From: Erblin Vukaj
Project Mapping Communist Prisons and Camps Unveiled by Remembrance Organization

Enver Hoxha’s dictatorial regime transformed Albania into a giant prison: hundreds of prisons and concentration camps were built in every corner of the country.

The foundation has offered a new view of Albania’s communist past through a virtual map and a documentary describing the entire infrastructure of political persecution. In a project funded by Konrad Adenauer. includes every prison and concentration camp built and maintained by the communist regime from 1944 to 1991, documented on a map.

The communist regime considered an ‘enemy’ anyone who thought, spoke, or acted in contradiction with the ‘values’ of the system. They, themselves, their families, and their relatives were murdered and persecuted by exile, internment, and imprisonment in internment camps, temporary camps, labor camps and, finally, prisons.

Immediately following their rise to power, during 1945-1953, the communist leadership consolidated their power by killing and persecuting all their political rivals and those who could pose a risk to their regime, especially members of the country’s intellectual and entrepreneurial elite.

During this era six concentration camps were built to hold the interned ‘enemy families’ of political rivals, primarily wives, parents, and children of those who had escaped, had been convicted, or executed. These people were sent as far from their places of origins as possible: southerners were sent to the north, and vice versa.

For almost eight years camps surrounded by barbed wire existed in Kruja (1945-1947), Berat (1945-1949), Porto Palermo (1949-1950), Tepelena (1949-1953), Kamza (1948-1953) and Valias (1948-1953).

Those housed in them lived under dehumanizing conditions, in unhygienic camps in which they were vulnerable to various diseases, forced to work, and fed with pitiful rations. 

Approximately 300 children died in the Tepelena camp, alone, as a result of hunger and poor living conditions.

Until 1949, these six camps held more than 2600 people. After 1953, though they were closed down legally, dozens of interned people continued to be kept there.

The camps closing down did not mean that internment ceased to be used as a punitive policy against the enemies of the system. After 1954, political internment sent people to hundreds of camps located now mostly in isolated villages and mountainous areas.

People who were interned were not allowed to leave the area they had been interned to. Furthermore, in keeping with the principle of the “class struggle,” they were also deprived of certain rights other citizens enjoyed, and were the target of state-sanctioned social discrimination and contempt, having been labelled as “enemies of the people” by the regime.

The Institute for the Integration of the Persecuted (IIP) found that, until 1991, the regime interned and exiled more than 21,000 people. The Institute for the Study of the Crimes and Consequences of Communism (ISKK) claims that that number may go as high as 60,000.

From 1946 to 1990, the communist regime used political prisoners for hard labor, organizing labor camps in which they drained swamps, dug ditches, and built railroads or streets.

The first forced labor camp opened in Juba, Durrës in October 1946, and was then followed by the Qemal Stafa stadium camp in Tirana (1946), the Maliqi swamp camp in Korça (1946-1951), the Bedeni channel camp (1948-1950), the Lekaj, Kavaja camp (1948), the Vlashuk, Berat  camp (1948-1949) and 11 other camps in Tirana, Peqin, Elbasan, Vlora, and Shkodra.

Laborers in the camps included former state officials, intellectuals, clerics, and German and Italian prisoners.

The regime imprisoned so many that the prisons it inherited after World War II were insufficient.

Prisoners were divided into political and non-political. Initially, houses and churches were used to detain them. Afterwards, once the regime realized that they could be exploited for free labor, prisons were made into reeducation units.

In the early 1950s, prisons and camps were restructured in about 35 units in which political prisoners would be “reeducated via forced labor.”

The majority of the units were mobile, whereas others were stationed near mines, relocating permanently as prison camps, like the infamous Spaç prison (1968-1990) and that of Qafë-Bar (1982-1990).

Besides camps and reeducation units, political prisoners were also spread out among 14 long-term prisons that were built in Tirana, Shkodra, Peshkopia, Burrel, Durrës, Berat, Vlora, Elbasan, Kavaja, Kukës, and Gjirokastra.

IIP found that, in 45 years, the dictatorial regime politically convicted over 20,000 people – near 14,500 received prison sentences, whereas 5500 were sentenced to death. ISKK puts the number of political prisoners at around 34,000.

It is hard to say exactly, three decades after the fall of the regime, how many people were persecuted, due to archival gaps. This project lends some understanding to the spatial layout of the regime’s persecution infrastructure.