Because Enver Hoxha was bonkers, he built bunkers. Hoxha was the socialist leader of Albania from 1944 until his death from diabetes in 1985. Especially during the Cold War years, he trusted no one. Ruth is currently reading Ismail Kadare’s The Successor, a thinly veiled Albanian thriller about paranoia and a Man Booker prize winner. She bought it in Albania. During Hoxha’s reign no one could leave the country, Mother Teresa couldn’t get in, and to assure the survival of Albania from nuclear attack by Russia or the United States or possible invasion from a neighbor, Hoxha (pronounced hoe ja) ordered the construction of about 700,000 bunkers of varying sizes all over the country.
Concrete domes like the one pictured above still spring from the earth in unexpected places all over Albania. The ones I saw in cemeteries, on beaches, and in fields looked like one-passenger space vehicles abandoned by ETs. The greatest concentration of them were on a hillside that I gamboled up like Maria in The Sound of Music near Albania’s border with Macedonia. There was one in the city park full of unusable benches across the street from our hotel in Tirana, the capital.
Made of iron and concrete and put in place between 1950 and 1985, these bunkers are virtually impossible to destroy. After all, they were built by a decidedly paranoid leader to repel invasion. A tank assault wouldn’t affect a bunker’s resident soldier or civilian hider. In fact, the bunkers’ engineer/inventor was so certain that they were impenetrable that he stood in one during a tank assault and was uninjured. Almost 25% of Albania’s military budget went toward building them.
Modern Albanians are enjoying freedom if not complete prosperity after eons of control by forces from within and without. Some are looking for clever ways to use these ever-present eyesores. There’s talk, for example, of turning some of the larger ones into curious hotel rooms.
One of the biggest thrills for healing Albanians occurred in 2007 when George Bush showed up rather unexpectedly in Fushe-Kruja. He picked this small town north of Tirana to visit when he and Laura were in Albania on a mission to assure the world that this country was safe for investing. The townspeople were so honored that they erected a dictator-sized statue of Bush that still graces a small park in the center of town across from a playground. Ruth and I drove through this village but did not stop. Apparently, many Fushe-Krujan shops still sell George and Laura memorabilia. Bill Clinton is reportedly a hero in Kosovo. Perhaps Barak Obama should pay a visit to, say, Montenegro before leaving office.
Some day soon I’ll tell you about Albania’s other colorful ruler, King Zog.