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Hoxha's final heartbeat

Sixty miles north, in the rocky and desolate Spaç labor camp, political prisoners watched the ceremony from wooden benches in the television room. No one dared smile or cheer. Would Hoxha’s death mean their liberation or execution?

"Enver" engraved into a mountainside in Berat, Albania. Wikimedia. Public domain.The morning medical exam on April 9, 1985, went better than on previous days. Enver Hoxha, Albania’s unchallenged leader for 41 years, took a stroll in the garden of his villa with his wife, Nexhmije, leaning on a walker for support. But around 10:00 a.m. Nexhmije rang the alarm from the bedroom. The special team of doctors, permanently on call, rushed in, giving Hoxha oxygen and electric shocks to restart the heart. They succeeded, and the signs looked good at first. But Hoxha’s kidneys, ravaged by diabetes, had deteriorated beyond repair. Doctors kept his heart beating for two days, but they knew Hoxha had no chance. Just after midnight on April 11, a second heart attack struck the fatal blow.

Five hours later, the loudspeaker sprang to life in the cold cell at Burrel prison. The prisoners rose from mattresses on the floor and shuddered in the mountain air. Prison life had a plodding routine—roll call, breakfast, political class, work—but this day seemed different. Instead of news from the state-run radio, a funeral song filled the air.

Some of the men in Burrel prison had committed common crimes: theft, assault, or worse. But many of the 250 men were there for crimes of the mind: they had dared to question the dominant role of “the Leader.” They had written poems, listened to Western music, complained of poor food, or tried to escape on foot or by raft, or their relatives had committed these treasonous acts and Hoxha was making the family pay. In the prison’s centre stood a special wing for former communist leaders, men who had fallen from Hoxha’s good grace, swept away with an iron broom.

Trapped behind bars in the barren mountains of northern Albania, the prisoners were keenly aware of the slightest change in routine. They could read every sign, and the message on this brisk morning was flashing bright: Albania’s omnipotent leader was dead.

Excited and nervous, the prisoners discussed the breaking news. They debated the choice of a successor and their chances of release. Would the monarchists or nationalists come to power? Would Albania open to the world? The guards outside had no idea.

Around noon, the state radio released the news: “Comrades, communists, workers, cooperativists, intellectuals, women, and the youth of Albania, veterans of the war and compatriots,” the announcer said in a grave tone. “Today, the 11th of April, 1985, at two hours fifteen, the heart of the beloved and glorious leader of the party and our people, Comrade Enver Hoxha, first secretary of the Central Committee of the Party of Labor of Albania, chairman of the General Council of the Democratic Front of Albania, commander in chief of our armed forces, ceased to beat.”

The construction suggested that Hoxha was not dead, only his heart had stopped.

The prisoners erupted in joy. They shrieked and jumped like free men. Some days later they paid the price for their exultations with beatings and a twenty-day lockdown, but repercussions entered no one’s mind on that cold day.

Outside of the prisons, all Albania mourned. Even those who despised the regime felt a sense of loss. Hoxha was the guardian of a patriarchal land—the man who had shepherded Albanians from the destruction of World War Two, steered them between the imperialist West and revisionist East, and built a society with electricity and schools in the furthest hills. His indoctrination had seeped into every crack of life, a cult of personality so complete that his death was traumatic even to those who had suffered at his hand. “Daddy, will the Germans invade Albania?” a young girl nervously asked her parents. Hoxha was so important to Albania, so central to its identity, his name engraved in mountains, that Albanians found it difficult to imagine he would ever die.

Thousands of mourners stood in long lines winding down Tirana’s boulevard to view the body as it lay in state. They cried and held their right fists to their heads in the communist salute as they passed Hoxha’s open casket ringed by flowers, a large portrait of the Leader looming behind.

A few days later, the funeral procession snaked down Tirana’s main boulevard under high, gray clouds. Mourners lined the street dozens deep as the coffin, atop a cannon and draped in the red-and-black Albanian flag, made its way to the central Skanderbeg Square. In a light rain, Politburo members led a procession to the Cemetery of the Martyrs on the outskirts of town, where they lowered the coffin into a marble crypt. Hoxha’s wife and party leaders sprinkled dirt from his hometown and stroked the golden letters of his name.

Sixty miles north, in the rocky and desolate Spaç labor camp, political prisoners watched the ceremony from wooden benches in the television room. No one dared smile or cheer. Would Hoxha’s death mean their liberation or execution? Some of the prisoners had written a telegram of condolence to Hoxha’s widow.

“Stand and honor this great man!” a man barked from the back of the room. The prisoners spun around expecting to see a guard. But it was the political prisoner Allem, who had lost his mind in 1980 after being shot in a failed escape.

Excerpted from the forthcoming book "Modern Albania: From Dictatorship to Democracy(NYU Press, May 2015)

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About the author

Fred C. Abrahams is a special advisor at Human Rights Watch and a writer who has worked for twenty years in areas marred by political crises and armed conflict, including the Balkans and Middle East. He is the author of Modern Albania: From Dictatorship to Democracy (NYU Press, May 2015).

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