House of Leaves

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Things to do


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October, 2019

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Until the early 1990s, Albania was under communist rule. To gain an idea of life during this time, we visited the House of Leaves as well as “Bunk’Art 1”: and “Bunk’Art 2”: None shy away from the truth, explaining the horrors faced by individuals in graphic detail.

The building, dating back to 1931, was originally a maternity clinic, but in the 1940s was commandeered by the communists for Albania’s secret police, known as the Sigurimi. Under communism, ordinary people had no right to a private life and the building was used mainly by technicians who tapped people’s phones and installed bugs in apartments.

In the small garden outside were two huge green ear trumpets to signify the ‘listening in’ approach, whilst black stencilled leaves adorned the outer and stairwell windows. The exhibits were over two floors with old cassette spools on the landing walls. Each room had introductions in Albanian and English.

Charts described the hierarchy within the Sigurimi from the top down. Agents were top ranking collaborators reporting directly to a Sigurimi Operational Officer, residents were qualified collaborators coordinating 3 to 5 informants, whilst the informants formed a large network and were responsible for passing information upwards. Hosts, at the bottom of the pile, let their properties be used for operational activities or meetings.

One large room was full of electronic equipment used in spying including cameras, telephone lenses, tape recorders and bugs. Each was labelled with the make, model, year and where it was purchased from, usually Russia or more latterly China. It looked like a cross between something from James Bond and a PC World showroom.

Our guide told us that people were afraid to criticise the regime, as not only could it lead to them being classified as an ‘enemy of the state’, the curse could be cast on the whole family, who could be relocated to a far off rural place. For example, if you criticised the bread in the state-owned bakery, it would be perceived as a slight against communism.

Bearing in mind nowhere appeared safe to openly express your views, we were interested in a sign which read: “In Albania during the communist regime, as in other Stalinist countries, the only public space in which citizens ventured to express ‘dangerous’ thoughts were public toilets”. Personally, I’d have thought it was the worst place.

The Sigurimi extensively used an A1 Transmitter or ‘bug’ as it was informally called. They boasted that the devices were produced by their own labour force i.e. by employees working in the Laboratory of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. A wall had pictures of everyday objects which could be bugged and included walking sticks, pipes and shoe heels.

One room contained a painting, The Epic of Morning Stars by Edison Gjergjo, which we’d read about, although it should have been in the National Gallery of Arts. The painting portrayed young partisans listening with rapt attention to an old peasant man singing and playing a musical instrument. As it did not glorify the workers, the artist was imprisoned in January 1974.

Another room showed how living rooms were set up in the 70s with TV, radio and fridge which was strangely plugged in.

Propaganda magazine covers adorned the walls of a room, another contained various radios, whilst a TV ran footage of the types of programmes allowed. Norman Wisdom was a particular hit as his working-class character, Mr Pitkin, and his struggles against his employer Mr Grimsdale and his aristocratic friends, was regarded as the epitome of the communist fight.

Also based in the building, was the department responsible for spying on foreign visitors and maintaining detailed notes on their movements. Whilst a limited number of tourists were allowed into the country, their movements were tightly controlled and they were not allowed to talk to locals.

It was impossible to comprehend how difficult life under communism must have been. However, our guide tried to balance the argument by giving a good insight into the positives of the period: education and high literacy rates even in rural areas, health care, railways, low crime levels etc. He summarised by saying that communism needs to be judged in two or three generations time when people are more dispassionate.

Helen Jackson

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