. He identified. Apparently, the political prisoner who “spoiled” him, corrupted him, hadn’t told him that Stalin the hero at Mark’s age had been an ordinary criminal and bank robber, codename… “KOBA”.
The second week begun just as Edmond predicted, inside the saw building. I got acquainted with the shift workers. My workplace was where boards were piled for transport out of the building. Hard physical work. There were women also. Some had worked there for years. They had children to feed. At the middle saw, where boards were cut and dressed, worked a beautiful young girl, athlete, with yellow hair down to her shoulders, knit in braids when she worked. Modest, full of light and magic, the Rose of Chameria guarded her honor. Her eyes were as blue as the Bay of Parga. Her ancestors had lived there for centuries. The hordes from the other side of the Mediterranean, who today call themselves “Hellenes” chased them from their land. Her father was imprisoned by another sort of horde, the “Sons of Stalin” they call themselves. In the center, up high by the ceiling, hung the workplace clock. That too was a gift from Stalin. There, above our heads it hung like an instrument of torture. It moved slowly and the shift never ended. We started at seven in the evening and finished at two after midnight. The great saws worked all night without rest. To one side magnificent Rrapini, the pride of Gatri, the height of science, ripped logs. The engineering staff was proud. It was constructed by brother scientists under the enlightened direction of Stalin. Left of Rrapini, two smaller saws, defective, produced later, split the wood into boards.
“…. with revisionist behavior.” Mark would say smiling. But Rrapini the great, painted forest green, had something of an aristocrat…
Second Sunday. We met at midday under the same pine tree, with news from work. Petrit and Namik’s forearms were reddened, as if cut by a knife, in the places where they rested the boards as they loaded the freight cars. Their faces were drawn and tanned by the sun.
“We look like we were at the beach too,” quipped Petrit. “We won’t feel bad when we return to school”.
Namik, reserved, pulled on the cigarette slowly, his eyes gazing afar, Shkumbini, beside the lumber yard, where members of his family worked for years.
Midnight. Swirling clouds of sawdust everywhere. Working without masks. A cry was heard. Calls for help. Running to pull the girl away from the saw. Mark got there first. Her right palm was hanging. I saw them wrap it with a shirt strip, but I didn’t see it happen. I got closer. The Rose of Chameria had fainted. They took her away.
Third week. Monday. The second shift was not being allowed to go in. Something was being urgently painted by the Rrapini. Mark couldn’t bear it, forced his way in. They were running late. Finally, the door opened. Chief Engineer Roseni came out first; looked upset. Passed without speaking. Then the State Security Agent walked out staring at us. Mark followed them; grief stricken. He came closer, looking around, the custom remained with him from prison days, when he wanted to convey something of importance.
“Someone scraped the paint! Rrapini was constructed in 1911! It was the Tsar’s…!”
Translated from the Albanian by Dita Gjuraj