Albania’s New Uses
For Old Fortifications
Relics of Enver Hoxha’s Reign,
They Become Restaurants,
Toilets, Even Love Motels.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
10th May 1999
DURRES, Albania – The line of concrete gun emplacements on the beach here once spat Albania’s defiance at the outside world. Now, one of them has become “Bunker Restaurant 1,” and the only sign of former enemy Italy, just over the Adriatic Sea, is a shiny new Italian expresso machine on the bar.
In his own small way, fisherman-turned-restauranteur Arben “Jimmy” Loku, 30, has turned upside down the xenophobic logic of 500,000 to 700,000 pillboxes, underground tunnels and gun emplacements that lurk like half-buried helmets on every outcrop of mountainous Albania. His schoolteachers taught him to avoid foreign conquerors who wanted to poison him; now he brings real foreign visitors steaming plates of delicious eel, prawns and mullet.
“I privatized this bunker six years ago,” Mr. Loku says, pointing proudly at the domed, 3-foot-thick roof with deep damp stains. “I have money to make it look better, but the foreigners prefer it like this.”
Albania, land of the bunker is starting to emerge from its Communist-era bunker mentality. The country has thrown itself into the arms of the West, giving the North Atlantic Treaty Organization total backing in its war with Yugoslavia on behalf of the ethnic Albanians of neighborhood Kosovo. In a sign of the times, Albanians are struggling to find new uses for the bunkers built by their paranoid late dictator, Enver Hoxha – as restaurants, motels and a source of artistic inspiration.
Kujtim Cashku recently directed “Kolonel Bunker,” a fictionalized account of a military officer who designed the bunkers, was crushed by the depressing experience and went on to commit suicide. For Mr. Cashku, the bunker symbolizes the wasted energy of this Balkan nation of 3.3 million people. Isolation “meant we survived but missed the opportunity for civilization,” says Mr. Cashku. And yet Albania, he adds, is crawling back from the financial scams and violence that followed the collapse of communism here in 1991.
For centuries, Albania’s mountain people were so wary of foreigners that they rarely set up towns on the coast of the Adriatic, which opens up this land to the outside world. Suspicion was nurtured by five centuries of Ottoman rule, followed by a chaotic first half of the 20th century, including wars, invasions and occupation by fascist Italy and Germany. Then came Mr. Hoxha, the world War II partisan leader who, until his death in 1985, sought to seal off his Stalinist fief.
In 1975, he embarked on a massive program of bunker building. An engineer came up with the two most common dome-shaped designs: the one-man pillbox and the bigger gun emplacement. “They tested the first bunker with a goat,” says Mr. Cashku. If the goat survived a good bombardment, “then the engineer had to stand in the bunker himself, and he was pounded with shells to prove it was good.”
The Albanian military continued to build bunkers until 1990 but has now abandoned most to weeds and decay. Raids by Serbian troops on the border with Kosovo in recent weeks have marginally revived Albania’s interest in bunker defenses. TV and radio shows encourage the populace to clean them out, and commanders are sending some part-time soldiers back in.
But the country’s heart isn’t in it. “What we really need is new guns from America,” says 37-year-old Davut Veseli, a private walking back to his base after 24 hours of duty in a border bunker.
Ultimately, the bunkers are unloved, even if lovers still sometimes meet in them, a practice punished by death in Hoxha days. In the border town of Kukes, refugees from Kosovo are using the pillboxes as toilets. Elsewhere, in the absence of playgrounds, Albanian children slide down the pillboxes’ smooth domes tops. In the main valley leading into Albania from Greece, a plain cross now tops a gun-emplacement built on the site of a Greek orthodox church blown up during Mr. Hoxha’s antireligious crusade of the 1960s. Some villagers use bunkers as animal shelters or to store feed.
Why don’t the Albanians just remove their bunkers? Go ahead and try. The concrete is made of hard granite, and the reinforcing rods are high-quality steel. It takes industrial-strength cranes to lear a pillbox, and the only people able to afford these seem to be members of the Albanian under-world. On a beach south of Durres, men sell cars stolen from Europe, and have moved the bunkers off to a large corner of their lot.
Some Albanians pile tires inside the bunkers and set them ablaze; after a couple of days, the first layer of concrete becomes brittle enough to be chipped away, allowing access to the steel, which is worth a few dollars. The irony is that each bunker probably costs as much to build as an apartment in this impoverished country, where a bad housing shortage has been made even worse by the influx of more than 300,000 refugees from Kosovo.
Possibly because of the bunkers’ association with the old regime, few Albanians use them as homes, although the 15-foot-diameter space of a gun-emplacement provides just about enough living space for a family. Then again, there are pioneers in this field, too.
Jonuz and Nadire Kasmi moves into a bunker in the hills east of Durres six years ago, partly because it was near Jonuz’s brother’s house. Living in the bunker, whitewashed and decorated with plastic flowers, feels like living in Mother Bubbard’s fairytale shoe. The entrance is uncomfortably low. To swing the steel-and-concrete doors takes the weight of two people. The bunkers are cool in summer, freezing in winter; drilling through the rock-hard walls for chimneys and water pipes isn’t an option. The Kasmis’ bed is in the bricked-up gun port.
Mr. Kasmi hopes that someday, a passing foreigner will give him enough money to move out of the bunker and into a real house he started building next-door with a donation from a European missionary. Meanwhile, he gets by with earnings from his car-repair workshop, made from the body of an old commercial van.
Enver Hoxha may be turning in his grave at this disrespect, but his widow, Nexhmija, doesn’t seem to mind the changes afoot in Albania “I’m very emotional about Kosovo now,” says Mrs. Hoxha, peeping out at a visitor through a chicken-wire screen on the door of her apartment. “I feel so happy that all these countries came to help us,” she says in excellent French. But she still lives a kind of bunker life, rarely moving from her modest walk-up apartment in a suburb of the capital.
Back at the beech in Durres, Mr. Loku’s neighbor is converting a bunker into a circular love-motel-by-the-sea.
Mr. Loku dreams of building a chain of bunker motel-restaurants. In the meantime, he’s making money in more traditional Albanian ways. Sitting at one of the four small tables in his restaurant, with his sharp blue eyes twinkling from under a cap of knitted black wool, Mr. Loku likes to entertain customers with tales of smuggling speedboat-loads of illegal immigrants and refugees past Italian coast-guard cutters.
“Maybe the Italians should be building the bunkers now,” he says.