In 1976, Enver Hoxha declared Albania an atheist state. Not even dared by the Soviet Union, it was an unprecedented move at the time.
To this day, the small Balkan country remains the first as well as the last to ever do so.
What followed was a brutal crusade.
Inspired by Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the Cultural and Ideological Revolution, aimed at cleansing Albania of its rich religious past, was fought without remorse. More than 2150 places of worship were seized and either rededicated as theatres, cinemas, and sport halls, or destroyed altogether. Only a few buildings, being declared cultural heritage a few years prior, survived this vandalism.
Religious practice of any kind was prohibited and condemned by the government. Anti-clerical policies were put in place to punish anyone the authorities deemed a “traitor to the country”. Seemingly overnight, clergymen were labelled as fascist collaborators and faced sudden persecution.
Hundreds were imprisoned.
Subjected to public resentment, forced labour, abuse, and torture, many wasted away their final days in the obscurity of tiny cells, before reciting their last prayer towards the looming barrel of a gun.
In Hoxha’s vision there was no place for religion. Albania was destined to transform into a godless society and Communism ought to be its sole belief. Those who objected (or were simply seen as a threat) were to be eradicated.
How many men of faith exactly perished in the inhuman prisons and labour camps during these dark years is unknown, however.
Albania’s northernmost city, Shkodra, counted 23 of these prisons alone. One has now been converted into the Site of Witness and Memory, in an effort to commemorate the victims of this senseless purge, to look back on and reappraise this dark chapter in Albania’s history, and to stand as a silent witness for future generations not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
A sombre photo series starts off the exhibition. Hundreds of faces tell the tragic tale of a madman’s fantasy forced into reality in the most cruel of fashions. And yet, the wall only shows a fraction of the victims. Original video footage allows a fleeting glimps into this tragic period, as well.
The exposition continues with very detailed accounts on the persecution of the different religious groups and the tireless efforts made by Enver Hoxha’s government to transform Albania into an atheist state. A dim hallway intersected by red coloured arches, symbolising the suffering of the inmates, leads deeper into the final part of the complex: a dark corridor, lined by 23 cells on each side.
While most of them rest empty, isolated beams of light fall through the barred windows and reveal haunting marks of the past: Wooden crosses, writings scratched into the plaster, walls decorated with communist propaganda, a noose. Just a few decades ago, these tiny cells were used for political prisoners awaiting interrogation (paired with physical and psychological torture) in the ultimate room at the end of the hallway.
This former Franciscan-run gymnasium was not a place people died in. It was a place to break them. If they weren’t sentenced to death or sent straight to one of the camps, the solitude of the “biruca” (=”holes”, as the cells where called) remained their only solace.
Although it is uncomfortably quiet, the eerie silence only disrupted by one’s own footsteps, the gut-wrenching screams of these hapless souls still seem to echo through the halls.
Seriously, the atmosphere of this place is creepy as hell.
An intensely immersive museum experience that should not be missed when visiting Shkodra.
If you are not short on time, the museum also contains a small library where visitors can read up on the country’s communist past or even study books written in the prison itself.
Prices | General admission: 200 Lek
Opening Hours | Monday-Friday 9:00-14:30; Saturday 9:00-12:30