Rupert Cornwell Prize for Journalism

They were murdered by Albania’s communist regime. Three decades on, families are still searching for their remains

Eleanor Myers, winner of the fourth Rupert Cornwell Prize for Journalism, speaks to relatives of some of the thousands believed executed about their fight to find their loved ones – so they can lay them to rest

Monday 06 March 2023 12:11 GMT
Zef Ndoj, holding a photo of his brother, whose body he found after more than 20 years
Zef Ndoj, holding a photo of his brother, whose body he found after more than 20 years (Eleanor Myers)

When he was young, Taip Hoxha lived in the hills of the Laberia region of southwestern Albania, in a village home to around 100 families. In Laberia, it was traditional that when someone died, the whole village would help to bury them. When his grandmother, Elena, died in 1980, her funeral had four people in attendance: Taip, his mother, and his siblings. Every family in the village – amounting to nearly 500 people – chose to stay away.

That Elena’s funeral was so poorly attended was no fault of her own: what made the occasion so unappealing to her neighbours was that her son had been an opponent of the country’s communist regime. Taip’s father’s crime was fleeing Albania in 1945, near the outset of communist rule. He returned a few years later, only to be caught by the secret police, the Sigurimi.

Nearly 40 years later, his family were still considered enemies of the state. To be seen to grieve someone like Elena was too great a risk. “No one dared to,” says Taip, now 77.

Taip’s father is one of the estimated more than 6,000 Albanians who were killed or died in state custody between 1945 and 1991 when the communist regime fell. Many are still missing.

Three decades have passed since the end of the regime but there has been little effort by successive Albanian governments to try to find their bodies and return them to their relatives. Many laws have been passed to help victims but action has not followed: the International Committee on Missing Persons has written that a number of Albanian governments have “done little to give concrete assistance to the families of the missing ... preventing Albanian society from overcoming the legacy of its totalitarian past”.

The communist regime was led by the dictator Enver Hoxha (no relation to Taip). It is considered to have been one of the most brutal governments in Europe, and has been referred to as “Europe’s North Korea”. Enver Hoxha held a deep respect for Stalin, cutting diplomatic relations with Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia, Albania’s closest neighbour, in 1948 for defying the Russian leader. He would then cut off ties with the Soviet Union itself, at the height of Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinisation campaign in 1961. One of the only countries Albania kept up regular diplomatic relations with was China, which had its own issues with the Soviets. Hoxha would grow disillusioned with Beijing too, over time, leaving Albania almost entirely isolated from the world.

Taip never knew his father; he was very young when he was executed. But the association was enough to ensure the entire family was considered to be enemies of the regime. They were forcibly removed from their home and sent to live in a village on the other side of Albania, where they were isolated from the rest of the community: people were so scared of being associated with supposed “anti-communists” that they would not even walk on their land. “The Sigurimi would refer to us as ‘cubs of the Americans’,” according to Taip, “and the children of the enemy.”

Taip Hoxha has spent three decades looking for the bodies of his family – his brother in particular
Taip Hoxha has spent three decades looking for the bodies of his family – his brother in particular (Eleanor Myers)

When Taip’s brother, Ahmet, turned 18 he was arbitrarily arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison. “My brother was sentenced to more years than he had lived on this Earth,” Taip says. After an attempt to flee, he was sent to Spac, the most notorious labour camp in Albania, modelled on Stalinist gulags. It was opened in 1968 at the site of a copper and pyrite mine, in a remote and mountainous area in the centre of the country.

Spac was one of many labour camps but it held prisoners who were considered to be the greatest threat to the regime. It was there that Taip’s brother, Ahmet, was executed. He was 39 years old. He had spent his entire adult life imprisoned for being his father’s son. But the body was never returned.

Taip has met with the executioners responsible for his brother’s death. Yet they would tell him nothing, as they are not compelled to do so. “The worst thing is that it has been 31 years since 1991 [when communism collapsed], and I am still looking.”

Most people still looking for the bodies of their relatives believe the only way to get them back is by paying for a private search and excavation themselves. One such case is Zef Ndoj. Zef, 60, lives in a small village outside Shkoder, in the north of Albania. As he speaks, sitting and smoking in his living room, his eyes are drawn towards a picture of a young man in a gilded frame. It is his brother, Tome, who was executed in the notorious Qafe-Bari prison – about 60 miles away from Shkoder – in 1979, on terrorism charges. When authorities told him to come to the prison, he knew his brother was dead. “They gave us his clothes,” he says. “We felt lucky to have been given his clothes.”

When the communist regime collapsed, Zef began looking for his brother’s body. He asked for help from the authorities but says he heard nothing back. An engineer who worked in the local area believed he knew the area where his brother had been executed, hundreds of miles away in Kuc. Prisoners were sometimes taken long distances away from where they were imprisoned to be killed. So Zef began to dig. And he kept digging. Across more than six days, 156 hours in total. But he did not find his brother. However, during that dig, he found 11 other bodies there. Many of those executed were supposedly buried with a bottle that contained a piece of paper with their name on it: the bodies Zef found had this piece of paper.

They would refer to us as ‘cubs of the Americans’ and the children of the enemy

Taip Hoxha, 77

A lack of will to exhume mass graves is sometimes attributed to the belief that victims will be impossible to identify. Although the identification process should always involve forensic testing for certainty, the names in bottles could certainly accelerate the process of identification. When asked if he contacted the government about the other bodies he found, Zef responds: “What government? They don’t care.” He contacted the families himself.

In 2012, Zef began digging in a new location where he believed his brother might be buried: the site of a former military base, in the area around Kuc. On the day he began to dig again, he says he was visited by a senior government official who gave him the exact location of where his brother was buried: it was indeed around that military base. “They knew where he was the whole time,” he says.

Finding Tome’s body took nearly 22 years: Zef had spent more than a third of his life looking for his brother. When Zef brought his brother home, he buried him in the local cemetery near his village. The total cost of the search was more than €25,000 (£22,300).

It is a staggering sum in a country where, even today, the average worker makes around €260 a month. Zef applied for reimbursement from the government shortly after completing his search. He says he has still not received any money from the government for the costs incurred while looking for his brother. Costs which would have been considerably smaller had he been told where his brother’s body was buried when he first enquired 20 years earlier. “They could have told me,” says Zef. “I spent so many years looking.”

Zef does receive compensation for his brother’s imprisonment: in total, it will be €15,000 over his lifetime, considerably less than he has paid looking for his brother’s body. The compensation is only for the time his brother was imprisoned, and not for his execution. According to Zef, the families of those whose relatives were executed on terrorism charges – unlike other charges – do not receive compensation for their deaths because it was not included in compensation legislation.

Even cases that do make headlines do not necessarily bring a result. Aldo Renato Tussi, an Italian citizen whose Albanian father was murdered by the regime, has been looking for his father’s body for 30 years. His father had been at Burrel prison, about 40 miles north of the capital Tirana, which sits in central Albania. Testimonies of former prisoners gave a likely location for a mass grave. But it has not been excavated.

Tepelena camp: two plaques have been put up and a grove of cypress trees was planted in memory of the children who died there, but the site has fallen into disrepair
Tepelena camp: two plaques have been put up and a grove of cypress trees was planted in memory of the children who died there, but the site has fallen into disrepair (Eleanor Myers)

“I wonder why it is so difficult to intervene in that area, between the two enclosures of the prison. It is a square, bare ground, roughly the size of a football field,” he later wrote in a letter about his experience. The letter says that despite much media fanfare and “promises of intervention by the ... state and the Albanian Ministry of Justice, the remains of those men are still under the cold soil of that infamous country”.

Excavation of all the mass graves in Albania is a mammoth task but there are obvious places to start: the country’s dozens of former prison camps. Even the areas surrounding many of these prison and internment camps – a typical burial site for those executed there – have not been excavated. Some sites of former camps are only a couple of hours’ drive from Tirana.

Those looking for bodies believe these graves would not be difficult to locate: there are former detainees still alive who can – and have – located grave sites.

One such site is in Tepelena, in southern Albania. It was a notorious internment camp for fugitives and deserters, open between 1949 and 1954. It was only in 2017 that it was revealed that Tepelena had been the site of an internment camp, and one where many had died. Kelvin, who works for Kujto Foundation, an Albanian organisation that collects memories of victims, grew up 20ft away from the camp ruins. “We always thought it was a former military base,” he says. He and his friends, unaware of its history, used to play football there.

Six hundred out of around 4,000 detainees are believed to have died, half of them thought to be children under the age of five. Fetah Hamata, now 80, was sent there as a young child because his father had tried to leave Albania.

His hands shake as he describes it: there were times when 30 children would die in a single day because of malnutrition, dysentery and weakness from hard labour. The conditions in Tepelena were so dire that word of them reached the government in the United States. Fetah recounts one of his earliest memories: a woman was tied to a pole in the centre of the camp and the children were forced to beat her with sticks. He took part. Her crime was discarding a small piece of wood. “I was seven or eight at the time. I remember how she screamed as she was beaten,” Fetah says.

Two years ago, she came back to Tepelena for an event focused on the crimes at the camp. He did not recognise her at first. She looked up at the forest where they had collected wood. “I’ve been here before,” she told him. When she began to speak about how she suffered, Fetah realised who she was. When he told her who he was, she said that she had forgiven him.

They gave us his clothes. We felt lucky to have been given his clothes

Zef Ndoj, 60

The ground around Tepelena could contain graves of children and adults who died there: Fetah says he worked on a building site there in the final days of the regime. They found a box containing the bones of children. Fetah says the site manager told them to throw it away. Thirty years after the fall of the regime, there has seemingly been no effort to excavate the areas around Tepelena.

These bodies yet to be found are a symptom of a wider problem: Albania has failed to come to terms with almost any aspect of its communist past. Considering the brutality of the regime and the stories laid out here, it is clear that many have not found the justice they seek. Such transitional justice, as it is termed, when a country seeks to come to terms with its past, can take place long after a regime is gone. It is considered to be vital in order for countries to move on. It can involve anything from trials to education about crimes committed. This process allows for lessons to be learnt from past mistakes.

Some trials of former communist elites did take place in Albania: Ramiz Alia – successor to Enver Hoxha – was convicted of corruption in 1994. He was sentenced to nine years in prison, a term that was reduced on a number of appeals. He served only a year but was arrested again in 1996, this time on genocide charges. “Authorities charged him with the internment and imprisonment in concentration camps of thousands of citizens during the communist regime ... ordering the killing of people who attempted to leave the country,” according to a US State Department report from the time. Later, a court dismissed the charges of genocide.

The wife of Enver Hoxha, Nexhmije, was also imprisoned. The crimes she was sentenced for were mainly economic: embezzlement of funds and abuse of state power. She had been a political figure in her own right, and her influence had increased as Enver’s health waned. Her involvement in the cruellest aspects of the regime meant some gave her the title “Lady Macbeth”.

Nexhmije was sentenced to 11 years in prison but only served four. She lived out the rest of her days, neither condemned nor isolated, in a comfortable home in Tirana. Unlike Lady Macbeth, Nexhmije did not appear to feel guilt: in 2008, she responded to a journalist from Agence France-Presse by asking, bluntly: “What should I be ashamed of?”

Two task forces, meant to deal with the excavation of victims, have been set up by successive governments. However, in his letter about his experience with the government, Aldo Rennato Tussi – whose father is buried near Burrel prison – claimed he was told by an official that they did not know about issues at Burrel. “How is it possible that a member of the government does not know the history of their country?” he wrote.

Many of those still looking for their relatives believe that a lack of initiative by a number of Albanian governments is because officials would rather not dig up the skeletons of the communist past (quite literally). Successive inaction by governments has bred silence. The formerly persecuted often mention how little the communist regime is spoken about in post-communist Albania. The past is something people would rather forget than face up to, in order to try to move on. But this can be very painful for those whose relatives gave their lives in the long fight for democracy.

Leke Tasi and Dine Dine meeting for coffee
Leke Tasi and Dine Dine meeting for coffee (Eleanor Myers)

The past is often discussed by Dine Dine, 80, and Leke Tasi, two elderly men who meet for coffee every day in Tirana. They are united by the suffering they both faced.

Leke Tasi, in his late 90s, speaks of how nearly his entire family was sent to prison camps – because his father had left for Greece and then returned. His uncle was given 17 years in Burrel prison, where he died. As a young man, his brother was sentenced to 21 years in prison, which he served. Leke says he was spared because he could play the cello and could not be replaced in the orchestra he played in.

Dine was imprisoned at the age of six in an internment camp because he had been born into a formerly aristocratic family. This was in 1946. Dine did not leave the camp system until the collapse of communism in 1991. Nearly 50 years of his life were spent in camps, simply because of his last name. In 1980, he says he was given the opportunity to collaborate with the Sigurimi, the secret police, in order to gain his freedom. “The Sigurimi offered me privileges in order to cooperate. But I refused – and they told me my only alternative was more time in prison,” he says.

Both Leke and Dine receive compensation from the government for the suffering they and their families faced – calculated by what crime you or your family member was sentenced for and how many years were served in prison. They disagree over whether the amount they receive is fair. Leke speaks of a friend who was able to fulfil his life’s dream – seeing the Russian ballet – because of his compensation money.

But they both agree there has been no moral compensation for their suffering. By moral compensation, they mean that they want there to be societal recognition for the suffering they faced, as well as recognition of the crimes of those responsible. However, few survivors speak of a desire to see any kind of prosecution for those responsible. Thirty years later, prosecution is both impractical and unlikely.

Recognition can be achieved without it: one such example is Nikolin Kurti, who tracked down the prosecutor and judge who sentenced his uncle – Dom Shtjefen Kurti – to death. After meeting, they both signed letters acknowledging their guilt, which they agreed would be published after their deaths. Nikolin said the prosecutor asked him not to make it public as long as he was “old, tired and sick” and “not able to support the debate that would be made in the media about this”.

But such situations are rare – they require an individual to admit and publicise their crimes, of their own free will. Without government or institutional involvement, many will continue to hide their past.

Kelvin, of the Kujto Foundation, which helps victims, believes that the shadow of the communist past still hangs over politics: the fact that Albania has never dealt with it openly contributes to peoples’ feelings about politics today. “People have no faith that the political system can deliver change or make this country better,” he says, “from the beginning, there was no honesty in politics because they chose not to be honest about the past.”

It is not difficult to find evidence of dissatisfaction with the direction of the country. As anyone who reads a British newspaper is aware, many young people leave Albania to look for opportunities elsewhere. Many of those still in Albania speak about leaving. Considering its starting point in 1991, as a country with high levels of poverty that had been isolated from the world, the change that has taken place has been vast.

A country like Albania, which is focusing on development, will likely not want to focus on its past. But Kelvin does not see these aims as contradictory: “You do not need to forget about the past to move on and advance.” It is important for a country to understand its history, as a Hannah Arendt quote in Albania’s museum of secret surveillance, based in Tirana, makes clear: “If we do not know our own history, we are doomed to live it as though it were our private fate.”

No one who campaigns for recognition of the communist past believes there is a chance Albania will slide back into totalitarianism. They believe that history is important and should be treated as such. The last five years have taught us that the West can perhaps have too much faith in the constancy of democracy. It is not something that should be taken for granted.

Justice in the aftermath of totalitarianism will always be difficult. Exhuming the bodies of those murdered at the hands of the regime shows respect for those who suffered. Allowing the bodies to be properly buried is a recognition of the horrors that put them there.

With every year that passes, justice becomes less likely. As he looks upon the mist that envelops the valley around Tepelena, Fetah Hamata admits he has lost hope. “I am old. I am going blind. I cannot continue this fight.”

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