Site of Witness and Memory

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Things to do


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September, 2019

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Whilst visiting Albania, I was keen to learn more about life during the communist era (1944 to 1990). The city of Shkodra, in northern Albania, provided our first opportunity, at the “Site of Witness and Memory”: Site of Witness and Memory. The building, an unassuming 19th century house, was the HQ for the Ministry of Internal Affairs: in reality its storerooms were transformed into detention and interrogation cells for the sigurimi, the communist secret police. It is now a museum to commemorate those who passed through or lost their lives there.

In the entrance, a board displayed figures for the numbers affected in the city: 2,890 political prisoners, 1924 interned, 601 shot, 61 clerics killed, and 135 who died in torture.

Our guide ensured we had plenty of time to wander around the information boards and displays, in Albanian and English: time to take in the horror of the period.

A map showed the location of 26 prisons in Shkodra: the city was one of the most notorious areas in Albania for uprisings against the communists. Most were on the eastern side of the city highway which we’d seen from “Rozafa Castle”: with Muslims and minarets dominating the western side.

A timeline told us the various uses of the building on a timeline: an orphanage and then the civic hospital, until it was bought by Franciscan Fathers who established a school for the tuition of parish priests. The communists used it from 1946 to 1991 and it was then turned into a police station before finally becoming the museum. We were told that several monks still reside in a side building.

There were four photos of a church that had been bombed during the period of atheism: from 1967 religion was banned and many mosques, churches and cathedrals were destroyed.

A long wall displayed black and white photographs. On the right side were pictures of those who had being executed or gone missing and Albanian clergy who’d been imprisoned, died in torture or executed. Those to the left were pictures of people who had been imprisoned and suffered in prison camps but survived. There were some blank spaces: this was said to be an ‘ongoing process’.

We saw a photograph of the Atheist Museum, which contained icons taken from the orthodox churches and religious propaganda. We later saw the actual building, now a bank.

A short black and white DVD showed archive footage of people being sentenced to death by firing squad or being handed down lengthy prison sentences.

A corridor, which appeared to be illuminated by pink neon arched lights, turned out to be simply cleverly painted. In the small room were several display cases with items the prisoners had made or tiny handwritten notes which had been secreted out to their families.

Off the room was a 50m corridor containing the original 29 cells. They were extremely small and dark with only one small high window. At first, the prisoners would have been left for a week before being tortured: a board described the torture options in graphic detail. Some cells contained information about the prisoners held in it: one was a 22 year old female teacher of religion, Maria Tuci, who had been put in a sack with a wild cat which had been clubbed from the outside. She died from her injuries and along with 37 Catholics killed for their faith, were beatified in what was regarded as the country’s biggest single catholic event ever. We later saw a photograph of them in the Cathedral.

There is no doubt that this was a sombre experience of what was a relatively recent period of history, but it one that must be visited to understand what ordinary people went through for over 40 years.

Helen Jackson

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