By Rafaela Prifti/
VATRA held its first virtual commemorative event to honor the anticommunist prison riots of Space and Qafe Bar of May 1973 and 1984. On behalf of the survivors of Albania’s political persecuted, VATRA’s leadership vowed to raise awareness and take action to petition US Congress and authorities.
On Thursday, two members of the Executive Board of VATRA, Ervin Dine and Merita McCormack sent out e-invites for a Zoom meeting dedicated to the Spac and Qafe Bari prison rebellions. Unable to go to the annual commemorative ceremony in Washington DC in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, they said that moving the event online was appropriate. VATRA’s Vice President in charge of innovation, integration and youth, Ervin Dine, reinforced the importance of such acts of remembrance for the future generations and to not allow the return of the past. Elmi Berisha, President of VATRA thanked the initiators, participants and the ones who were not able to attend. He said: “The generations of Albanians who suffered persecution and were victimized by the Communist regime have protected our national identity and moral integrity.” Directly speaking to the survivors, Mr. Berisha stated: “You are the spark and the inspiration for our freedom. The Pan-Albanian Federation of America Vatra is proud to stand with you.” Expressing respect and gratitude, Dr. Pashko Camaj, VATRA’s Vice-President for Community Outreach and Education, remarked: “Nothing is worse than forgetfulness. Tonight’s event serves to remove the dust of history and let these heroes shine.”
Delivering a poignant key note address, Pellumb Lamaj, a symbol of anticommunist resistance, greeted “the positive initiative to pay homage to two crucial revolts that have become synonymous with anticommunist resistance. “The prison uprisings in Spac and Qafe Bar occurred three decades ago. In both cases, the regime’s violently crushed the protests and executed a number of the protagonists. Yet the martyrs have no grave for their family members to go to. Such actions by the communist amount to nothing more than a coward act of robing us of our history,” said Mr. Lamaj. He praised VATRA for honoring the martyrs and indicated that the Pan-Albanian Federation of America has the resources to take on the role of the anticommunist advocate in the diaspora. Lek Mirakaj, member of VATRA’s Board of Directors, remembered how his son, and his co-sufferer’s son ran into one another when families were allowed to see them in prison. It was a powerful image and message of the long-lasting wounds inflicted by communism onto the people. Mr. Mirakaj recalled the tenacity of Pellumb Lamaj who was thrown in Spac prison as a 19 year-old teenager, where he served a 12 year sentence, equal to about three-fourth of his whole life. “For a state with a history of roughly 100 years, the riots of Spac and Qafe Bar mark two stand-out moments. It was exactly there that chants like “Freedom! Democracy!” “Down with Communism!” were voiced out by the politically persecuted. The same cries rallied the students in the 1990s anticommunist movement in Albania. So, it is clear that the prisoners’ rebellions were expressions of the people’s aspirations to throw away the shackles of the regime,” said Mr. Mirakaj. Standing next to his son, Ervin, the next keynote speaker Dine Dine, started by saying that he shies away from public speaking. Then, the published author eloquently emphasized how the persecution practices and sentencing were maliciously prolonged in Albania. “After serving time in prison, we, as many others, were sent to internment camps of hard physical labor and unspeakable conditions,” he said. Mr. Dine recalled another fellow prisoner, as “an honest man and a hero”, who is the brother of Mark Mrnacaj from VATRA’s Board of Directors. He said that attending the meeting is an act of commemorates the legacy of the survivors. His family has endured a lengthy persecution from 1948 to 1989.
The survivors have been subjected to prison and labor camps for the better part of their lives in Albania. They are American Albanians and live in the US in the last decades, well-respected for their civic duties and role in the community. Roughly three decades after the collapse of communism, these survivors feel they have been terrorized for a second time by the ensuing noncommunist elite in Albania and lack of accountability by the ones in charge and responsible for the acts of torture, persecution and executions under communism. Mr. Dine Dine reference the dilapidated state of a Tepelene memorial in Albania dedicated to the Spac prison revolt. Responding to the idea of memorializing the survivors, Dr. Pashko Camaj of the Executive Board suggested a publication to document their memories and life stories. Merita McCormack advised the screening of the documentary film produced by Pellumb Lamaj at VATRA’s Headquarters. Mr. Mirakaj and Mr. Dine spoke of Pellumb Lamaj’s courage and uncompromising determination to expose the crimes of communism in Albania. Dielli’s Editor Dalip Greca said that he has covered extensively the topic of the crimes of communism through survivors’ interviews and witness stories. “The notorious prisons of Spac and Qafe Bari belonged to the communist machine of victimization and oppression that were prevalent in Albania. The barbaric punishment continued even after the Spac riot was crushed,” said Mr. Greca. Speaking as a survivor of imprisonment in the former-Yugoslavia, Shaqir Salihu said that, in comparison with Kosova, the prisons in Albania were harsher, while at the same time the communist propaganda promoted a false reality to indoctrinate the minds of Albanians who lived outside its borders. On the topic of actions and future goals, Augustin Mirakaj and Ervin Dine of the Executive Board of VATRA suggested drafting a petition to US Congress and the President to denounce “Albania’s communists as terrorists”. “Ironically”, they said, “today the same individuals who are responsible for the crimes against the persecuted in Albania are not held accountable. Instead, these individuals speak as democrats and hold government positions.” At the end of the meeting, President of VATRA, Elmi Berisha pledged his support: “I, with all of you, will stay committed to the cause of fighting for the martyrs of communism.”
The crimes of the ‘Red Terror’ have taken a significant toll on the members of VATRA for many generations. They are deeply embedded in VATRA’s long history of opposing communism and well-documented in Dielli. In May of last year, senior representatives of the Pan-Albanian Federation of America VATRA attended the annual commemorative service at the designated memorial site in Washington DC, to honor the memory of the victims of communism. I filed the report titled ‘We no longer wish to be victims of communism”. At the end of the virtual event on Thursday, it was proposed that the month of May be dedicated to the anticommunist martyrs. And there is a lot more to be done.