Investigation: Albania Governments Knew of Communist Mass Grave

For nearly two decades Albanian authorities new of the existence mass grave site discovered near the capital Tirana, but kept it secret often forcing victims’ families to dig on their own.

By Gjergj Erebara in Tirana

Albania’s government new very well the existence of a mass grave site only five kilometers east of the capital Tirana, but did nothing in nearly two decades to exhume the remains and return them to their families, Balkan Insight can reveal.

Documents obtained by the archives of the Ministry of Interior and interviews with relatives of victims, show that ministry officials have released non-officially documents to  relatives and in some cases offered to accompany them to the site.

The mass grave’s existence was revealed by a local man, Jovan Plaku, who led a nearly two decade search for the remains of his father, executed by the regime in 1976.  On Saturday he turned the remains of 19 people over to Tirana’s city morgue after several months of digging. In the previous Balkan Insight report his real identity was not revealed.

Following the publication of his story by Balkan Insight, the authorities have launched a probe to identify the victims and recover other remains from the area.

Albania is one of the few former Iron Curtain countries not to have opened the archives of its communist-era security services. As a result, precise data on the number of political prisoners killed by the regime is not available.

However, the country’s association of former political prisoners believes that 5,577 men and 450 women were executed under communist rule from 1946 to 1991.

Almost two decades after the regime collapsed, thousands of relatives of executed political prisoners are still wondering where the bodies of their loved-ones lie.

Reacting to the publication of the story, which has received ample coverage in the local print broadcast media, Prime Minister Sali Berisha called the discovery “shocking, touching to the depths of the human soul and consciousness.”

Speaking to MPs from his centre-right Democratic Party on Monday, the Albanian premier called for the creation of an institute of national memory, modeled after a similar institution created in the Czech Republic that deals with communist crimes.

“In parliament we have a bill for the creation of an institute of national memory,” Berisha told MPs. “Please review this bill and advance the creation of this institute, which aims to shed light on all the barbarity of communist crimes,” he added.

According to the Albanian premier, such an institute would help the country move forward from one of its darkest periods, the Stalinist regime of former dictator Enver Hoxha.

“The creation of an institution, a task-force to find the graves of those fallen for freedom and human dignity, for faith in god and country, is necessary,” Berisha underlined.

However, a document obtained by Balkan Insight shows that as late as 2007, the Ministry of Interior was releasing documents, directing the relatives of the victims to the former army Barracks 313, in order to recover their loved ones remains.

Balkan Insight asked the Prime Minister’s spokesperson Juela Mecani, to comment on the government’s and the premier’s prior knowledge of the execution site, but did not receive a reply.

The document has been issued on March 3, 2007 to the father of Lumturi Boka, who together with her husband Elmaz Uka, had been executed in 1985, while in their early twenties.

In the document signed by the head of the Ministry of Interior archive Andrea Cupa, the father of the victims is told that his daughter was executed at the army Barracks 313, but no map of the grave exists anymore.

A friend of the couple, which had been accused together with them of murder in 1985, but later released, led the search for their remains with Lumturi’s father –now deceased, without being able to find them. He was one of the people that rushed to the Tirana city morgue after the publication of story that revealed that remains had been found in the site.

“We have searched for four years at the Barracks 313 but did not find their remains,” says the man in his fifties that does not want his identity revealed. “A ministry of interior official directed us to the site,” he added.

A friend at the time with Elmaz Uka and his wife, he had been charged also with murder and described his six month of detention as continues series of tortures by the prosecutor and prison officers.

“The worst was when they tied electroshock to my ears,” he said. “If I had given up and admitted a crime that I did not do under torture could have been dead like them,” he added.

Although the government now expresses surprise for the existence of mass grave site, Balkan Insight has learned that victim’s families have searched in the Barracks 313 site for the last decade with the knowledge of the Ministry of Interior.

“When I first went at the Barracks 313 in 1999, to enter the area a special permit [from the Ministry of Interior] was required,” says local man who led dozens of exhumations in the site, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Often we were forced to exhume a set of remains and bury it again, because former execution squad members did not remember well the exact place of the execution” explains the man, adding that he believes that over 100 victims had been buried in the area.

Published on Balkan Insight on 17 February 2010

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