Swimming to Corfu: On the coast of Albania, under Hoxha's heel, Dimitri's Greek community knew hunger and repression. A few kilometres across the sea, past the mines and Communist patrols, lay the freedom he had to reach. Leonard Doyle reports

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Corfu is so close to the Albanian shore at one point that on clear, quiet evenings voices carry across the channel and the headlights of cars can be seen picking their way through the darkness. From impoverished and backward Albania, still emerging from the trauma of Communism, the Greek island appears to float magically on the sea.

To Dimitri Gkoumas, growing up in a Greek-speaking community on the Ionian coast of Albania, it seemed the shimmering expanse of water was all that separated him from freedom. But the short stretch of water - only three-quarters of a mile across at its narrowest - was as treacherous a barrier between East and West as the Berlin wall or the thousands of kilometres of electrified fence elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Yet, like countless young Albanians before him, Dimitri decided to swim across to Corfu and freedom.

Until the fall of the Communists in 1990, the Albanian gulag was the most repressive and cruel of the Communist world. For more than 40 years this small Balkan country with a population just over 3 million was sealed off from the outside world under the rule of the tyrannical dictator Enver Hoxha.

It was into this austere and paranoid world, where religion was banned and torture and imprisonment were commonplace, that Dimitri, now 28, was born. In his village of Himare, food shortages were common and children regularly went hungry. To complain about the situation was considered an act of treason, and especially dangerous for a member of the Greek minority.

'If you said there was no milk or bread, you would be arrested and sentenced to six years in jail,' Dimitri recalled.

Both his parents come from Greece, his mother from Corfu and his father from Salonika. But through a cruel twist of fate they settled in Albania at the end of the Second World War. Greece was considered an 'enemy state' and it was forbidden for any Albanian, especially a Greek Albanian, to have any contact with it. Family visits were out of the question and all letters were intercepted as a matter of course. Dimitri spoke Greek at home but was forced to speak Albanian in school.

Ethnic Greeks have lived in southern Albanian, which they know as Northern Ipiros, since antiquity. Albanians like to claim that the Greeks arrived more recently, as labourers for the Ottoman empire. Like other Albanians, the Greek community into which Dimitri's parents settled had to endure the brutal collectivisation of the Hoxha regime, but it was also targeted for its ethnic links to Greece, with which Albania was technically at war until the mid-Eighties. Ethnic Greeks suffered greatly under the Communists and even today, four years after the end of Communism, ethnic Greeks remain an oppressed minority, suspected of trying to bring about enosis, or unity with Greece.

For those like Dimitri, desperate to leave the country, even being overheard talking about escape to the West could mean a sentence in a forced labour camp. The Hoxha regime ruled through fear, establishing a network of informants organised at the village level. Escape over the frontier to Greece or the rest of the Balkans was also out of the question. Border areas were 'sensitive' and required special passes.

'Because my parents were Greek, I knew despite the propaganda that the Communists were lying when they said Greece was an enemy country and that the Albanian way was the only way,' Dimitri said. 'I decided I had to leave.'

He began making preparations for the swim to Corfu when he was 17. He could not attempt it at the closest point because he was not allowed to move from his home village without special permission. He would have to make his break for freedom from Himare, which is 21 miles (33km) from Corfu.

For two years Dimitri trained secretly, building up his strength and stamina for the crossing and only revealing his plans to his parents. Then on a quiet, windless evening at the end of September 1985, he bade his family farewell and slipped into the water to attempt the treacherous swim across the straits.

His priority was to stay out of sight of the ever-watchful border police, who had the authority to shoot would-be escapees on sight. Since the guards had to account for every bullet shot, they often preferred to drown the escapees.

The attempt was to prove a disaster. First, Dimitri had to avoid the floating mines that infested the waters near the shore. He got through with difficulty and spent another five exhausting hours in the water before an Albanian security patrol spotted him.

'They tried repeatedly to run me down with the boat, trying to kill or drown me,' he said. 'But after two years training for the crossing, I was ready for them and went deep under water when they steered the boat right at me.'

Dimitri was eventually hauled from the water by the police and severely beaten. He showed me a long scar down the middle of his stomach which he said was caused by the boots of his captors during a beating that lasted for several hours.

Afterwards he was handcuffed and thrown into a dark cell, where he was given only bread and tea in the three weeks he spent awaiting trial. He was eventually sentenced to 12 years in jail and sent to work in a mine in the north of the country.

'Conditions were so bad I do not know how I survived,' Dimitri said. 'People were dying all the time for lack of proper food and medical care. Their teeth fell out from the poor diet and they were left untreated when they got sick.

'The guards were especially brutal to the Greeks,' he said.

'We worked in the mine eight hours a day, four kilometres underground, without a break, for six days a week. There were no family visits, as relatives were often thrown in prison as well.'

So strong was the Communist Party's grip over the country that it was not until 1990, five years after Enver Hoxha's death - and five years into Dimitri's 12-year sentence - that his regime crumbled. In July that year, some 6,000 young, unemployed Albanians stormed foreign embassies in Tirana, demanding the right to emigrate. That December, riots broke out all over the country. Hoxha's heir, Ramiz Alia, could not hold back the tide and released many political prisoners, among them Dimitri. By the following March a pluralistic parliament had been elected, but by that time Dimitri had already made his way to Greece on a tourist visa.

Shortly afterwards he brought his mother and father out. They now live in Athens, where Dimitri has found work. But technically he is an illegal immigrant, even though his parents were born on Greek soil. He could find himself deported back to Albania at any time.

Although the Communists have been overthrown in Albania, relations between Albanians and ethnic Greeks have steadily grown worse. A right-wing Greek movement is campaigning for unification, and today from Corfu a Greek radio station broadcasts propaganda to southern Albania, hoping to trigger an uprising against the authorities.

Dimitri speaks wistfully of the beauty of Himare, but he has no interest in living in Albania again, even to help the cause of enosis with Greece.

'If I am sent back to Albania, I won't be staying long,' he said with a broad grin. 'I will be back over the border whatever it takes.'

(Photograph omitted)

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