The Unoffical View of Tirana (96)


Overview of Spaç Prison, with main structures indicated. Photo by Xheni Alushi, 2014

by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei

Sometimes one can feel disgust, revolt, despair. To be confronted with a situation that seems by any standard beyond reason, beyond purpose, where one looks into the toothless, rotting mouth of a political and economical system. This is an attempt to describe one of such situations.

Last year, during the Albanian Lapidar Survey, we made a detour to the site of the Spaç prison, one of the most notorious internment camps of the former communist regime, reserved for its political prisoners. Located in a remote valley in the Mirditë province, it was a work camp, meaning that the prisoners housed there were basically used as slave labor in the adjacent copper mines. It was a site in which many people perished under the most horrific conditions, pushed off from ledges inside the mines, shot, or simply dies from pure exhaustion.

According to information gathered by Cultural Heritage without Borders, Spaç prison was constructed based on the Stalinist gulag model, combining isolated imprisonment with forced labor in the mines, and had a maximum occupation of about 1400 prisoners, many of which were intellectuals – perhaps their eloquent testimonies have contributed to the fact that it is still remembered. In 1973, Spaç was the site of the first revolt against the Albanian communist regime, when for two days prisoners took control of the camp and hoisted the Albanian flag without the perfunctory communist star. The first flag of a new Albania was hoisted in Spaç. It is a question whether the state that later, in the early 1990s, adopted that flag is worthy of that heritage of resistance.

Entrance of Spaç Prison. Left the administrative building, further down the roofs of the prison buildings. Photo by Xheni Alushi, 2014

With fall of communism, the camp was closed, and fully abandoned in 1995. Ever since, none of the democratic governments has made an attempt to preserve the site, and many former political prisoners are still awaiting justice as their former communist persecutors, prison guards, torturers, and informers continue to live in freedom, sometimes even occupying high positions in the current political and juridical system. In the meantime all buildings have been stripped from their doors, windows, fixtures, and the copper wiring. Thus the last copper from Spaç left in the hands of thieves. The result is that all buildings of the former camp have fallen prey to the elements, slowly collapsing under the summer heat, rain showers, and inhospitable winters of the region.

The meeting room where family members could visit prisoners, separated by a wall, never longer than ten minutes. Left entrance is for family, the right one for prisoners. Photo by Marco Mazzi, 2014

On March 27, 2009, the National Restoration Council from the Ministry of Tourism, Culture, Youth and Sport approved the restoration and muzealization of Spaç prison, provided that funding would be found through third-party donors. Such funding has not been forthcoming since. Only recently there have been some concrete initiatives from civil society to turn the Spaç prison into a site of commemoration, to protect and preserve what is left and use the site as an important symbol of oppression of the communist regime. The Dialogues for Spaç project by Cultural Heritage without Borders is an important example, as a thoughtful and intelligent way of bringing different approaches to cultural heritage and voices from civil society, including former political prisoners into dialogue. In 2015 this resulted in a report, which, suggesting the collaboration of the government, outlines a series of clear steps through which the site could take on a commemorative function, embedded within contemporary Albanian society.

In my previous essay I had already alluded to the stories I had heard about the Spaç copper mine being reopened, and this week I decided to explore the truth of these rumors together with a colleague. From Reps, the road had clearly been fixed and at certain points broadened. Whereas last year we could not park close to the camp site, a new road had been constructed and we could drive up to the entrance. The rubble and weeds around the entrance building had been cleaned up (the good work of the newly founded Spaç Prison Museum Foundation, I learned later from Gjet, the caretaker) and we could inspect the lower buildings, where the prisoners had lived. These had been inaccessible before.

Beyond the remaining buildings, on a mountain slope where we could distinguish several of the entrances to the mines, we discerned white demarcations around a plot of land, and newly constructed infrastructure and buildings. Amidst the remains of watch towers, fences, the foundations of a bridge across a small stream linking the main buildings with the mining galleries: a light blue building, with a few people working around it. It was clear that a company was setting up a project to reopen and exploit the mines.

Closer view of the barracks the horizontal slab sticking out from the earth that can be discerned below the right edge of the building was supposedly part of the foundation of the bridge linking the residential part of the camp with the galleries. Photo by the author, 2015.

I took me some time to absorb the emotional shock I felt, which quickly turned to rage. To reopen mine galleries dug by the hands of political prisoners, working in inhumane conditions; to build barracks on sites where prison buildings used to stand; to dump rubble and debris in a place where a commemorative plaque reads: “In this valley are buried without tears and without flowers hundreds of prisoners consumed by suffering and pain” – all of that is a monstrous crime. Just imagine someone opening a pig farm in Auschwitz.

It is a crime precisely because it erases one of the worst crimes of Albanian history. It excavates history and dumps the dirt on the pile of corpses it left behind. This is not only the mistake of the company, even though it seems unlikely they are uninformed about whose graves they are stirring up. It is first of all a political scandal, a scandal, moreover, that has been long in the making: not a single prime minister has visited Spaç since the fall of communism. Not a single one. Where were you Fatos Nano? Where were you Sali Berisha? And where are you Edi Rama? Giving nice speeches in New York because you allowed your US “allies” to extend their counter-terrorism infrastructure onto Albanian soil? Where are you Minister of Energy Damian Gjiknuri? Signing more contracts for hydrocentrals in national parks? And where is the not-so-smart government councillor that will convince the Albanian public that placing important commemorative sites in the hands of a foreign mining company is a “reminder for us all not to repeat the past”?

Spaç copper mine site, with my annotations based on current construction activity. Image from Tete Mining website

The company that is currently reopening the mines in Spaç is called Tete Mining & Engineering Company, and has been present in Albania since the early 2000s. On their website they show a picture of Fatos Nano, a former protégé of Enver Hoxha’s widow Nexhmije Hoxha who after the fall of communism became prime minister several times over, attending a presentation about the Munella Copper Mine. Another picture shows the Spaç copper mine location. Tete Mining also operates a copper enrichment plant in Fushë-Arrëz, which I documented recently in July, and, as far as I understood from the inhabitants, causes serious environmental damage. In all three cases Tete operates under the Mineral Exploration and Production Agreement between Albania and Turkey.

Nothing to see here, just Tete Mining company polluting our drinking water. Photo by the author, 2015

Tete’s undated feasibility report on the Spaç mine allows one to wallow in undiluted irony while reading an exercise in censoring the monstrous origins of its infrastructure, presenting countless deaths in terms of economic categories such as profitability and “work carried out”:

The outcrop of Spac mineralization zone have been known since the beginning of 20th century. The exploration of Spaci sulfide outcrop started in 1954. Since beginning of exploration up to now a large volume of work have been carried out including prospecting channels, drillings, galleries etc.

The volume of the work carried out is as follows:

1. 70 channels with total volume 13633 m3

2. Shafts total 471 m

3. 26 exploration galleries and 3 mining galleries totalling 45,267 m (1954 until 1.1.1984)

4. Drill holes total 77,811 m (1954 until 1.1.1984)

5. 19 drill holes total 4,813 (1.1.1984 until 1.1.1987)

Allow me to add, again: that is 45 kilometers of tunnels “carried out” by means of primitive tools by prisoners living in inhumane circumstances, subject to torture and “accidental death.” The Tete website itself is even more degrading: “Albanian government invested in the mine for more than 81.000 meters of drilling, excavation of 140 m deep internal shaft and 12.000 meters of drifting during the communist regime.” Is this what the Ministry of Energy told them? That they “invested” in the mine during the “communist regime”? Well, if this is what investment means, a lot of the current government’s policies start to make a lot more sense. Investing in the economy means to rob a poor peasant from her fruits and vegetables because she cannot declare VAT. Investing in the economy means covering up at least one corruption scandal a day, simply because everyone is always already implicated and who cares from which party they are. Investing in the economy means buddying up with your so-called arch-enemy, because there is only one thing worse than integrity: missing out on those EU funds.

The work that has been undertaken by Tete, the construction of some barracks and the reinforcing of some of the galleries, is only the beginning. In fact, the photos we took are not that impressive, even. There are plans, however, to destroy some of the adjacent mountain (with the remains of fences and watch towers) and build an on-site processing plant. So even if the main Spaç prison site is saved, who will come there in a landscape dominated by a large copper processing plant, on a road where each turn another truck filled with ore comes around the corner? What would be the meaning of a few dilapidated barracks against the background of a massive industrial operation? Where would be the sense of profound isolation and helplessness that drove the communist regime to build the camp there in the first place? Reopening the mines is not only a crime against history. Apart from depriving future generations of an experience and warning of the lived reality of a totalitarian system and its infrastructure of terror, the destruction of the nature surrounding the camp will be a fait accompli.

After driving back to Tirana I flee into a bathroom and throw up.

That night I have a dream. The copper mine and factory are fully constructed, and dominate the background of the Spaç prison buildings. Workers move in and out of the mines, operate the machinery in the factory, slowly eating into the mountains. What rolls out of the factory are pallets stacked with copper bricks. Workers load up their wheelbarrows and cross a copper bridge to reach the camp site. Like a giant, scattered prosthesis, the now partially reconstructed walls, watch towers, and staircases gleam in the sun. Gold-reddish barbed wire encircles the premises. Spaç has become the largest lightning rod of Europe. Spaç has become the world’s largest telephone. A class of school children passes through the massive copper entrance gate. The teacher explains: “Spaç is like Amfortas’s wound. It can only be restored with the material that destroyed the lives of those who were imprisoned in it.”

About the Author:


Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei is a philologist, director of project bureau for the arts and humanities The Department of Eagles, and runs multilingual publishing house Uitgeverij. For Berfrois he writes a regular series on the state and concept of Albania, where he lives and works most of the time.