Eighteen years have passed since 1992, the year when Albania opened its borders to visitors after more than forty years of communist dictatorship. However, the negative image constructed in the west of Albania as ‘gangster country’, filled with thugs and stolen Mercedes, still prevents many from visiting. This image is often reinforced at the highest levels, for example in 2007 when George W Bush visited the country. Welcomed by an enthusiastically cheering crowd, the President quickly slipped his valuable watch into his pocket. For days European headlines concerned themselves with the unsolved mystery of the President’s stolen watch. This incident is often recounted in Albania in a sense of humourous, warm self-mockery.
Those who do cross the Albanian border, for whatever odd reason, will probably find, besides the aforementioned stolen Mercedes, a beautiful country, filled with wide quiet beaches, rough mountains, and disarmingly friendly and helpful people. Most strikingly, the accidental tourist will find thousands of small concrete bunkers spread throughout the country; in backyards, along the shores of the sea, it the middle of sidewalks and even in the most deserted mountain areas. Today the bunkers serve all kinds of practical and creative purposes, as hay barns, public toilets, or even as small bars. However none of these new vocations reflect the bunkers initial, less innocent purpose.
After ending all official relations with the Soviet Union in 1961 and pulling out of the Warsaw Pact in 1968 after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Albania became one of the most isolated communist countries of the 20th century. Relations were only maintained with Maoist China, and until 1978 Albania received some military and financial support from the communist giant. In this isolated position a siege mentality was bound to develop, which fed dictator Enver Hoxha’s unceasing paranoia surrounding a possible invasion. Acting under fear of attack from imperialist America, the Soviet Union, Tito’s Yugoslavia, and many other locations, including Greece, Hoxha decided to enact one of the most bizarre defence strategies in history: the complete “bunkerisation” of Albania.
According to 'Shuaip', a former Colonel and defence professor at the Military Academy in Tirana, the bunker mission was top-secret. Only those loyal to the Albanian army were involved in the construction of more than 750,000 bunkers. To keep the Albanians safe from ‘the enemy’ there had to be a bunker for each family, which worked out as a bunker for every five persons. The shelters were placed in strategic defence lines, circled along the border and from there moving inwards towards the centre of the country. “Every square kilometre had to be bunkerised”, Shuaip recalled, whilst drawing out the plan on a piece of paper. Therefore bunkers can be found even in the most remote areas of the country.
To prove the brilliance and strength of his plan, Hoxha made those who were in charge of the programme personally test the bunkers: high army officials had to remain inside whilst under attack. The former Colonel now speaks with some aversion when he recalls these stories. “In the beginning we were all proud and enthusiastic about this giant project, but as more bunkers were produced and people became poorer, many of us silently began to doubt the usefulness of this defence strategy. While we suffered from a sincere housing shortage, with three families sharing an apartment being unexceptional, all our concrete, iron and manpower was directed at the production of bunkers. And what for? An enemy that never came.”
It is now seventeen years since Albanians chose a democratic government, and still the bunkers are there, waiting. Since they were built to be indestructible, and are deeply embedded in the ground, it proves both difficult and costly to remove them. In this situation, a new approach has taken hold in Albania, and many of the younger Albanians in the numerous bars of Tirana state that it would be better to recycle them, rather than attempting to remove them, as advocated in the 1990s. According to Julian, a 28 year old soldier, the bunkers have the ability to be transformed into Albania’s own unique symbol of faded communism, in a way similar to the symbolism and tourist-magnetism of the Berlin Wall in Berlin. In Julian’s vision it is only a matter of time and improvements in infrastructure before more tourists will find their way to the photogenic shelters.
Walking along the coast of harbour city of Durrës, it seems that the former defence shelters do have potential tourist appeal. Several bunkers here have been transformed into colourful beach bars and coffee houses. Kujtim, now 44 years old, is one of the first people who came up with the idea to build a ‘bunker-bar’. By 1993 he had already moved into a small 5 person-bunker, and opened its concrete doors for visitors. Today his project has grown into a lucrative hotel and restaurant. The initial bunker is now subsumed by a larger dome-shaped construction which is used as both a wine cellar and a Raki distillery.
Just like Julian, Kujtim believes that sooner or later western Europeans will find their way to Albania’s beaches and bunkers. In his opinion all that stands in the way is negative image building in the West, or as NGO worker Boykan argues, a complete lack of any image building. It was only two years ago that a German tourist visited Kujtim’s bunker hotel equipped with a gaslight, convinced that electricity had not yet reached the cities of Albania.
Considering Albania’s recent accession to NATO membership, and the present Prime Minister’s fixation on EU membership, the country’s image will likely experience a positive boost. Bunker-shaped marble ashtrays are among souvenirs already being sold on the streets of Tirana. And if Julian and Kujtim are right, it will not be long before tourists from western Europe will leave Mother Theresa Airport with a small piece of framed bunker wall in their luggage. Travelling throughout the country, the younger generation seems to have found a way to transform the remnants of Albania’s dark isolated and history into something new and positive, and with that, finally created a justification for the bunkers existence.