Saturday, November 28, 2015

Albania revisited ... and other places - part eleven

I’m on a thirty minute hydrofoil trip from Corfu to a small city in southern Albania. For the first time in years, I am coming back. Today I’ll retrace just a few steps in what was once a true journey into darkness.

Taken in Albania in the 1980s, this is a statue of Stalin. Thirty years after his death, denounced by the rest of the Communist world, he was opposite my hotel, still revered in Albania’s capital.
Europe’s most isolated and backward country, Albania was, arguably, it’s most oppressive Communist dictatorship,  a strange land detached from reality. 
I was thought to have been the first Western television reporter in Albania. I won’t retell my scoop, but will post some of my old pictures, faded images of the tragically curious place Albania was.

Overlooking the capital, Tirana, this was the grave of Enver Hoxha, Albania’s dictator from 1945 to 1986. 

I am happy to say that Hoxha’s remains have since been shifted to a relatively anonymous plot in the main city cemetery.

The words ‘Party of Enver’ atop some grim flats reflect Hoxha’s personality cult, rivalling that of Stalin.

More of the same.

‘Glory to Marxism-Leninism’.

Two pictures taken in Tirana’s main square. They show the Palace of Culture with the slogan ‘Glory to the Workers’ Party of Albania’. 
In 1967, Albania became the ‘world’s first atheist state’. Religion was banned. Priests and imams were murdered or imprisoned. The minaret to the Palace of Culture’s right became part of a museum. 

A weekday and Tirana’s one street light.

Following the regime’s well-deserved collapse (a year after the rest of Eastern Europe), I returned. My pose atop a bunker would have been formerly impossible. Such had been the paranoia that more than half-a-million shoddy bunkers may have been built.

Bunkers built on sand …

… and defending a little amusement park. 
Those were uneasy months (I once fell asleep to distant gunfire) as Albanians emerged blinking into a world they hardly knew. I was one of the few foreigners to witness the extraordinary transition.

One (not very good) picture and memory stand out. Near what had been Tirana’s ‘Enver Hoxha University’, some graffiti - SONY. I suspect for one young person hopes of a suddenly very different future were summed up in that word. Freedom (whatever that was) meant SONY. I often wonder who the person was and whether SONY lived up to his or her dreams.

In an odd way, I became rather fond of poor old Albania and returned twice in the 1990s. I don’t smoke and Albanian wine, at least then, wasn’t particularly good. But I was drunk and the conversation riveting as, absent secret police, Albanians’ pent-up thoughts spilled out. Some, I suspect, spoke more truthfully to a foreigner than to fellow citizens with whom they had suffered or perhaps committed crimes, if only the crime of collaboration.
To allow the reader a break, I will continue my day in Albania in the next post.