Thursday, April 18, 2013

Post Blloku: A Communist Era Memorial in Tirana

A historical recap
History is often ugly, uncomfortable, and easier to forget than remember but not remembering is detrimental to both the people who have lived through the past and future generations who are in turn robbed of an opportunity to understand their own history.  Without an understanding of history, history is doomed to repeat itself.  While the more heroic moments are well documented--hence the country's obsession with its 15th Century national hero Skenderbeg, Albania's often proud history includes "forgetting" or erasing the uglier portions of her past.  The Communist Era is one such period that is often forgotten or at least not talked about.  Ever so slowly, however, Albanians are becoming more willing to talk about and document this past.  In recent years an exhibit dedicated to the Communist Era in Albania opened at the National Museum of History here in Tirana.  And recently, another new outdoor exhibit memorializing this time period opened as well. Located adjacent to both the Parliament Building and the home of former dictator Enver Hoxha, Post Blloku recognizes Albania's dark and horrifying isolationist.  The location is ironic since it is adjacent to the Bllok area where senior members of the Hoxha regime once lived and non-party members were forbidden to enter.

This memorial honors former political prisoners who suffered under Hoxha's  regime and was designed by former prisoner of war, Fatos Lubonja and internationally recognized artist, Ardian Isufi.   The exhibit consists of three pieces; a bunker that once guarded the site, mine shaft columns from Spac Prison, and a 2.6-ton piece of the Berlin Wall.  I remember driving by the bunker on our first day in Tirana.  Sitting in the shadow of a tree behind a magazine stand, it was half buried in dirt and debris and if I didn't already know the history behind bunkers and what they looked like, I wouldn't have known what I was seeing.  Now part of the memorial is has been cleaned out with the original fixtures remaining intact. It is possible to go down a set of steps into the bunker so you can have the same view that soldiers standing guard once had.  Spac Prison was a Communist Era political prison and labor camp located 60 miles north of Tirana. A former copper mine, the conditions were deplorable and the concrete mine shaft columns that are now in Tirana serve as a poignant reminder of what the prison once was.  The final piece of the memorial is a section of the Berlin Wall, perhaps the most widely known symbol of Communism, that was donated to the Municipality of Tirana from the City of Berlin, Germany.  Never having seen the Wall when it was fully intact, I was surprised by the contrast between the two sides of this concrete slab.  While the side facing the west--and the street side of the monument---is filled with colorful graffiti, the eastern facing side is stark and gray.  Like the location of the memorial itself, the irony of which side of the wall is facing the street and which side is facing the Bllok is not lost on me.

meets west

A soldier's view of the world
Although small in size, the message behind this monument is powerful.  I was fortunate to be a part of a small group of people who met Mr. Lubonja at the monument this morning.  As he guided us through the area he explained the history and meaning behind each piece.  Standing on the green manicured grass in the perfectly clear and sunny spring weather made it hard to imagine what conditions had been like during Communist times.  As we stood there a police officer loitered nearby and eyed us suspiciously, a few youth casually stuck their heads into the bunker as they passed through and an elderly man used the base of the mine shaft columns as a seat.  Other than this the hustle and bustle on the street ignored our presence and that of the memorial.  It was almost as if by not looking at it people were hoping it would disappear.  To me, this is sad.  As Mr. Lubonja has been quoted, "This (monument) is dedicated to those who did not manage to live through the dictatorship.  Our duty is to remember because we have to know where we are coming from in order to know where we are heading to.”

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