A trip to Albania, land of the Eagles – Part One

Photo by Monique Snijder on Unsplash

In hindsight, it was a major life change. Hard to believe that it is now almost 30 years ago – the summer of 1994.  Leaving a management job with a FTSE 100 British company – with a nice wedge of voluntary severance money – allowed for some thinking time.

Why not use some of that cash to join a group from my West London Church and head to Albania for two weeks?  Why not, indeed?  The background to that is that one intrepid junior pastor of Nigerian origin had set off some months earlier to plant a church in a small town named Laç in northwestern Albania.  He was keen to have some help in his efforts to do up a hall that could be used as a church and to support him in his outreach efforts with the locals – and in particular the many children who lived in the dismal remnants of the long and harsh Communist dictatorship.

Communist rule in Albania began to crumble after student demonstrations started in the capital city, Tirana, in December 1990.  The grip that Enver Hoxha had held for so long and so tightly since the Second World War finally loosened upon his death in 1985.  He assumed the office of First Secretary of the Party of Labour of Albania on 8 November 1941 and held that until his demise on 11 April 1985.  He was also Prime Minister from 23 October 1944 until 19 July 1954, Minister of Foreign Affairs March 1946 – July 1953,  and Minister of People’s Defence October 1944 – July 1953.  I have no idea whether he drew four salaries concurrently!

A couple of years of political upheaval and change followed the demonstrations until, eventually, the former communist rulers were routed in elections in March 1992.

During Hoxha’s tenure, Albania became a Stalinist one party communist state, where state atheism was implemented and both Christians and Muslims were actively discouraged from worshipping.  No one (apart from a very few and very high up Party officials) was allowed to travel abroad and there was no private proprietorship.  Only a handful of entry visas were granted – and most likely they would have been for visitors from other Communist countries.  There was wide-scale persecution of landowners, or anyone who resisted the drive towards collectivisation.  Albania has always been a feudal society, and anyone who didn’t conform could face imprisonment, execution or exile.  On the plus side, adult literacy increased from 5-15% of the population to more than 90%.  They also managed to electrify the country and wipe out epidemics, increase the number of doctors, and make good progress on women’s rights – which had been almost non-existent as Albania had traditionally been a very patriarchal (and clannish) country.

With this recent and massive political change, Albanians were very slowly waking up to the realities of life in the late 20th Century outside of their previously locked down country.  As only very senior officials were permitted to travel outside of the country – and only a handful of visitors allowed in – most people had nothing with which to compare their lives to those of the average Westerner. Albanians had been told that the rest of the world was in ruins and they had it good.  They had no access to television – although our hosts did listen to BBC World Service and named their little dog BeeBee in honour of their lifeline to the outside world.

So it was that around 20 of us flew out to Athens and then on to Tirana, and finally approximately 30 miles north by bus along a bumpy and dusty road through a mostly empty landscape.  Hills to the east showed little sign of habitation beyond farms and small holdings.  A look on Google Earth nowadays shows considerably more buildings and decent roads.  One of the features, which we saw everywhere, were the concrete bunkers that had been built during the Communist dictatorship.  There were over 750,000 built from the 1960’s into the 1980’s – working out at 14.7 bunkers per square mile.

Laç (pronounced Latch) seemed to comprise of low rise, low cost, grey concrete blocks and some older small houses.   No shops to speak of, apart from a few market stalls selling food produce.

It was home to the Chemical and Metallurgical Combine, an industrial facility established during the communist era.  This Superphosphate plant was largely built with Chinese investment and technology.  It has created a great deal of pollution in the area over the years.  Thankfully now closed and apparently derelict.

The Superphosphate chemical plant in Laç – link below for more information.

History and actual conditions of Laç Superphosphate Factory, Albania

Our group had been allocated to various families around the town and I was billeted along with an older lady, B,  who I knew and liked, with a family in one of the concrete apartment blocks.   We were to share a twin bedded room, along with our young Albanian interpreter who was to luxuriate on a mattress on the floor.   The daughters were relegated to the sitting room as we had taken over their room.

The family comprised of the middle aged mum and dad, the Grandmother, and two daughters in their 20’s, plus the previously mentioned BeeBee the dog.  There was a small sitting room with a dining table in the corner, a tiny galley kitchen off the sitting room, I guess another one or two bedrooms (never went into them) and a room which I hesitate to call the bathroom – but more of that horror later.  Apart from the daughters, no one else in the family spoke English.  The other family member was a son, who had moved to Italy – I shall tell you why he was there in Part 2.

© Annie Dee 2024