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Bos/Hrv/SrpShqipМакедонски 03 Dec 10

Albania’s Stalinist Bunkers Gain New Lease Of Life

From beach restaurants to mini-hostels, the hundreds of thousands of bunkers built by Albania’s communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, are being given new roles.

Elira Çanga

On the seaside of the port of Durres, on Albania’s Adriatic coast, Syrja Demiri deep-fries fresh fish inside a restaurant kitchen reinforced in concrete and steel.

His customers sit outside and wait for the plates to come out of the window of the converted bunker, once built by the Albanian army to house a 160mm coastal artillery cannon.

“It all started with the need to build a small restaurant on the means that we had at our disposal,” Syrja explains, concerning his eclectic but simple venue. “We couldn’t move the bunker, so we thought that we might as well use it to attract customers.”

From 1960 until 1985, Albania’s Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, ordered the construction of 750,000 such bunkers out of a paranoid fear that a NATO invasion was eminent.

Now itself a NATO member, Albania has little military use for the bunkers. But experts believe they should be preserved and even promoted for the benefit of tourists interested in the country’s Communist legacy.

“The idea was born out of a desire to protect the legacy of a bygone era - to keep it for future historians who will want to study this period,” Ols Lafe, director of cultural heritage in the ministry of culture, explained. 

Although most of the mushroom-shaped bunkers are small, designed to house only one or two infantrymen, some have underground galleries that stretch for hundreds of metres.

One of these mega-bunkers sits just outside Tirana, in the village of Linza. Comprising 8,000 tons of concrete and 4,000 of steel, it was designed to withstand a nuclear blast and protect the Communist Party politburo in case of war.

When Albania’s ex-president, Alfred Moisiu, himself an ex-general, proposed to convert bunkers into nurseries for mushrooms a few years back - mushrooms are cultivated in the dark - the proposal met hilarity. But the idea of doing something useful with the bunkers has gained ground steadily since then.

Although some larger bunkers can be transformed into almost anything, from restaurants to small bed-and-breakfasts, converting the smaller pillboxes, which are also more widespread, is a bigger challenge.

Because they are mostly concentrated in groups, two young Albanian architects at the Polytechnic University of Milan have proposed transforming them into small shelters, eventually creating a network of eco-camps on beaches and mountain hiking trails.

Albanians who have coexisted for decades with the bunkers, which they were forced to build, seldom see much value in them and hardly notice their existence, as they have become part of the landscape.

However, to many foreigners they are symbolic of the country’s isolation and of the brutal communist regime that ruled Albania for half-a-century.

“Tourists are amazed by their sheer numbers, especially in coastal areas,” explains Stavri Cifligu, owner of Albanian Experience, an agency that specializes in what are termed “Socialist tours”, or guided tours of bunkers.

“It was foreign tourists that advanced the idea of creating these tours,” said Cifligu, who organizes visits to various sites.

While some associations of former political prisoners have expressed concern over the idea of granting the bunkers special status, experts maintain that protecting them will preserve the memory of the sacrifice made to build them for future generations.

Maks Velo, an architect and painter jailed in 1978 for eight years for “modernist tendencies” in his artwork, says that although the bunkers hold painful memories, they bear witness to the country’s tragic past and merit protection.

“If the bunkers were destroyed, the country would lose a [living] testimony to the darkest period in Albania’s history,” he says. “We would be making the same mistake as the dictator [Enver Hoxha], who destroyed all monuments that did not fit his taste,” Velo added.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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