The End of the Concrete Mushrooms

TIRANA | First, you pack old tires around the bunker and set them alight. Or you put a sack of agricultural fertilizer with a high potassium content inside it. That makes a primitive bomb, and the bunker blows up.

“All to make the concrete crack,” explains Djoni, a construction worker from Berati in central Albania. “Once it cracks, we whack it with hammers to get to the steel that’s inside. There can be as much as two tons of it – a kilo earns you 15 eurocents at the recycling center. So from one bunker you can make 300 euros!”

“That’s a lot of money in Albania” – the average salary was about 250 euros in 2010 – “especially when it’s literally just lying on the ground,” he says.

Bunkers on the beach near Dhermi, Albania. Photo by JnM_RTW/Flickr

 

But Djoni sees only about 20 or 30 euros per bunker, even after days of hammering away, with the rest going to the construction company.

Still, he’s not complaining. For the past few years Albania has been in a construction boom that has inflated the price of steel, and that has not even been halted by the crisis in Italy and Greece, where hundreds of thousands of Albanian immigrants work. Some experts say the boom is fueled by the Italian mafia, which by building tower blocks that no one needs in Albania – some of which stand half-empty – is laundering its dirty money. But the Albanians take no notice of that.

“The crisis isn’t being felt here in Albania,” Djoni says. “Our prime minister boasted that apart from Albania, the only other country in Europe that isn’t in recession is Poland – our growth rate for 2011 was over 3 percent.”

Djoni also worked in Greece for several years, at Piraeus, but he tired of playing cat and mouse with the local border guards, who regularly catch Albanians working illegally. “My health’s not what it was,” he says. “Here I earn less, but I spend less too. It comes out about the same.”

So during the day Djoni builds new housing, and in the evenings he tops up his salary by demolishing the bunkers. With the extra money, he has finished building his own flat and has sent his children to good schools.

The construction boom is one reason Albanians have started taking notice of the hundreds of thousands of bunkers that mar their landscape all the way from Shkoder on the Montenegrin border to Konispol, a stone’s throw from Greece. Until now they have turned a blind eye to them, but now that steel has become considerably more expensive, whatever Djoni extracts from the bunkers during the night returns to him by day as reinforcing wire.

“Under communism I did my military training in bunkers like these,” Djoni says. “We were taught how to camouflage them in case of attack. On the one hand it’s a part of my life, but on the other, I don’t feel sorry for them in the least bit. They’re a symbol of very bad times – they should all disappear.”

 

COCKTAILS AND TRYSTS

Gjergj’s bunker is painted green from top to bottom. On its front hangs a dazzling sign saying “Bunker Bar.” And although the beach at Shengjin, where Gjergj has his bar, is not the loveliest, he’s not put off. “We might not have much sand,” he says, shrugging, “but we do have our concrete mushrooms, our Uncle Hoxha’s toadstools. Poland hasn’t got any, nor has Italy, not even Brazil. People come from all over the world to look at them!”

Gjergj invites me inside his mushroom and lets me look out of the firing slit, which is aimed in the direction of Italy. Then he shows me a large, metal stick hidden in the depths.

“I used to keep it for the drunken customers who don’t always want to pay up,” he explains. “Nowadays I keep it for the guys who come to blow up the bunkers. I’ve been running this bar for 12 years now, and I won’t let them lay a finger on it!”

Gjergj is right about one thing – the Albanian bunkers are unique in the world. In a country only slightly bigger than the U.S. state of Maryland, inhabited by barely 3 million people, the communists built about 750,000 of them. No one knows exactly how many there are. “Under communism, everything to do with the bunkers was top secret – the army never published the figures. And then along came democracy, they lost the documents and now no one’s capable of counting them precisely,” says Ina Izhara, a political scientist who, like many of the young people here, divides her time between Albania and Italy. “When we joined NATO a few years ago, apparently the alliance command demanded to see maps of their distribution. And consternation arose, because there weren’t any maps. Someone once suggested that there are 750,000 of them, and now everyone keeps repeating that.”

The bunkers have become a permanent feature of Albania’s landscape. They stand in the middle of cities and on the edges of villages, in graveyards and playgrounds, they stand on mountaintops and half-submerged in the sea. When they plow the land, farmers often have to make a wide detour around them. You only have to travel by train from Tirana to Durres, about 20 miles, to count several dozen of them, some in courtyards right next to the houses.

Some bunkers can even be found as part of playgrounds. Photo by slazgrc/Flickr

 

Elton Caushi, a tour guide from Tirana, is fascinated by the bunkers. He has worked out a route for his customers to tour the most interesting ones. “For instance, there are several of them in the ancient city of Apollonia, among the ruins left by the ancient Greeks,” he says. “The tourists love them, which the Albanians can’t understand.”

But why on earth were these concrete mushrooms built at all? Enver Hoxha, who ruled Albania with absolute power from 1944 until his death in 1985, was afraid of being attacked by other states, both communist and non. “He was paranoid,” Izhara, the political scientist, says. “He thought everyone wanted to invade Albania.”

She recounts Hoxha’s shifting alliances – first with Yugoslavia until a quarrel with its leader, Josip Broz Tito, then with the Soviet Union until its period of de-Stalinization. “So he made an alliance with China and – seeing enemies everywhere – started to arm the country to the teeth and build the bunkers,” Izhara says.

They were meant to protect Albania from invasion by Yugoslavia, the Warsaw Pact, and NATO. They were fear made concrete: over the centuries Albania had been invaded and occupied by the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Bulgarians, the Venetians, the Turks, the Italians, the Austrians, the Germans, the Serbians, and finally the modern Greeks.

“Hoxha appealed to a sensitive spot for the Albanians,” Izhara  says. “The bunkers were built for us, rather than for foreigners – to frighten us and to instill discipline. To rule us more easily. Nowadays it might seem absurd, but people of my parents’ age – now around 70 – truly believed the whole world wanted to invade us.”

Tour guide Caushi likens life under Hoxha to that in contemporary North Korea, “They persuaded us that the first thing the Americans, Russians, or Greeks thought about on waking up each day was how to conquer Albania,” he says. “We were completely cut off from information; my uncle went to prison for 20 years because he watched a film on Yugoslav TV and told a friend about it, who informed on him. The majority preferred not to take the risk. They listened to Radio Tirana and tried not to stick their necks out.”

So for years the Albanian government built fortifications rather than roads or flats. Up to 12 people lived together in areas of 50 square meters, because all the engineers were working for the army, and all the concrete went to build the bunkers, which were never actually used for military purposes.

“We most often use them to lose our virtue,” Izhara says. “I haven’t had the experience, but I’ve heard lots of stories, including a recent one from a friend on holiday in Sarande. “He said it was awful. He got frozen to the bone, and he ended up stepping in a turd.”

 

ICONS IMPLODING

Hoxha died in 1985. A month before his death Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union and the winds of change began to blow in all the communist countries. Except for Albania. Here, in 1990 Hoxha’s successor, Ramiz Alia, was still using the propaganda machine to persuade Albanians that life in Poland following the change to a capitalist system had gotten considerably worse.

But by then Albanians knew better. The system began to founder, until in 1992 Alia handed over power to Sali Berisha, former head of the Labor Party organization at the medical academy in Tirana, who had a better sense than the other apparatchiks about which way the winds of history were blowing. Berisha became president and is now the prime minister.

But for years neither he nor anyone else in power has touched Hoxha’s bunkers. “No one ever had any idea what to do with them,” Caushi says. But in 1999, when the Serbs started to bomb Kosovo, he says, they hit bunkers in northern Albania. “And suddenly it turned out that these structures, which were supposed to survive an atomic bomb, had just fallen apart as if they were made of clay! For lots of people it was a shock. Suddenly they could see that the power of communism was a matrix, a delusion, not the truth.”

At that point a second, civilian life began for the bunkers. People lost respect for them. In the countryside, farmers started keeping cows, goats, and pigs in them; in the cities until recently they served as refrigerators. But now that Albania has grown rich, almost everyone has a refrigerator at home, so people have started throwing rubbish into the bunkers.

It’s different in the capital. Blokku is a district of Tirana that in communist times was closed off and guarded; this is where the bigwigs lived – Hoxha, his ministers and comrades. Every building had a concrete shelter in the basement.

“These days Blokku is the biggest rave in Tirana,” jokes Kamelja, a law student. “There are several really great bars and discos in the old shelters. For people my age, the 20-year-olds, these places have a completely different meaning than they had for our parents.”

Right next to Hoxha’s abandoned villa is a smart café and an elite English-language school. Opposite sits a gambling arcade.

In the generation that knows the bunkers only as strange concrete mushrooms, the idea of finding new uses for them has taken hold. Elian Stefa, a young Albanian architect, did his graduation project on them. He drew bunkers made into mini-hotels, and even cellars for cooling wine. “I’d be happiest of all if someone opened a hostel in a bunker,” he says. “We did a visualization of what such a place could look like. Everyone likes it, but there’s no one brave enough to be the first to do it.”

Caushi knows well what they’re talking about. “My tourists would pay anything to stay the night in something like that,” he says.

 

‘OUR MENTAL RELEASE FROM COMMUNISM’

In the center of Tirana sits a different bunker – a great big pyramid, built just after Hoxha died. It was meant to be his tomb and a place of pilgrimage for schools, the military, and workers.

Today the pyramid is empty, covered in feeble graffiti. The bravest local skateboarders ride down its steep walls. “I pass it every day on my way to work,” says Gjergj Ndrecen, whom Hoxha’s regime locked up for seven years for disseminating “enemy propaganda.” “I just distributed a few anti-government leaflets,” says Ndrecen, who works for a foundation that helps former political prisoners who are in financial straits. “I would have been inside for far longer if communism hadn’t collapsed. That’s why every time I pass this monstrosity my blood boils. No one has ever answered for the hell they made us live in.”

The communists, who killed some 50,000 people in Albania and set up re-education camps for thousands more, have never been brought to task. Ramiz Alia died last year at the age of 86. A few of them did serve time in prison, but the sentences were only for abuse of power and financial fiddles, not for the crimes of the system. Toward the end of his life the former dictator gave an interview to the BBC in which he admitted that not all the death sentences in the communist era were justified. He said he regretted that.

Not so Nexhmija Hoxha. The dictator’s 92-year-old widow appeared not long ago on a show that is extremely popular in Albania, presented by Janusz Bugajski, an American political scientist with Polish roots. During the 90-minute conversation she refused to show the slightest remorse. “I don’t regret anything,” she said. “Our country was very poor, it had lots of enemies. All those actions were necessary.”

Ndrecen says the pyramid, like the bunkers, should be blown up – which he says is likely, considering the high price of steel.

The pyramid’s demolition would be “the start of our mental release from communism. As long as we go on living in the world invented by the communists, the spirit of Hoxha will continue to prevail here,” Ndrecen says.

While Djoni, the construction worker from Berati, is destroying bunkers using his own makeshift methods, the army is doing it much more methodically. “They have special pneumatic drills,” says Djoni, almost whistling in admiration. “Apart from that, they’re allowed to fire at them from tanks and mortars. They can do as many as 10 bunkers a day. That’s 3,000 euros! I wonder what they do with the money?” he muses.

I tried to find out all about it at the Albanian Ministry of Defense, but my questions got stuck somewhere between departments. But in 2009, a reporter for Agence France Presse found tanks destroying the half-submerged mushrooms at an Albanian tourist resort in the Seman district.

The bunkers had become a safety hazard by creating whirlpools that sucked in swimmers. According to AFP, at least five people had drowned that way the previous summer.

Helping with the demolition was Besnik Lasku, a former soldier who had helped to install them.

“The bunkers were meant to be able to resist everything, but the fortifications failed in their one and only battle – against the sea,” Lasku told the news agency.

 

Witold Szabłowski is a reporter for Gazeta Wyborcza, where this article originally appeared. Gjergj Erebara, a reporter for the newspaper Shqip, contributed to this article. It was produced for the Next in Line project, co-funded by the European Union. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

One response to “The End of the Concrete Mushrooms”

  1. Grant Finlay

    Great article! I have been fascinated by these fortifications all over Albania and it was very interesting to read about their history, and the legacy they leave today.