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Thursday, October 6, 2016

9/28: Bunker Love in Tirana, Albania

Earlier today, we had walked around most of the sights in central Tirana. In the early afternoon, we decided to visit Bunk'art, a massive underground nuclear bunker. We had never heard of it before coming to Tirana until we were told about it in the hostel and again by Gazi, our walking tour guide last night. I had done a lot of research on each city on our entire itinerary but, sadly and surprisingly, recent travel information on Albania had been nonexistent. I say surprisingly because there are a number of UNESCO sights in the country which is trying mightily to attract more foreign tourists.

The place wasn't easy to find but we had good directions fron the hostel. After getting on the correct city bus (luckily it had a sign in the windshield with Bunk'art and another destination listed), we made sure to tell the driver we wanted to go to Bunk'Art so we'd know where to get off. Once again that didn't work as planned as both the driver and onboard ticket seller got preoccupied with other matters! We were fortunate that a local woman told us the correct spot as otherwise we would have gone to the end of the line as we had in Salona, near Split in Croatia! From the stop, it was a good 15 minute climb uphill to this tunnel, our first glimpse of what we were about to see and experience.
The coolness of the tunnel was a welcome relief to the heat of the day. Just before we entered it, a mototcycle had come roaring out of it; we sure hoped we wouldn't encounter any more once inside the fairly narrow passageway.
The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel led us to a courtyard and then another ten minute walk to the actual entrance.

I think it was encouraging to read that Bunk'art was linked to an emergency generator in case of a temporary blackout and that we were 'invited to remain calm as staff will be at your disposal to offer any necessary assistance.' That sounded all well and good in theory but, in our almost two hour visit through the bunker's five levels, we never saw one staff member!

According to the very informative sign panels in both Albanian and English, the tunnel was built with concrete and had an oval exterior shape like all the bunkers. The 'roof' was covered by a layer of 'thick ground' up to 100 meters! The inside was built with cement blocks.

The concrete wall:
These four windows with holes near the entrance represented a very important safety valve as they aimed to protect the bunker's ventialtion system in case of an 'enemy explosion.'
The bunker was protected by two entrance gates within which was a steel layer and three air-locked steel doors. The first two were designed to withstand explosions and the others to prevent the penetration of chemical or radioactive agents into the fortification.

We felt like we entering a submarine after seeing way too many movies of massive doors and similar looking underground passagways! All I can say is thank goodness neither of us suffered from claustrophobia as this would not have been the place to be for a couple of hours!

Enver Hoxha's Offices: Since Hoxha was the 'Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces' when the tunnel was built from 1972 until 1978, these rooms were the largest and designed to be the most luxurious although that is a relative term at best in this case. We listened to a recording of Hoxha talking to a session of Parliament while he was the Prime Minister.

Only his rooms were decorated with a fiber covering on the walls which was considered to be the height of fashion at that time! Only Hoxha and his top commanders had carpeting in their rooms. He and his wife never slept in the bunker although he participated in military drills there after it was inaugurated in June of 1978.
We watched an original audio and video showing the military parade held in the center of Tirana on 11/29/1980 for the 36th anniversary of the country's liberation. 

This was the last parade attended by the Prime Minister Mehmet Shehu, on the left below next to Hoxha. Shehu had been Hoxha's right hand man for 36 years. One year later he committted suicide under mysterious circumstances after being accused of treason by Hoxha.
One of the few existing photos showing Hoxha visiting the bunker on its opening day in 1968.
A considerable number of the rooms in the bunker then dealt with Albanian history beginning with the invasion and subsequent occupation of the country by the Italians beginning in 1938 and ending in 1943. The most active resistance began with students and intellectuals. Later, armed resistance against the Italian occupation became more organized and several factions worked together on their common goal to oust the invaders.

A view of the liberation of Berat (our next stop in Albania) in June, 1943 from 'fascist Italy.' In September of 1943, Italy capitulated but the German army took its place in Albania.
Diplomacy during the war: Unlike its Balkan neighbors, no Albanian government was recognized in exile. As a result, it was not invited to sign the UN Declaration in January of 1942 which was based on the principles of the Atlantic Charter. However, foreign ministers from the US, Britain and the USSR stated that they recognized Albanian resistance against foreign invaders and were committed to Albanian independence after the war. American. Soviet and Yugoslav military missions arrived in 1944. At the end of the war, the US, Britain and the USSR recognized Hoxha's government but the US and Britain conditioned it with free and democratic elections.
The bunker's Commuications Room included a photo of Hoxha in the room calling subordinates.
With the end of WWII, the world was divided into blocks separated by walls. The Berlin Wall was only the most famous wall. After the liberation,  the wall in Albania was not stones or concrete but barbed wire. I found the following commentary to be very telling: 'This barbed wire wall, like the stone one, also collected stories of those who tried or dreamt of trying to cross it.'

The artistic installation of the Barbed Wire Wall, complete with audio of ferocious dogs barking and gunfire, was all too realistic.
The dark side of the regime from 1945-1990: According to information that was presented, the Communist regime that was installed immediately after the liberation was based on the dictatorship of the proletariat and class stuggle. Like all regimes, Hoxha relied on the use of propaganda to glorify the achievements of the regime, to justify his policies and especially to raise the cult of the Communist leaders, particularly himself.

The use of violence was critical in his regime. Laws were passed that violated any individual's rights and prisons and concentration camps were scattered across the country.
Courts were created in 1945 to judge the collaborators of the invaders. Simultaneously, a wide campaign was begun to suppress all opposing groups and every political adversary. The campaign against religious beliefs and practices launched in 1967, was evidence showing the need for extreme political and social uniformity of the regime.

The War Criminal Spectator Trial was held in March of 1945 in a Tirana movie theater. Sixty people were accused of cooperating with either the German or Italian invaders: 17 were sentenced to death, 41 were imprisoned from 2-102 years and only 2 were declared innocent. As I mentioned in the previous post, 1 in every 100 people was imprisoned during the dictator's rule.
The Campaign Against Illiteracy: According to a census in 1945, in a population of 1.1 million people, the number of illiterates was a staggering 81.22%! That absolutely blew my mind. 
(Writing on 10/6/16: In our ten days here in Albania, Steven and I have noticed that a number of older Albanians we have come across still have difficulty with numbers and making correct change, etc. Just two days ago for example, I asked an older woman in an open air market the price and she said and wrote down '500 lek' on my sheet of paper at which point I gestured I didn't want the item. She immediately took out '50 lek' indicating that was the figure. It was not a matter of bargaining but solely a misunderstanding or ignorance of the numbers on her part.)
The initial campaign against illiteracy was voluntary but in 1949, a law was passed that required people up to the age of 40 to learn the basics of literacy. Albania declared in 1955 that they had 'liquidated' illiteracy up to age 40, but archival data proved this was not the case. There continued to be the push for literacy but it was no longer a campaign.
The Program of Bunkerization of Albania was operational from 1975 until 1983. During that period, 221,143 bunkers were planned to be built but 'only' 173,371 bunkers were actually built, about 1 for every 11 residents. 

According to the Lonely Planet travel guide, these little mushrooms weighed in at five tons of concrete and iron and were almost impossible to destroy. This was proved by their chief engineer, who vouched for his creation by standing inside one while it was bombarded by a tank! The shell-shocked engineer emerged unscathed.
During the period of construction which averaged 21,000 bunkers per year, hundreds of soldiers and civilians died due to accidents on the job. I found this statement from the exhibition very poignant: 'They are among the victims of Comunism that are forgotten today.' The exhibit below was in honor of all the prisoners, miners and soldiers who died digging tunnels in the mountains.
The technical drawing of this bunker and the maps were prepared from 1974-1976. They were only declassified in 2014 when the bunker was temporarily opened.
Throughout our roughly two hours visiting Bunk'art, we must have seen 100 of these signs indicating the Assemby Hall. If we didn't see that many, it sure felt like we did!
After all that buildup and anticipation, it was somewhat anti-climactic seeing it. This was the biggest hall in the bunker and it was meant to host Assembly and government meetings in case of war. When the bunker was built from 1972-1978, there were 250 Members of Parliament and 15 government ministers. Depending on who to believe, the idea for the bunker came from either Hoxha's visit or a visit from the Ministry of Defense delegation to North Korea in 1964.

The bunker was built between 1972 and 1978 was never used in war conditions but only for miltary exercises. In 1997 during the the revolution following the collapse of the Ponzi scam, even this fortress, like many other military bases was attacked and looted by protesters. It was partially repaired and reopened for military exercises until 1999. A large 3D map of Albania was put up in this empty parliamentary chamber for senior officers to simulate fighting between friendly and enemy forces. The bunker remain closed until 2014 when it was temporarily opened for the 70th anniversary of the liberation. It just reopened in April of this year to the public as a permanent exhibition.

I am sure the cutely decorated bunkers on the stage were not meant to offend but I took offense to what I perceived as their trivializing a very dark time in the country's history. 
Bunk'art was an immense and interesting structure that took us back to the time of the communist dictatorship. Considering the nation has been 'free' for such a short period of time, I found it quite startling that there was such a frank assessment of Enver Hoxha's brutal regime.

Posted from Saranda, Albania on October 6th, 2016.

1 comment:

  1. I really am so jealous!!! Lived the comment about the generator and the staff or lack of them


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