Tuesday 19 September 2023

"You had to be careful about everything" - Stories from Albania

There are many empty homes in Valbone, northern Albania. Some are occupied for a short period each year when the owners return from working overseas, while others, seemingly abandoned, have begun to crumble. While photographing what I thought to be an abandoned house, two women emerged and came towards my guide, Saimir and I. The younger of the two greeted us and indicating the slightly stooped woman at her side, said, "Zoja would like to invite you into her house." Zoja, a tiny woman who wore the loosely tied white headscarf, typical of many older Albanian women, smiled generously and gestured for us to follow her. 

The austere-looking house was set back from the road, overlooking an almost dry river bed and under the shadow of the mountains. Saimir and I, removed our shoes and went inside. The younger woman gave her name as Zarya and explained that the house had been built for military personnel during Albania's 45 years long communist period. When the regime collapsed in 1991 the place was left empty. Inside I immediately noticed and commented on how cool and comfortable the temperature was compared to the rising mid-morning heat. "The walls are very thick" said Zarya, "they keep the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter. But they are sometimes damp because of the condensation." 

We were shown into a simple, but charming living room, furnished with a heavy 1970's style suite and coffee table and a few small kilims (traditional rugs). The dark brown and orange furniture contrasted sharply with the clean, whitewashed walls. A piece of hand-made lace lay on a small set of drawers, and herbs and berries collected from the mountains, had been placed on top of it. A larger piece of lace that my grandmother would have called an antimacassar lay over the back of one of the chairs. "My friend made some of these pieces," said Zoja as she led us into the kitchen where two other women were sitting and who greeted us with smiles and "hello" in English. The room was filled with the buttery aroma of byrekas being prepared on the stove. 

"My family owned the land but it was confiscated by the communists"

I asked Zoja how long she'd lived there. She said "I've been here for the last twenty years. My family owned the land but it was confiscated by the communists who built soldiers' houses on it. After they left, I came back and moved in. I am 80 now and a widow. I have six children. Two live abroad. Another son disappeared somewhere in Greece. He might be dead. I don't know what happened to him." Zarya added "Her other children live close by and see her regularly."

Zoja continued, "My husband died eleven years ago. He spent time in prison during the communist period. He was sent to Spaç, where he was tortured and lost an eye. I had to do hard agricultural work to feed the family." The telling of the story was clearly affecting her and she paused, trying to compose herself. Spaç, in a remote part of the Mirdita region, was the most notorious of the network of isolated prisons and forced labour camps established under the old regime. Prisoners were subject to hard physical labour and torture, including mock executions, sleep and food deprivation, being fed very salty food and then denied water as well as being beaten and then having salt poured into the wounds afterwards. Sentences of ten or even twenty years were not unusual and people were often re-arrested immediately after their release.

Perhaps to divert Zoja a little, Zarya asked if we had other questions. All of the women present were wearing different levels of Islamic clothing. I asked how people had managed to maintain religious practise under the old regime, as in 1967, communist leader, Enver Hoxha, declared Albania an atheist state. Most mosques and churches were demolished and anyone discovered or reported to be practising religion was imprisoned. "It was very difficult" she said. "It wasn't possible to dress like this then. Everything had to be hidden. We even changed the way we spoke. After someone died instead of expressing hope that the dead person would go to heaven, people spoke about the health of their relatives. It was a very dangerous time."

"You had to be careful about everything"

I asked Zoja if there had been anything good about the old regime. She said "Everyone had a job and agriculture and industry operated well. But behind it all, there was something very bad. You had to be careful about everything. There were many spies who would listen to and report conversations. Sometimes people who had a quarrel with their neighbour would take revenge by making up stories about them and reporting them to the police." 

As well as people who voluntarily reported their friends, neighbours and even family members, the regime had a huge network of spies. Even very small infringements could get you sent to prison and your family ostracised. Ways of dealing with this included being creative with language. In her autobiography  "Free: Coming of Age at the End of History," Albanian professor of Political Theory, Lea Ypi, remembers her parents talking about an uncle taking 20 years to graduate from university and eventually realising that "university" meant prison and the 20 years of study was his period of incarceration. This level of fear and suspicion must have a lasting impact on society and despite the seeming openness of most Albanians, there are still hints of the old fears. I asked a local why so many Albanian cafes and restaurants play deafeningly loud music. "It is to prevent us hearing the conversations of others," he said.

In Albanian culture guests are treated with high regard and are considered to be under the protection of the house. Despite our entreaties for her to sit, Zoja remained standing for the duration of our visit. "I must stand to give respect to my guests," she said. Before leaving, I asked if she would let me photograph her. She agreed and I took a number of shots, both inside and outside the house. As we left, she asked us to return, blessed our families and stood waving from the step.

Photographs of Zoja and external scenery by the author, internal details by Studio SB


  1. Thank you for this post; Zoja's story was a heartbreaker.

    May I create a link to my last post on Albania called "Every country in Europe tried to take over Albania. So did Enver Hoxha". I found it quite hard to write the post, even though as a historian there was little left that I hadn't heard before.

  2. Hello. Yes, most welcome :)