The cost of freedom in times of a pandemic. Reminiscences of Albania’s troubled history

An Albanian military tank patrols the streets of Tirana in order to assure the respect of the lockdown decided to combat the coronavirus outbreak

During my final year of high school, I went on exchange to China, to a school affiliated with Renmin University in Beijing. Italian students were to be hosted by their Chinese counterparts to experience their daily lives and vice versa. I recall my Albanian grandpa, who was at the time in the first stage of Alzheimer’s, brightening up on my computer screen during a Skype call before my departure. He made me promise I would deliver a letter to his Chinese ex-colleague who he had not seen in decades. Of course it was useless to remind him that the Chinese population counted billions of people and that his colleague’s last name was extremely common. And so I left for China with the impossible mission of finding Mr Wang, a mainland Chinese engineer my grandpa had worked with in a mining factory in the north of the country. 

After the end of World War II, Albania became officially known as the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania. For nearly fifty years, Enver Hoxha and the Party of Labour of Albania led the country through terror and propaganda. They established a Stalinist state administration and stressed on the importance of national unity and self-reliance. In fact, Hoxha’s main goal was that of “creating a modern independent country”. This meant imposing strict travel bans: leaving and entering Albania was equally difficult. Authorities had the right to execute Albanian citizens caught trying to scale the fences that sealed the country’s borders. Albania came to be known as the “North Korea of Europe”and Hoxha became the most zealous adherent of a form of Marxism-Leninism that left no space for political deviance. This meant that relations with other communist countries started to deteriorate. 

First, Albania broke off its ties with Yugoslavia in 1948: Tito was considered to be a threat to national unity and Hoxha feared that he wanted to incorporate Albania into Yugoslavia. Later, relationships with theSoviet Union were hampered by a visit of Khrushchev himself, who advised Hoxha to give up on his efforts to industrialize the country as it ought to be a “peasant country dedicated to subsistence agriculture”. This considerably offended Hoxha, and resulted in the breaking of official relationships with the Soviet Union in 1961. While Khrushchev famously denounced Stalin’s purges and tore down most of his statues at home, in Albania they were just being erected.

Knocking down of Enver Hoxha's statue in 1991.

Knocking down of Enver Hoxha’s statue in 1991.

After the divorce with the Soviets, an improbable marriage took place with the Chinese. According to sinologist Jon Halliday, this partnership was “one of the oddest phenomena of modern times: here were two states of vastly differing size, thousands of miles apart, with almost no cultural ties or knowledge of each other’s society, drawn together by a common hostility to the Soviet Union.” In short: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Nevertheless, sparks never really flew due to a lack of communication between the two newlyweds. Hoxha complained about the scarcity of official meetings and never accepted the fact that China did not ask for his opinion on matters that concerned his country. In his diaries, he described his attempts to decode both official statements and private communications of the Chinese to the Albanians. As expected of a frustrated wife and an annoyed husband tired of receiving criticism, the break-up took place soon enough. In 1979, Hoxha observed the Chinese rapprochement with the U.S. — for him a clear sign of imperialism and dereliction of socialist duty, and ended up cutting these ties too.

At last, Hoxha finally managed to completely isolate his country. Albania was left with neither friends nor real enemies. Rather, the small Stalinist country was simply ignored. And while the international community turned a blind eye to its destiny, the communist regime ramped up the zeal of its own private mission. The government implemented reforms which were aimed at modernizing Albania, and they resulted in significant gains in the areas of industry, agriculture, education, the arts, and culture, which contributed to a general increase in the standard of living. However, all these changes came at a high cost: severe political repression by the secret police, the Sigurimi, for the purposes of preventing a counter-revolution, which included dismissal from employment, imprisonment in forced labor camps, and executions.

The country declared itself the world’s first atheist country. As a result, 2169 religious buildings, among which 740 mosques, 608 Orthodox churches and monasteries, and 157 Catholic churches, were destroyed by communist authorities and almost all of the country’s 200 priests were either jailed or killed. Countless laypeople and practitioners faced arrest, torture, firing squads, concentration camps, and forced labor, while thousands of places of worship were demolished and re-purposed into movie theaters, gyms, and meeting halls. Hoxha, ordered the construction of 750.000 bunkers, an average of 5.7 bunkers per square kilometer. Their purpose was to defend the country for an alleged imminent invasion from foreign forces. According to the same logic, the civilian population was intensively militarized. with 800.000 people out of a population of about three million serving in the military in some capacity, ranging from the regular armed forces and reserves to civil defense and armed student youth units. Many sectors of the government, state-owned businesses, and the public service were also given roles in defense. From the age of three, Albanians were taught that they had to be “vigilant about the enemy within and without” and propaganda slogans constantly emphasized the need for watchfulness. 

Albanian Army soldiers sit atop their bunkers near the Albanian-Yugoslav border in Morina on Thursday, 3 June 1999. [EPA/ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS]

Albanian Army soldiers sit atop their bunkers near the Albanian-Yugoslav border in Morina on Thursday, 3 June 1999. [EPA/ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS]

While families were asked to habitually care for the maintenance of the closest bunker, Hoxha built a massive one in the capital for its elite of party officials: an underground bunker with 300 rooms, where jazz and soul was being played — music that was strictly prohibited to ordinary civilians. Durres, still the biggest port of the country, did not have fishermen, for the simple reason that having a boat meant a chance to reach Italy. Pointing your TV antenna to reach foreign frequencies could get you imprisoned. Citizens were constantly spied on, and secret agents were commonly referred to as “historians”, as, sure enough, they were able to rewrite the personal history of someone’s life through a simple accusation. The environment was so oppressive and poverty so widespread that it was not rare to see relatives denouncing each other. Suspicion infected people, along with the fear of spending life in a work camp for something as trivial as criticizing the food they had lined up for hours to receive. 

I returned from my trip to Beijing with an unaccomplished mission: I never found Mr Wang. However, I was ready to host a Chinese student for a while. What struck my mother, who spent her entire childhood and young adult years under the Albanian communist regime, was the similarity between our Chinese host’s behavior and that of her own younger self. The thirst for knowledge, mixed with the fear of being too curious or asking questions which you weren’t sure you could handle the answers to. It was at once diligence, shyness, and an indescribable portion of self-discipline. 

As we are dealing with the unprecedented challenge of the Coronavirus pandemic, what should worry people is not only the health issue, but also how much freedom we are ready to give up in times of emergency. China has managed to quarantine millions of people and today stands as one the first countries which, after leaving the health emergency behind for now, is poised to see its economy revamp (if a second wave of outbreaks can be avoided, that is). Unfortunately, few asked themselves whether this relative success came out of a genuine sense of civic duty or the blind obedience to which the Chinese people are accustomed to. It would be important to ask this question to doctor Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who tried to issue the first warning about the deadly coronavirus outbreak. Unfortunately, after he had sent out a warning to fellow medics on December 30 and the police had told him to stop “making false comments”, he died in Wuhan Central Hospital in early February. 

One of the several mourning posters dedicated to Doctor Li Wenliang

One of the several mourning posters dedicated to Doctor Li Wenliang

As the epicenter of the virus shifted to Europe, many countries are faced with the question of which kind of model to follow in coping with this situation. Italy has been torn between locking down the entire population as the Chinese did, and the willful acceptance of surveillance from the state as was the case in South Korea. Both strategies proved successful, but not enough people are asking themselves at what price. As Italians started to be locked inside their houses and the number of infections kept on rising, 200.842 people were denounced by other citizens for disobeying the stay-at-home order. The virus could have been a testing ground for civic duty, however it might have ended up becoming a training for spies. This is a painful reminder that each one of us can potentially transform into the well known “historians” we previously saw in Albania. It is also naive to think that once we give the state permission to access our data, we can easily revoke it again afterwards. 

A month ago, Nexhmije Hoxha, the wife of Enver Hoxha and considered by many as the mastermind of the regime, died. In one of her last interviews, when asked whether she felt any remorse for what she had done, she said “I feel pride. We created the Albanians, we made them.”

Maybe, the question we all need to reflect upon during this quarantine is whether the state makes its citizens or whether the citizens create the state. Freedom demands personal responsibility, and we cannot simply hand the responsibility for our lives to the state, even when our lack of civic duty might cost us that very same thing. 

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