In an ordinary-looking building in the centre of Shkoder, in the north of Albania, close to the border with Montenegro, a small museum hosts the memories of the victims of one of Eastern Europe’s most brutal regimes.
Even if visitors cannot immediately imagine what terrible things happened inside the local headquarters of the Communist-era Ministry of Interior for almost half a century, they soon find themselves immersed in a world of suffering and politically motivated torture and murder.
The local communists immediately erased all traces of the activities of the former Franciscan-run “Illyricum” gymnasium after a government decision on March 6, 1946, handed the building over to the security services.
“Shkoder suffered very much in the first years of communism, especially from 1956 to 1960, when the city was like a communist prison,” the historian and curator of the Site of Witness and Memory Museum, Pjerin Mirdita, told BIRN.
The communists at one times operated no less than 23 prisons in Shkoder, a city with a large Catholic population where communists struggled to gain control during and after the last years of World War II.
Tens of thousands of Albanians were sent to labour camps for political reasons under the communist regime, and at least 6,000 people were executed, most experts believe.
“During these years, opposition to the communists was still high in Shkoder, maybe not directly against the state, but kept alive inside in people’s hearts and minds,” Mirdita says.
Mirdita says the former Catholic school operated as an interrogation centre and torture chamber.
“First, they [the prisoners] stayed here for the interrogation period, when they suffered physical and psychological torture. After they were sentenced, they were then sent to other prisons around the country,” he explains.
Red-painted corridor symbolizes suffering:
The interior of the Site of Witness and Memory museum is separated into two parts, divided by a red-painted corridor, which symbols the often bloody torments of the people sent to the interrogations room, the darkest room in the building.
The entrance hall hosts a photography exhibition about the victims, with dates and posters, and a small video room. The second area hosts another exhibition room and the inmates’ cells together with the interrogation room.
On both sides of the corridor, 23 cells face each other. In these tiny cells, each measuring less than four square meters, and nicknamed “biruca” [“holes”], the prisoners were kept before and during the interrogation process.
Some of their writings on the walls have been preserved, together with contemporary propagandistic Communist newspapers, which cover the walls of the cells.
At the end of the hall, the big, dark, cold interrogation chamber gives anyone who passes that door the chills, even now.
An electrified pole and some barbed wire lie in one corner of the room, while the figure of an interrogation officer with a typewriter sit in the other. The high-voltage instruments once used to torture the inmates both psychically and mentally lie on another table in the chamber.
“Twice a day, for two hours, prisoners were forced to read books by [communist dictator-for-life] Enver Hoxha. They were beaten regularly as well,” Mirdita explains.
Hoxha ruled Albania with an iron fist from 1946 to 1992, still modeling himself on Stalin long after Stalinism was discredited elsewhere in the Eastern bloc. Fearing the West and its neighbours, Hoxha completely isolated his country from the outside world, following his own Soviet-inspired recipe for the country’s development.
The “re-education” of the prisoners in Shkoder would then continue in the labour camps, to which many of them were sent. Many never returned.
“They had to work in the mines in shifts, every eight hours. It was like the gulags in Russia during the times of Lenin or Stalin,” Mirdita adds.
Country still haunted by the past:
Like many other countries who landed on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain after World War II, the crimes of the communist era still haunt Albania, which today is knocking on the European Union’s doors, after being welcomed into NATO in 2009.
The memory of the tens of thousands of political victims of the former regime is kept alive in places like the Site of Witness and Memory in Shkoder.
Members of the public and tourists who visit the museum can watch short movies in the audio-visual room. In the library, they can also read books about the Communist regime in Albania, as well as literature actually written in and on the prison.
“We have a library that is open to the public, so everybody can come here to study or to read, or just spend some of their free time,” the historian and museum guide told BIRN.
Schoolteachers bring their pupils to learn about the country’s traumatic past, not just to educate them about the past, but also to make sure that such horrors remain in the past – and are not repeated.
“We have a lot of school pupils who come here as well as history teachers. They get to see the place, and touch with their hands and feel how hard the regime was for the people,” Mirdita says.
Interested students can even meet some of the surviving ex-political prisoners, talk to them and “share the history with them”.
Mirdita says religious faith was key to the survival of many people in this troubled region, where the communists battled anti-communist rebels for years after World War II in the mountains.
The Hoxha regime went further than the Soviet Union in 1967, when it outlawed all religion and proclaimed Albania the first atheist state in the world.
But Mirdita says many people in Shkoder kept their faith. “Religion survived here in the people’s homes,” he says, noting that the city remained, and remains, home to all three main faiths in the country – Catholicism, Islam and Orthodox Christianity.