During the 12 months between the time I was accepted into the Peace Corps and the time I left for Albania, I had many opportunities to answer variations on the question “[I’m really embarrassed to admit this but] where is Albania?” At first, I would simply answer the question: “It’s in the southwestern-most country in the Balkans – across the Adriatic from the heel of the Italian boot and just above Greece.” Then, as I read and learned more and more about Albania, my answer expanded to include this disclaimer: “No need to be embarrassed — no one knows where Albania is and there’s a good reason why: it was the most isolated country in Europe for close to 45 years.”
There are books and articles that call Albania “one of the most centralized and repressive totalitarian regimes that the world has ever known.” Others refer to Albania as the “North Korea of Europe” because its leader Enver Hoxha (pronounced ho-dja) did such a good job of creating and maintaining an impermeable membrane around the country that it was impossible for the rest of us to absorb any information about it simply by osmosis.
Albania has often been referred to as the “North Korea of Europe.”
But now that I’ve told you that Hoxha was perhaps the most repressive, totalitarian leader since Stalin, it won’t surprise you to hear that part of Albania’s history includes tens of thousands of alleged “enemies of the state” imprisoned in labor and/or internment camps. Between 1945 and 1991, when Communism fell (Hoxha had died in 1985), more than 100,000 Albanians – perhaps as many as 200,000* – had endured political imprisonment and more than 5,500 men and women– perhaps as many as 25,000 — had been executed for perceived crimes against the state.
*During the Communist era, the population of Albania hovered in the 2-to-2.5 million range, which means that 5 to 10 percent of the population was imprisoned at one time or another.
Albania had 40-50 prison camps; some were for internment only and others were forced-labor camps. The most notorious of these was Spaç (pronounced spach), a high-security labor camp located in an isolated canyon in the north-central part of the country.
Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the remains of Spaç with a group of fellow Peace Corps Albania volunteers. Our guided tour had been arranged by our volunteer in Reps (population 500), the town closest to the site of the former camp. The day before the trip, one of my co-workers at USAID told me the story of his grandfather, Ruxhdi, who had spent time in Spaç during his eight years of imprisonment as an “enemy of the state.” His crimes? Sharing anti-Communist ideas about free thought and free market economics he had heard on Voice of America and Radio London and comparing the generous salary his brother – an engineer living in Canada – earned to the paltry wages in Albania.
Spaç was built during the 1960s in a relatively isolated area of Albania – the Mirdita region (see map below). The location of the camp was so remote and its climate sufficiently harsh that, although there was barbed-wire fencing, no actual perimeter walls were built. The other reason for its location was its proximity to a copper mine, where prisoners could be used as slave labor.
Conditions at the camp were brutal. Prisoners worked in the mines, which were excruciatingly hot during the summer, and many died in accidents or from overwork. Many developed long-term medical problems from inhaling copper dust. The men lived in unheated barracks through harsh winters and some were subjected to torture with cold water during the coldest times of the year.
On our tour of the camp we saw the buildings that housed prison staff, the building that was the entry checkpoint and a building that had held administrative and medical offices. I kept wondering where the prisoners were housed, because we were running out of buildings to see and so far there had been no buildings with cells or barracks. Finally, we got to the last building – a single building with three levels. Each floor had several 15’ x 15’ rooms and we learned that these were the barracks. Prisoners slept in bunks stacked three high and each room held 50 men (the total number of prisoners at one time ranged from 1,200 to 1,400).
By far the most emotional part of the visit was seeing prisoners’ still-remaining writings and drawings on the barracks walls and ceilings. Lying in their bunks, the men drew maps, religious images, slogans and so on.
Spaç was closed in the early 1990s, when the Communism regime fell. Since that time, the camp has suffered both vandalism and looting (for scrap metal) – two of the reasons that its condition is so deteriorated. In recent years there have been several attempts to turn Spaç into a museum but those plans are stalled, awaiting funding.