26 April 2012

The Concrete Pillboxes of Albania

 Imagine living in Albania in the 1970’s.  The country had been plunged into complete isolation, cut off from its neighbors, its old allies, outside news.  They had left the Warsaw pact.  No one was allowed to leave.  Hardly anyone could come in.  A few Americans and British tried, but were executed on the spot.  The population was taught nothing of the outside world except that it was fearsome, ready to attack.  After some twenty years of communism, Albania had become ringed by a silent, unknown darkness.
If you were an Albanian man, you were drilled on the protocol should there be an invasion.  First, get your gun.  Second, head to your assigned bunker… and stay there.
 Albania has over six hundred thousand concrete and steel bunkers, built during the dreamlike shadows of the Enver Hoxha dictatorship.  They squat in low formations at every corner of the country, with greater frequency near the borders and along the coast.  Driving or walking along country roads, it’s impossible to miss them – scrawled with graffiti, painted over or simply blank grey.  They litter the landscape and are almost indestructible.  Even dug up they’re too tough to pull apart, and lie like strange, huge tubers in ditches or dumps.
 Enver Hoxha’s regime had once been friendly with Yugoslavia, but the relationship soured early in the post WWII years.  Russia had been the primary ally after that, but Hoxha had become too bloody for the Soviets to tolerate (in one astounding meeting, he was accused and chastised by eighty other bloc leaders) and the dictator had grown tired of demands from the Kremlin.  Albania parted ways with the USSR in 1961, severing all ties, and became improbably aligned with China.  Most western countries had long since withdrawn diplomatic ties by the time Mao died and China lost interest.  It was an almost complete shuttering.  Behind a curtain of landmines, mountains and fear, the Albanian people huddled.
 The “pillbox” - a small, one man, dome-roofed foxhole - is by far the most common bunker found in Albania.  They were installed literally everywhere, along every road, near every mountain pass.  Tending to crop up in threes, they are so common as to be part of the landscape; they’re interesting at first, then hardly noticeable.  This one, outside the school in Valbona, was in the same condition as most.  Weedy and dull-edged, mostly filled in with dirt and trash, but still as functional and sturdy as it was forty years ago.
 In the heaviest defended areas, the pillboxes are arranged a little more strategically, usually arrayed around one or two larger, permanently manned bunkers with radio contact to a central command.  The smaller shelters - called "firing positions" - were intended for average citizen-turned-partisans, who were unlikely to be trained soldiers or have much of an idea what to do in the case of an attack.  The larger and smaller fortifications were always within sight of one another, so that the soldiers could give visual orders to the gunmen around them.  It’s interesting, in some of the more densely barricaded areas, to look at how the pillboxes were arranged, what their line of sight was, what they were defending.  Each of the firing positions has a “back window” that looks straight at the command center.
The primary element, though, was the domed roof, which was designed to deflect artillery fire instead of absorbing the impact.
 There is a legend that the chief engineer of these pillboxes, Josif Zengali, was so certain of their strength that he “volunteered” (these communist era legends are funny things) to hole up in one while it was shelled by a tank.  He emerged – of course – perfectly whole, though later he was imprisoned under suspicious circumstances.
The construction and installation of this network of concrete was a major project, keeping a large contingent of laborers and soldiers busy for decades.  It’s said that the bunkers became such a vital employer that it was difficult to stop the program.  Indeed, the structures were still being put in place (with the same design) right up until Hoxha’s death in 1985, by which time they’d probably lost much of their tactical relevance.  But what else could the impoverished, lonely country build?
 Today, the bunkers are sometimes used as garden sheds, playhouses, outhouses or (most often) big garbage cans.  Goats graze around them in pastures, they serve as dirty changing rooms on some beaches.  They can be seen built into stone walls, sometimes, or even into the side of some houses.  Albanians tend to think of them less as a reminder of a past era and more as a nuisance.  They weigh nine thousand pounds apiece, they’re dug five feet into the ground, they’re reinforced with steel… how are you supposed to get rid of them?  Younger citizens have begun painting them bright colors, in an effort that mirrors the buildings of Tirana.
Maybe the most interesting thing about Albania's bunkers is that they were never used.  The country was never attacked.  Hoxha relied on the militarization of his citizens to retain control - the goal for the bunker project was to have one built for each family of four, so that every able-bodied man had his literal place in the chain of command, in the ongoing war with the outside world (things were so strangely perverted that Albania maintained a "war" with Greece between 1942 and 1987, even though for decades there was no fighting and Greece essentially pleaded for an end to the madness).  The dictator kept building bunkers and convincing everyone that they needed to dig in.
Driving around here is like navigating a short, intense history - the imprint of a scarce forty years is stamped on every hillside.  It's unique, it's ghostly, the bunkers are part of the landscape yet also jarringly set apart.  On one hillside we counted twelve, their outlines almost obscured by wildflowers.

1 comment:

  1. It's a shame that you don't have a "Love" button. Otherwise I am sure there would be thousands and thousands likes! An excellent article so well written! Thanks!

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