Albanian Historian Angers Survivors of Communist Camp

This photo shows the reburial ceremony of Prena and Dina Gjikola in 2003, in their birthplace in Mirdita region, North Albania. Photo courtesy: Fatbardha Saraci.

By Gjergj Erebara

Pellumb Xhufi has angered scholars and the descendant of survivors of an infamous labour camp by claiming the conditions there were ‘not bad’.

Pellumb Xhufi, a former politician and historian better known for his work on Medieval history, caused shock on Wednesday when he claimed to have read CIA reports that evaluated conditions in communist era camps as “not bad”.

Xhufi was referring to the infamous concentration camp in Tepelena, south Albania, where thousands of people, mostly women and children, were isolated by the regime between 1945 and 1955 because they were family members of “enemies” of the state.

Survivors have testified extensively about the inhumane conditions. Some of the memoires collected by scholars after the fall of Communism recall how hundreds of children died due to lack of food and medicines.

However, on a TV show about history on Ora News, Xhufi explicitly denied this.

“Absolutely no!” he said, answering a question whether it was true that some 300 children died.

“The site functioned as an army barracks up to the 1960s. It was built by the Italian army, was a solid construction with tiles. In the [CIA] document, is also written that the conditions were “not bad,’” he added while accepting that it was basically a forced labor camp.

According to Xhufi, it was “a banality” to compare the camp with Nazi era concentration camps.

Fatbardha Saraci, a scholar who has collected the memories of the survivors of Communism regime, including the memories of a mother who lost two infant children in the camp, called the comments inhumane and humiliating.

“It is especially inhumane toward those who lost their lives in prisons and labour camps,” she said.

This photo shows the reburial ceremony of Prena and Dina Gjikola in 2003, in their birthplace in Mirdita region, North Albania. Photo courtesy: Fatbardha Saraci.

This photo shows the reburial ceremony of Prena and Dina Gjikola in 2003, in their birthplace in Mirdita region, North Albania. Photo courtesy: Fatbardha Saraci.

“Conditions at Tepelena camp were inhumane. In a small barracks there were hundreds of people living for years in crowded conditions, interned without trial and used for harsh labor in the lumber industry. Their only crime was for belonging to families that communists considered ‘enemies,’” Saraci told BIRN.

Enriketa Pandelejmoni, a history professor at the University of Tirana, said that such way of discussion suffering and crimes is absurd.

“I think it is criminal. What does ‘conditions were not bad’ mean? Studies of that labour camp and testimonies from survivors are very clear. In just six barracks there were 100 to 200 persons in each, they didn’t have beds and any sanitary conditions at all. They had to live on just 500 grams of bread per day,” she said.

Albania had one of the harshest Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. About 6,000 people were executed out of a population of just 1 million in 1945, and through 45 years of autocratic rule there were tens of thousands of prisoners or interned persons, most of whom were used as cheap labour in mines, construction and agriculture.

Despite the suffering, there is also nostalgia about Communism, however, and unlike many other countries in Eastern Europe, there has been no justice for the victims of the Communist regime.

“I see a widespread justification of the crimes by ironic statements such as ‘the times were that way’. There are still public ceremonies that legitimate Communist-era narratives that are full of myths,” Pandelejmoni said.

According to her, the country needs a de-communistisation law and proper investigation and prosecution of the crimes, a process that Albania has not undergone.

Currently, scores of families are still battling to find the graves of loved ones, including those who perished in the Tepelena camp.

“There has been a systemic attempt to clear the area of proof of the crime,” Saraci said.

“There are testimonies that show the guards reburied up to three time the corpses of the children that perished in the camp and how their preferred dumping place was near the river,” she added.

Albania has yet to systematically find the graves of those that died in prison or were executed and buried in secret graveyards.

Balkan Insight, 30 March ’18

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