PHOTO: Bunkers in Albania bear witness to the past, alternative solutions are being sought

Remnants of Albania's communist past/Dermi/Photo: EPA/ARMANDO BABANI

In the last two years in particular, Albania has seen record growth in the number of foreign tourists visiting its Adriatic and Ionian coast. Apart from the beautiful sandy beaches, cheap food and accommodation, tourists are also fascinated by the historical legacy from the time of the communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who for decades kept the Albanian population in fear and isolated from its neighbors, under constant pressure that it would be attacked and had to defend itself. . Thousands of bunkers, scattered along the border, coastal and hilly landscapes of this neighboring country, remain silent monuments to Albania's post-war past.

The existence of bunkers is not new and throughout history and in the present there are also in the USA, Australia and other places.

Bunkers are defensive military fortifications designed to protect people and materials from shelling, artillery fire or other attacks. They are almost always underground or semi-underground and were mainly used in both World Wars and the Cold War. The Germans used the term Bunker and it has been adopted for use in other languages ​​as well.

In fact, the end of Hitler, that is, his death, is tied to the bunker. Namely, English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper in his 1947 book "The Last Days of Hitler" described Hitler's underground complex near the Reich Chancellery as "Hitler's own bunker", using the word bunker without quotation marks. There is a misconception that bunkers existed only in military conflict areas, but this is not the case because many underground hiding places and bunkers were built even after the Second World War, in peacetime conditions.

Albania is the leader in bunkers

But Albania is definitely the country leader in terms of the number of bunkers. They were built in the period from 1967 to 1986, when the neighboring country was ruled by Enver Hoxha under the pretext of protecting the population of Albania from possible attacks by enemies (existing and non-existent). But in reality it was a demonstration of Hoxha's military power, to the interior of the country.

Bunkers on the beach in Dermi, Photo: EPA/ARMANDO BABANI

According to the Greek author Stavros Tsimas, who has visited Albania many times, he noted in his 2010 book "In the Constellation of Nationalism" that Hoxha built 75.000 bunkers - machine gun nests.

According to other sources, there were at most 400.000 and these bunkers followed the border line of the country in three perimeter zones. Each city, depending on its size, had its own circles, as well as each pass or crossing.

Bunkers varied, depending on the weapons they stored, and stretched from the coast to hillsides and mountaintops. "Each of them cost as much as an apartment, at a time when Albanian society was facing an acute housing problem," sources claim.

If we take into account the data from Wikipedia, then there are 750.000 bunkers in Albania, but this number is unrealistic.

It is also an impressive fact that bunkers exist in the most unlikely places: on roads, beaches, on the lawns of hotel suburbs, even in cemeteries! However, if what is written on Wikipedia is correct, that there were 5,7 bunkers per square kilometer, the total number of bunkers in Albania, which has an area of ​​28.748 square kilometers, was about 164.000.

Different types of bunkers

Connoisseurs of this issue are amazed at the production and use of materials for the bunkers and how they were transported to hard-to-reach places. Bunkers were made of concrete, steel and iron and their sizes were different. There are bunkers for a few people, to large nuclear bomb shelters intended for use by the leadership of the Albanian Communist Party and senior officials. They were usually semi-subterranean and had openings for the use of weapons. They were flooded in winter and full of garbage in summer.

Bunkers in Cooks used by refugees from Kosovo in 1999/Photo: (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) EPA-PHOTO/EPA/ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS/STF/nie/so/ow

The construction of the bunkers was done by Hoxha's "bunkerization" "program", but they were never actually used. They consist of three main elements: a hemispherical concrete dome with a diameter of 3 meters with holes for the use of weapons, a hollow cylinder to support the dome and an outer wall with a radius of 60 cm.

Interestingly, these were finished products, made elsewhere and then transported by motor vehicles to their final locations. In any case, for the fragile and isolated economy of the poor country, their construction was an additional blow, because according to some estimates, the construction of one bunker cost as much as the construction of a two-room apartment, and 10 small bunkers as much as a kilometer of road. In the years when they were being built, about 70 to 100 people died during the construction, and due to the choice of locations, agricultural lands were threatened.

The whole planning of the bunkers was part of Enver Hoxha's psychosis that everyone sees Albania and wants to attack it. His politics are seen as an amalgam of hardline Stalinism with elements of Maoism.

The rise and retirement of Enver Hoxha

Enver Hoxha was an Albanian politician and leader of Albania from the end of World War II until his death in 1985, as the first secretary of the Albanian Workers' Party. He was the president of the Democratic Front of Albania and head of the Albanian armed forces from 1944 until his death.

From 1945 to 1948, Albania had close relations with Tito and Yugoslavia, until the exclusion of Yugoslavia from the Information Bureau, after which Albania became closer to the USSR and signed the Warsaw Pact in 1955. In 1947 Enver Hoxha allowed the USSR to create a naval base in the Walloon Gulf which caused anxiety in the West, especially in Italy, which felt a direct danger in the event of an East-West conflict with the Soviet presence in the Mediterranean. That's when the first attempts to remove Hoxha from power in Albania appeared.

Between 1947 and 1953, the American, British and Greek secret services drew up a plan that involved training Albanian rebels in camps in Malta and Lavrio and then dropping them by parachute into Albania to incite the population against Hoxha. The operation failed because double agent Kim Philby leaked their plans to Stalin, who then informed Hoxha. According to other sources, he received the information about the plan to overthrow Hoxha from the Vatican.

In 1960, Hoxha denounced Nikita Khrushchev's de-Stalinization policy and in December 1965 severed all relations with the former USSR. Tirana reached out to Maoist China, denouncing "Soviet revisionism". In 1967 Hoxha declared the nation the first and only officially atheist country in history. Partly inspired by the Chinese Cultural Revolution, he confiscated mosques, churches, monasteries and other religious buildings (Albanians were mainly Muslim and Catholic). Some of the buildings were destroyed and others were converted into workshops, warehouses, stables or cultural institutions, such as cinemas. It was forbidden to give children religious names, and anyone caught with a Koran, Bible, icon or similar religious object could be imprisoned.

Albanian army near the bunkers on the Albanian-Yugoslavian border / Photo: EPA/SRDJAN SUKI

In September 1968, Albania withdrew from the Warsaw Pact and condemned both the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia and the "Prague Spring".

In 1975, Albania was the only country absent from the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in Helsinki. In 1976, Hoxha also began to distance himself from China, with which there was a definitive break in July 1978. Thus, it became the only country in the history of the 20th century to find itself in an absolute state of isolation.

In December 1981, the suicide of Prime Minister Mehmet Sehu was announced, whom Hoxha later accused of being a "foreign intelligence agent". On April 11, 1985, Enver Hoxha died at the age of 76 and was succeeded by his favorite associate Ramiz Ali who led a more open policy and Albania left the one-party system in 1990.

In 1991, he was elected president of Albania in the first free elections in Albanian history. On April 3, 1992, he resigned from his post and on April 9, 1992, the Albanian parliament elected Sali Berisha, who today, at 79, is the leader of the Democratic Party of Albania.

Checking bunkers by firing

While the bunkers were being built, Hoxha wanted to make sure of their safety and efficiency, so various endurance tests were performed. Namely, on one occasion, a goat was placed in a bunker, after which it was fired upon intensively with various weapons. The goat was found dead inside.

- Then the Minister of Defense of Albania ordered the initiator and designer of the bunkers, who was the chief of the army, to take the place of the animal himself! The terrified chief obeyed. The bunker was bombarded by Artillery with large-caliber shells, but remained unharmed. The general emerged from the bunker bruised but alive. The Hoxha regime, of course, publicized the incident to strengthen the sense of security among the Albanian people, writes Stavros Tsimas.

The bunkers mainly functioned as a mechanism of terror and political manipulation of the citizens, and that was perhaps the most important thing for Hoxha's system of power. Exercises and training with weapons were also held for the citizens.

Members of the Albanian army next to bunkers in Morina/Photo: EPA/ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS

-Three times a year men and women took up positions with weapons in the bunkers, undergoing mandatory military training. They learned to handle and use Kalashnikovs and bazookas, throw grenades, make night patrols and raids, organize virtual sabotage, etc. Even in the vineyards and other cultivated areas, sharp iron constructions were placed that would neutralize the foreign paratroopers who would fall, in the event of an attack on Albania, on them, Cimas states in the book "On the Constellation of Nationalism".

The bunkers remained after the fall of the regime

It seems strange, but the bunkers, although never used during the Hoxha and Ali years, were "exploited" in the 90s on two occasions. Namely, during the uprising due to the collapse of a series of pyramid schemes and corruption in 1997, the inhabitants of Saranda were locked in bunkers due to the fighting between the Albanian army and the rebel crowd! Also, during the war in Kosovo, Albanian residents from the border villages with Serbia used the bunkers to protect themselves from Serbian shelling.

In 2004, Albanian authorities discovered a forgotten cache of 16 tons of mustard gas and other chemical weapons in a bunker just 40 kilometers outside Tirana. Albania received 20 million dollars from the United States for the destruction of weapons. The Albanian military removed some bunkers from the country's coast by towing them with modified Type-59 tanks.

However, the vast majority of bunkers still remain in place, especially in hard-to-reach areas where it is economically unviable and practically impossible to remove them. Many of them were converted into bachillas, but also into warehouses, cafes and even country houses, especially in the coastal areas. One, at the entrance to the town of Gjirokastro, was converted into an Orthodox Christian chapel.

Of course, from time to time proposals were made for other uses of the bunkers, which have now turned into a national symbol of Albania and a memory of an authoritarian regime.

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