The message of survivors of the Spac and Qafe Bar prisoners at the Victims of Communism Memorial/
BY RAFAELA PRIFTI
To honor the memory of the victims of communism, senior representatives of the Pan-Albanian Federation of America Vatra attended a commemorative service at the designated memorial site in Washington DC. The Albanian-American activists in the US organized the event in collaboration with the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in memory of two prison uprisings in Spaç and Qafe Bari. More than thirty years later, the survivors of the riots that occurred on this day eleven years apart and crushed with barbarism by the forces of the regime had a strong message for the leading class, the institutions and the civil society of Albania: Standing with the survivors in remembering the victims and denouncing the crimes of communism is a step towards healing. The address of the key-note speaker at the ceremony, Pellumb Lamaj, a symbol of anticommunist resistance, was echoed by a number of survivors who attended the service like Mustafa Xhepa, Naim Staravecka, Marko Gjoni, Mark Mernacaj and Visar Zhiti, whose remarks were read at the ceremony. “Paying homage to the victims of communism including a number of Vatra members is an honorable act,” said the President of Vatra Federation, Dritan Mishto. He acknowledged that remembering them is as important as recognizing the destructive nature of the communist doctrine. The event serves as a reminder of the larger issue of inadequate social prominence for crimes of communism and the present attitude towards the perpetrators of the crimes.
“I am honored to be able to join you in commemorating the victims of Albanian communism,” said Dr. Murray Bessette, Director of Academic Programs at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. He opened the ceremony with a brief history of the site and the birth of the agency that was mandated at the end of 1993 with by-partisan support. “All the voluntary agencies teamed up to dedicate a memorial to anti-communism. The Memorial of the Victims of Communism is the site that connects all forty countries in which the sad experiment of socialism has been tried, in the roll call of nations. The event started in 2007 and this year will be held on June 14,” said Dr. Bessette. He thanked Vatra for laying a wreath with the Memorial Foundation.
Pellumb Lamaj, the key-note speaker addressed the guests and commemorators with a detailed account of the prison riots and send a message to the current political class that has handled poorly the issue of former political prisoners. He reminded everyone that the ceremony honored all the victims and martyrs of anticommunism of all the Albanian lands. As a survivor of the revolt and imprisonment, Pellumb Lamaj recounted: “On May 21, 1973, the first anticommunist uprising took place at the Spaç prison. It send shock waves to the Bolshevik Tirana government. The Western world would call the insurgents the first voices of freedom and sadly it turned its back on them. The revolt exploded like a volcano from a hellhole of the red hyenas where extreme conditions, hard labor, and physical tortures brought the uprising of the prisoners who raised the Albanian flag with the national symbol of the double headed eagle and ripped out the communist star, that had been imposed by communist Russia. The camp was taken over for three days. Left without food and water, surrounded by large numbers of police and security, the prisoners surrendered. Terror and barbarism were unleashed on them. Within twenty four hours, four inmates were sentenced to death Ajri Pashaj, Dervish Bejko, Skender Daja and Pal Zefi. Some hundred and ten prisoners received 25 years sentences. From that day onward, the Spaç camp was placed under the tightest grip of the Slavic communists’ terror. In 1979, the Tirana authorities arrested Xhelal Koprencka and two journalists Vangjel Lezho and Fadil Kokomani, who were handed death sentences for sending a letter to the government to change its course. The Qafe Bari prison revolt on May 21, 1984 is the epilogue of the Spaç riots that resulted in hard physical labor. It is worth-noting that there was no Albanian legislation that officially sanctioned physical labor. The revolt of the prisoners was crushed by a large number of police and army who used brutal force and wounded several inmates. Among those arrests were Sokol Sokoli and Pellumb Ndoja who were massacred and killed.” The speaker called upon “Albania’s political class, institutions and the civil society, if there is one presently, the student movement, to know the past crimes of communism because there comes a day when they return in our midst. More than thirty years later, the sad reality of today is that the ones who have blood on their hands not only are revictimizing their victims, they go as far as to place the blame on us. You are all aware of the recent case between the assailant and the assaulted, the perpetrator and the victim. The message we are sending to the neo-communist class in Albania and Albanians everywhere is to Denounce and Condemn the Crimes of Communism.”
The President of Vatra Federation, Dritan Mishto, Member of Executive Council, Zef Balaj, Dalip Greca, Editor in Chief of Dielli and Rafaela Prifti, the English Language Editor joined Merita Mccormack and Cezar Ndreu, Members of Vatra’s General Council and co-organizers of the event at the site of the Memorial. In his remarks, Vatra’s Chairman said: “On behalf of the Pan-Albanian Federation of America Vatra, we are here to honor the memory of the victims of Communism at this Memorial, among them the names of some Vatra’s officials and editors of Dielli. For the post-communist generations is important to remember the crimes of the regime. Equally important is to acknowledge that communism was a destructive doctrine. As Doctor Bessette stated, the Foundation is comprised of Republicans and Democrats and standing up to the crimes of communism is a bipartisan issue in Washington DC,” said Vatra’s President Dritan Mishto. He noted that “the entire Albanian society needs to distance itself from the past in order to have a clear glimpse of the future.” He concluded his remarks by thanking the organizers: “It is with the deepest respect and gratitude that I thank the representatives of the Memorial Foundation, the hosts of the ceremony and the organizers Pellumb Lamaj, Mustafa Xhepa of the Albanian American Freedom House. Thank You!”
Mustafa Xhepa of the Albanian American Freedom House delivered his address with an appreciation for taking part in the commemorating ceremony dedicated to the fallen, the martyrs, and the survivors of communism. “The site of the memorial stands as a symbol of resistance and hope dedicated to the students’ riots crushed by the tanks of the communist monster on the Tiananmen Square. The dream of freedom did not die and the fight continues today. Decades earlier, the Albanian martyrs in the Spaç and Qafe Bari prisons, fenced in by barbed wire, armed police and military forces organized the two most memorable insurgencies in the prisons of the evil red empire. They freed the eagle on the Albanian flag from the dictatorship star and laid the foundation of a dream. A terrified regime responded with executions and longer sentences in a desperate bid to quench the flames of freedom. We bow respectfully to the revolts that shine brightly in the history of our nation.” In ending Mr. Xhepa said that this tribune of freedom is a fitting place to call upon the justice system to decry the massacres on the prisoners and to hold accountable the communist criminals responsible for the deplorable acts. The heroism of the fallen will be honored forever!”
The remarks of Lek Mirakaj were concise and profound. His message related that Albanians are a good people but not a happy people. “Often time in our history we needed heroes such as Mic Sokoli, Adem Jashari and many more. A happy people have no need for heroes.” Lek Mirakaj stated that the gathering honors the victims whether the present day government likes it or not
Speaking as a survivor of imprisonment in the former-Yugoslavia, Shaqir Salihu said that the plight of the political prisoners of the regime inside Albania was similar to the suffering of the Kosova Albanians in Serbian Prisons. “There is hardly an Albanian family that has not been affected or did not have a member jailed by the regime in a prison like Nish, Pozarevac, Sremska etc. In 1966 I was arrested and detained by the Rankovic security forces, and later subjected to torture,” said Shaqir Salihu.
Survivor Naim Staravecka compared the ruthless regime of communist Albania with North Korea’s. “The sacrifices for freedom were unfortunate what is more unfortunate is that they are being forgotten by the authorities,” indicated the speaker. “It was to be expected! The political prisoners opposed the system that was intended to be handed down by the communists to their heirs, and that is precisely what happened. The victims of the past regime have not seen justice! I have been asked by several TV outlets to give interviews and I have turned down all requests. I no longer want to remain a victim! We were victims of one regime that used us. Our social aspirations have not been achieved. Today we can only remember the sons of Albania who were persecuted, the ones who laid down their lives and the ones who survived to tell their stories in the name of freedom,” concluded Naim Staravecka.
The remarks of Marko Gjoni started with his personal story. He delivered a sharp criticism to the present day society. “I am one of the pioneers of the prisoners of conscience. At 15 years of age, I was arrested and served time for attempting to flee Albania. In the public opinion, the fallen and the victimized by the past regime are regarded as perpetrators. How could this happen?” he asked. “By driving a wedge in among former prisoners and fueling discord,” he answered. “I appeal to the organizations here to establish a court to determine the claims such as whether Enver Hoxha was a criminal or not. There has not been a public court to adjudicate the crimes committed by Enver Hoxha. Today when one talks about one’s experience to the generation that knows no such suffering nor pain, one is met with dismay and disbelief. The facts of the past are silenced yet the suffering was real for all of them who lived under the same oppressing system, although some suffered more than others. The point is the Public Support should be on our side! The people should stand united against the crimes of communism!”
In the message that former political prisoner of Spaç and Qafe Bar, Visar Zhiti has sent to the ceremony it was stated that the revolts in two prisons were the only uprisings against the dictatorship in all of the prisons in communist Albania. “The prisoners rebelled against the brutal violence inside the prison/camp but also against the isolation of the country, seeking freedom and dreaming of a democratic Albania.” …”To remember the revolts means to honor the spirit that preceded the democratic changes in Albania, the protests that laid the foundation of the future movement for democracy. This is forgotten today. The forgetfulness benefits those who perpetrated and committed the crimes. What’s worse there are frightening signs of a comeback from the same supporters of the dictatorship and their successors, who having amassed wealth and positions, feel emboldened to persecute the subjects of their persecutions with deceptive practices,” noted Visar Zhiti. He greeted the ceremony that offers hope to the sufferers and disapproves of the present situation.
The next speaker Mark Mernacaj said that attending is an honor as an act that remembers the victims and also commemorates their legacy. “Acknowledgement of the suffering inflicted upon the opponents of the regime and their families at the hands of the persecutors is the first step towards the reconciliation and healing. It is incumbent upon me to share and remember the story of my family who was persecuted from 1948 to 1989.”
The last item of the agenda was delivered by Vatra’s Council Member, Merita Mccormack, and one of the organizers of the event. She read the poem of Pellumb Lamaj written in the Spaç prison in 1979 dedicated to the symbol of freedom, The Statue of Liberty.