A visit to Gjirokastër, the city that hides the ominous traces of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha9 min read

 In Blog, Culture, Southeastern Europe

The stone city is up there, high up, sprawling up a long and steep slope, leaving the new city down below. Down there is the commercial, routine area. It’s a dirty, dark, ugly neighbourhood, so typically post-Cold War Albanian that it seems to have never entirely shaken off the shadow of one of the most repressive communist regimes that ever existed. In between the old and the (not so) new, only one colour dominates: grey. The same light illuminates the boring square buildings below and the ancient stone houses above, the fortress, the twisted and narrow streets that reach the top of Gjirokastër. Everything is so grey that at first glance, there seems to be no difference. But the stone city, the old neighbourhood, is unique. One house stands out in particular, or at least it should. In Gjirokastër, about two hundred kilometres south of Tirana, the capital of Albania, Enver Hoxha was born, the dictator who guided the destinies of millions for over forty years and turned his country into an isolated and inaccessible prison. Although almost no one remembers him anymore.

The two faces of Gjirokastër

It’s summer, and the alleys of the stone city are full of tourists. There’s a festival, and concerts and numerous cultural activities are scattered throughout the completely saturated old neighbourhood. A band called Lynx plays the nationalist song Xhamadani Vija Vija, which calls for unity between Albania and Kosovo, and the singer interlaces his thumbs and extends his palms, forming with his hands the double-headed eagle that identifies the nation. The local audience roars in frenzy, applauding the display of patriotism, while foreign tourists look somewhat bewildered. Most probably they came to Gjirokastër to see those beautiful stone houses dating back to the 17th century, which have been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2005. However, the crowded area forces one to move away a bit and explore beyond the well-trodden path of mass tourism.

A view of Gjirokastër from the city's fortress. Photo courtesy of Xandie (Alexandra) Kuenning.

A few hundred metres away, there is an Ottoman house with three uneven floors, many chimneys, a heavy arched door, and dozens of small wooden windows. A sign in Albanian announces that it is the Ethnographic Museum of the city, where furniture and costumes are exhibited, that’s it. Until the visitor dares to open some restricted cabinet and comes across what Albania intends to hide: memories of its own past, the items that were displayed when Enver Hoxha’s childhood home was not just a furniture and costume exhibition but the leader’s museum. There are old photos of the Hoxha family, maps of partisan battles during World War II, books written by the dictator, and some personal items. Then, a serious lady approaches and abruptly closes the door of the restricted cabinet. As if delving into that past, into that stage of Albanian history, implied a punishment. Welcome, visitor. Appreciate our beautiful antique furniture and costumes. There’s nothing else to see here.

The interior of the Ethnographic Museum, formerly Enver Hoxha's house. Photo courtesy of Xandie (Alexandra) Kuenning
Following Hoxha’s hidden traces

Enver Hoxha was born into a wealthy family in 1908, when Albania was still part of the Ottoman Empire. At the age of 22, he obtained a state scholarship to study in France, where he came into contact with communist ideas and began to engage in various activities against the regime of Zog, who had been the president of the newly independent Albania since 1925 and king since 1928. Eventually, Hoxha’s proclamations led him to lose the scholarship, and he had to return to his country in 1936. Three years later, with World War II already advancing across the continent, Benito Mussolini’s Italy invaded, and Zog went into exile never to return. Hoxha then began participating in clandestine activities against the Italian regime, and in 1941, he became one of the leaders of the newly founded Communist Party of Albania. He slowly rose through the ranks, reaching the positions of Secretary-General and commander of the partisan brigades fighting against the invaders in 1943. Despite having no military training or experience, he came to command an army of seventy thousand men supported by Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslav partisans led by Marshal Josip Broz “Tito.” In November 1944, the partisans reclaimed Tirana, and Hoxha became the leader of a country that would soon adopt the communist system and change its name to the People’s Republic of Albania. It was the beginning of a regime that would last for almost half a century.

The fortress, a walled citadel constructed from the 12th century onwards, rises up at the top of the town, protecting and guarding it from up above. During Zog’s reign, it became a prison for dissidents and, ironically, Hoxha used it for exactly the same purpose. Today, this vast complex does not seem truly prepared for mass tourism. There are abandoned areas where vegetation covers external corridors, trash, vandalised signs, and a pile of disparate objects that seem to have little connection to each other or the fortress. There are a series of tombs from the Bektashi Islamic order, a large outdoor stage for folk festivals, and a dilapidated U.S. military aircraft supposedly a spy plane that, according to Hoxha’s regime, was shot down to protect the Albanians. The views from the top of the crumbling walls are spectacular, both towards the stone city and towards the fertile valley stretching out at the foot of the mountains. And, if you pay close attention, you might see some of the more than five hundred thousand bunkers built by Hoxha.

The summer stage located within the walls of Gjirokastër's fortress. Photo courtesy of Xandie (Alexandra) Kuenning

In 1961, Albania abandoned the Warsaw Pact alliance and approached Mao Zedong’s China. To gain the sympathy of the Eastern leader, Hoxha promoted atheism and, in 1967, declared all religious practices illegal, establishing the world’s first self-proclaimed atheist state. But relations ruptured with Mao’s death in 1976. Thus, amid the bipolar world of the Cold War, Albania went from neither being with the West nor the East to being an enemy of the entire planet. Hoxha then decided to use this isolation to strengthen his grip on power: if no country was an ally, potential dangers were constant.

Hubris and fear

Infusing fear was a way to unite citizens and an excuse to tighten repression within an economy increasingly affected by the lack of international support. Thus, hundreds of thousands of bunkers were constructed in the most absurd places, in the countryside and the city, on beaches and mountains, along roadsides and in cemeteries, to protect millions of Albanians from supposed potential invasions. Underneath the Gjirokastër fortress, a very long tunnel continues to traverse the mountain, where political leaders, Communist Party members, and, if extremely necessary, other inhabitants of the city would take refuge. Today, there are abandoned bunkers throughout the country, some have become attractions, tiny museums, shops, cafes, curious hotels, or have been worked on artistically.

What is left of the 1957 American "spy-plane," which now resides within the walls of the city fortress. Photo courtesy of Xandie (Alexandra) Kuenning

Finally, Hoxha died in 1985, almost without setting foot in his hometown again, and after the fall of communism six years later, the first democratic elections were held. Hoxha’s material legacy was quickly destroyed; no monuments or anything honouring the leader or his party remained. Looking to the past became increasingly difficult, as if the entire country had suffered a self-inflicted amnesia that prevented it from alluding to almost half a century of history. The repression of traumatic memories led to a foggy and vague vision that might be intended to be transmitted to the visitor: close the cabinet’s door, look at our beautiful antique furniture, enjoy our summer festival.

Remnants of a suppressed history

The internal hallways of the Gjirokastër fortress hide many surprises. From the National Armament Museum, part of the same complex, a narrow and dark corridor without signage leads to a wider one. On both sides, small cells that housed who knows how many enemies of the monarchy and communism follow each other. They are claustrophobic and damp spaces, dirty, completely forgotten, in some cases semi-ruined, with wooden doors on the verge of collapsing, as if no one cared to remember the stories of those who wandered through that purgatory. In Hoxha’s time, they were called the “Seven Windows,” because that was the number of openings visible from the city, downhill. “Be careful what you do because you might end up in the Seven Windows,” it was warned back then.

The interior of the Gjirokastër fortress. Photo courtesy of Xandie (Alexandra) Kuenning

In one of the darkest cells, hundreds of objects accumulate, victims of humidity and insects: heavy communist flags, diplomas crowned by the red star and the faces of Lenin, Stalin, and Hoxha, documents so corroded that colours and words are barely distinguishable. This time, there’s no serious lady obstructing access, just a gigantic pile of dirty objects that were once venerated and now are part of that distant past. From the Seven Windows, you can appreciate the centre of the stone city, with its tourists and its festival, with its enthusiasm that seems extraordinarily alien when seen from the cells that no one visits and the objects that no one claims. The remnants of a suppressed history are now just trash at the bottom of a restricted cabinet.

This article was originally published in Spanish on 24 November 2019 by Infobae.

Feature Image: Xandie (Alexandra) Kuenning / Canva
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