Albania is located in Eastern Europe, on the Balkan Peninsula. It lies north of Greece and South of Montenegro, and just 60 miles across the Adriatic Sea from Italy.
For centuries, Albania (once known as “Illyria”) was preyed upon by different civilisations, including the Romans, Byzantines, Ottoman Empire (which ruled for 500 years), Austro-Hungarians, Italians, and Nazis. Finally, from 1945 to 1985, Albania endured one of the world’s bloodiest regimes under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha (pronounced: hod-ja). Hoxha kept the mountainous country rigidly isolated for four decades – ultimately simultaneously estranged from the West, the Soviets, and China – and intensively militarised all aspects of Albanian civil society. Completely cut off from the world, Albania relied on forced labor to work in mines, industry, and communal farms established on confiscated ancestral lands. In all, the Hoxha constructed an astounding 173,000concrete bunkers throughout the country, creating a constant sense of emergency and warfare.
Under Hoxha’s dictatorship, Albania was closed, poor, and repressive. Both religion and foreign travel were banned. Criticism of the regime, even in private conversations, destroyed peoples’ lives, often resulting in torture, imprisonment, and death. Hoxha executed thousands of resisters, and sent at least 50,000 people to prisons, and internment camps. Thousands died in jail, and in summary executions. Following his death, Hoxha’s successor Ramiz Alia remained loyal to the existing oppressive system, until the wave of anti-communist uprisings swept Eastern Europe, leading to the collapse of the Albanian regime in 1991.
More than 800,000 Albanians left the country, settling mostly in Greece and Italy, either permanently or as temporary workers. Today, Albania’s diaspora is larger than country’s population of 2.8 million. For a majority of Albania‘s middle-aged and older population, memories of their youth are saturated in medleys of populist songs and propaganda; memories that have been disrupted and diminished by poverty and the suppression of free expression, political engagement, and travel. The legacy is a nation with significant divisions. Some look to the future with no interest in recalling painful years that can never be redeemed, while others use sentimental nationalism to invoke a past that never existed, resulting in a misinformed generation of millennials.
It is evident in Albania that freedom of speech and expression have been bruised and battered, paradoxically making memories—those both beautiful and atrocious—even more important. It is our responsibility to share, understand, and learn from these memories. They offer an powerful means of engaging with people who can recall life in a country hung between two great political schisms, between two extraordinarily different worlds.