Investigation: Son’s Search For Father Uncovers Albanian Mass Grave

Years after the collapse of the Stalinist regime, many families of Albanians executed by the communists are still desperately looking for the bodies of their relatives.

By Gjergj Erebara

Foto: Jovan PlakuAs the excavator’s bucket scraped the earth in a narrow path sandwiched between the old military barracks and the pine forest that lines the slopes of Mount Dajti, a skeleton emerged, buried in a shallow grave.

The cotton prison jacket suggested the victim had been executed in winter while his healthy teeth and strong jaw showed he died young. Goni, a small businessman who had earlier been digging for his father’s remains at another location, knew others would surely follow.

“The second skeleton was found two metres away and then a third, which most likely had been relocated from another burial site because his bones were fractured and piled in a bag together with his clothes, a watch, two belts and dentures,” he says.

Since he started digging in October 2009 at the army base known as Barracks 313, close to the village of Linza, five kilometres east of Tirana, he has found the remains of 19 bodies.

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, like Goni, still wondering where the bodies of their loved-ones lie.

A debate has been raging in Albania for years on whether to open communist-era secret service files. In the meantime, authorities have done little to help those searching for the remains of people executed by the communists.

Many former political prisoners and victims’ families believe the level of complicity between the current political and intellectual elite and the former communist leadership means there will never be an independent process that will shed light on the crimes of one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships.

On condition that he not be identified by his real name, Goni agreed on Saturday to tell the reporter how he discovered the mass grave.

His father’s voice:

Goni started looking for his father’s remains in 1994, when he was an economics student at the Polytechnic University of Tirana. His father had been executed in 1976 after the regime accused him of belonging to a saboteur group in the oil industry and of spreading anti-government propaganda.

Goni paid numerous visits to the interior ministry office that handled the appeals of families for the return of the bodies of political prisoners that had been executed.

“I hoped a small bribe or sheer politeness would persuade someone to give me a document leading to my father,” Goni recalls. “I waited countless hours but the answer was always the same: there were no such documents.”

Despite the official stonewalling, Goni refused to be discouraged. Over many years he built up relationships with interior ministry officials and former security agents and eventually learned the names of his father’s executioners, who had worked under the orders of the then interior minister, Kadri Hasbiu.

Through research and interviews Goni obtained the document concerning his father’s execution. It contained four names. One was the coroner’s but he had not participated in the execution but only signed the paperwork. Two of the other names were dead.

The third belonged to the man who had pulled the trigger – and he was not only alive and well but agreed to meet Goni after his former superior officer convinced him to do so.

Goni recalls the bizarre circumstances of meeting the man who killed his own father. “He was close to his eighties, nicely dressed in a suit,” he says. “He claimed he didn’t remember where my father was buried.” Goni later found out that his father’s executioner had also been “the type of killer that liked to mutilate his victims after they were shot”.

Finally, a few years ago, Goni got hold of 40 volumes of classified documents from the interior ministry archive, which contained his father’s dossier. Apart from various documents, the dossier contained wiretaps of his father while he was in prison and from his judicial hearings.

On tape number four he heard his father’s voice for the first time. “Father declared his innocence before the court and denied all the charges,” Goni says. “That’s why they killed him. He refused to collaborate with the security services.”

Collective silence:

Although Albania’s parliament last year passed a law to reopen the files of the Sigurimi, as the secret police was called, the measure was aimed primarily at the lustration of public figures and many critics believe it was drafted from the beginning to fail a legal review by the courts.

Apart from fuelling debates about whether various current parliamentarians or prosecutors were former spies and had blood on their hands, the law did little to reveal the truth about Albania’s communist past.

A previous lustration law passed in 1995 was also deemed no good and scrapped.

After a number of interest groups appealed against it, Albania’s constitutional court annulled the country’s latest lustration law on Tuesday, after judging a number of its provisions unconstitutional.

The law, drafted by the centre-right government of Sali Berisha, had managed in the meantime draw criticism from the Council of Europe, which after a review had blasted the law as described it as substandard.

“There has not only been a lack of willingness to open the files but also a willingness to manipulate them,” the writer and former political dissident Fatos Lubonja maintains.

“This is because the current political and intellectual elite is enslaved to the past,” he adds. “Part of the elite were informants while others served the regime in other ways, creating a form of solidarity between them on this issue.”

Shallow graves, deep wounds:

Although Goni was able to obtain a large number of classified documents related to his father’s trial compiled by the once feared Sigurimi, they did not provide a lead to where his remains lay.

His father’s former executioner had suggested he lay buried in a site where new construction had since been erected, but Goni was not convinced.

After years of digging in various places and collecting evidence about execution sites, Goni found out that many other people were doing the same thing, searching for missing loved ones.

As word of his search spread, a former secret policeman gave him a list of former agents that had worked in the area at the time of his father’s death.

Goni made another breakthrough when he learned the name of the commander of the execution squad that had killed his father. “Although he was scared to begin with, he remembered my father’s case and eventually agreed to help me find his remains,” Goni recalls.

He found out that his father’s execution squad comprised roughly 40 people, some guarding the area and others digging ditches. Then there were those who pulled the triggers.

The ex-commander told him that if the ditches were dug at noon, the execution would have taken place at midnight. After checking these and other details with other accounts, Goni moved his digging operations from near the Tirana city cemetery to Barracks 313.

With the help of the ex-commander of the firing squad and another ex-member of the squad, in October Goni started digging using an excavator and a few days later he unearthed the remains of 18 people from the site and its surroundings.

Initially he believed one of those remains was that of his father – and he had them sent to the city morgue for examination. Unfortunately, they did not turn out to be his remains.

He suspected that another set of remains were those of Fr Shtjefen Kurti.

The communists executed the priest in 1971 after charging him with illegally baptizing children in a village near Durres. This was a capital offence after the regime outlawed religion in 1967, making Albania the world’s first officially atheist country.

Fr Kurti’s nephew, Nikolin, has long searched for his uncle’s remains so that he can be laid to rest in Tirana’s new cathedral. “My uncle’s tomb in the metropolitan cathedral has been waiting for his remains ever since it was built two decades ago,” he said. But the identification of Kurti’s remains also turned out negative, following DNA tests carried by the Catholic Church in Italy.

While Goni was digging away at Barracks 313, people who had earlier searched for their loved ones at the same site with shovels approached him and shared their stories.

“I interviewed people who’d been digging before me and consoled myself that nothing they had found fit my father’s description,” Goni says. “But I was worried that the remains they pulled out weren’t identified scientifically but mostly from clothes and recollections of relatives.”

Goni went on with his digging, excavating not only round the barracks but all along the adjacent valley. There he found new remains, both reburied bodies and others that had never been moved since their execution.

It has left with him with two melancholy hypotheses concerning his father’s resting place. “Either someone else dug him up from the site and is crying now over his grave, believing it’s his own father,” he says, “or the Sigurimi removed him after his execution and reburied him somewhere else.”

On Saturday he handed all the other remains, collected in plastic bags, to Tirana city morgue in the hope that the authorities will identify them. “The site has become a big mess,” he sighs, adding: “These bones deserve a name on them.”

Published on 10 February 2010 on

Edited by Besar Likmeta

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