Part of a series of 52 interviews with Albanian women in the public sphere #52GraShqiptare
Dr Jonila Godole is a lecturer at the Department of Journalism and Communication at the University of Tirana, an academic researcher, author, editor, translator, one of Albania’s first independent journalists, and one of the first female journalists after the fall of communism. She has published a number of her own books, as well as translated many German works of literature into the Albanian language.
She is the Founder and Executive Director of the Institute for Democracy, Media and Culture, and the Vice President of the Institute for the Study of Crimes and Consequences of Communism. Godole is also the author of many scholarly articles on the topics of media and journalism in post-communist countries. She holds a degree in Language and Literature from the Faculty of History at the University of Tirana, a Masters in Political Science and Sociology from the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, and a PhD in Communication Studies and speaks Albanian, English, German and some Italian. She has won awards for her contribution to culture and literature.
I met Jonila in her office that sits atop one of the tall towers that dominate Tirana’s skyline. Looking out over the fountains, park, and concrete below, she talks quickly and honestly about her achievements. She has achieved a lot and is quite rightly proud of them.
Born in Sarande in the south of Albania, her family were persecuted during Enver Hoxha’s dictatorial regime. Her mother’s family included Nationalists who had opposed the dictator, and as a result, all of the extended family had been tarred. During the almost 50 years of Communist rule, their whole familial line suffered the consequences. Despite this, life in Saranda was not so bad as its distance from Tirana meant they could exist with some sort of normalcy.
She tells me of one of her first memories, at a time when some foreign tourists were able to visit the region.
“I remember the smell of their perfume, this strong and intoxicating aroma. It remains as one of the strongest memories I have of my childhood,” she said, adding that during those years, it didn’t occur to her to think why she could not be like them. She didn’t ask why things were different in Albania.
Then one day without warning, her family were relocated to the town of Gramsh, a million miles away from their life on the coast. Everything was different there- it was more provincial, less free, and smaller. Jonila felt trapped yet even more determined to succeed.
A dedicated and hard-working student, she excelled in every topic but due to the black mark against her last name, she found herself denied of opportunities that those with lesser grades were given. Those who she surpassed in every topic were sent to Tirana and granted special privileges while she was left to look on, wondering why.
During these years, her parents did their best to shield her from the reality of the times and the persecution imposed upon them. While they had the best of intentions, Jonila explains that she spent much of her youth plagued by a lack of information.
It was only when she was older and could look back on those difficult years that she really understood what had happened and why.
“I often wonder how an intelligent person could not understand or be aware of the dictatorship,” she said.
Jonila explained that she saw the differences and inequality between members of the community, but at that time, she did not have the understanding to comprehend why it was so.
“If your parents don’t explain who they are, what happened to them and why, and what a communist regime does to people, you grow up brainwashed from propaganda”, she said
Then one day, while visiting her grandfather in Elbasan, a seed was sown in her mind.
“He was a popular man- well connected in society, yet isolated by the regime. He had a big moustache. One day we were listening to Radio Tirana, hearing about all the successes of the cooperative- numbers, figures, and propaganda. After each word, my grandfather would spit. I could not understand why he did it,” she said.
When she finally plucked up the courage to ask him why he was spitting at the voice on the radio, he chose to turn it off instead of giving her an answer.
Back in school in Sarande she was in a Political Information class where the school’s best students read and analysed the contents of the newspapers. A boy sitting at the back of the class spoke out and said: “they are lies, everything in the newspaper is a lie.” He was taken from the classroom and did not return for some days.
Jonila said this was a turning point that still gives her goosebumps when she remembers it.
“I had never thought this, I had never considered that the party would lie to us…it was a shock.”
While she was too young to be critical, something had changed within her and she began to have some understanding of why life was as it was.
In the last days of communist rule, Jonila went to study for her undergraduate degree at the University of Tirana.
During those years, journalism outside of communism didn’t exist so those studying literature picked up their pens and became the country’s first journalists. Shortly after communism ended, the Faculty of Journalism was formed and the idea of open journalism, at least more than it had been, was born.
She started writing for Populit Po, before moving on to Koha Jone and other fledgeling newspapers.
Not only was she one of Albania’s first journalists, but she was one of the very few female ones. Jonila describes a difficult time where people did not know what to do with their freedom and briefly, anarchy reigned.
Known for her interviews with politicians and her intensive political commentary, she tackled some of the most controversial topics and figures head-on and with unwavering fearlessness. But undertaking such a role had its consequences.
“I remember running past the Rogner Hotel with bullets flying past, and being chased on my bicycle when I was working for Koha Jone,” she said.
Jonila explains how she had to create and maintain a hard, harsh, and assertive exterior in order to carry out her professional work. As a young woman, fresh out of university and finding her feet in a world that could not find its own, she had to be tough to survive.
But after some time she became tired; tred of putting on a fierce face, tired of fighting day in and day out for the good of her profession, and tired of constantly being on the defensive against those who attacked. She also found her articles were being censored and she began to lose her trust and faith in journalism.
Jonila had the chance to go and study in Germany and she took it.
She spent seven years in Frankfurt, putting journalism behind her and focussing on political science. When she first arrived in Germany, she didn’t know the language but through perseverance and with her sharp intelligence, she taught herself. After some time, Jonila began to translate from German into Albania, further honing her skills.
She translated great works of literature from one language to another, soaking up every word and relishing it. She also wrote her first book ‘The Kiss of the Dictator’ about her life in Albania under communist rule.
After seven years abroad, she decided to return to Albania. She tells me how she considers both places her home for very different reasons and that she couldn’t choose between the two. While Germany offers order, structure and certainty, the chaos in Albania and the need for the work she does keeps pulling her back.
Having seen first hand what a lack of information and leaving them in the dark can do to young people, she made it her mission to make a change. She wanted to open youngsters up to information about what happened in Albania during 45 years of communist rule.
Jonila set up the Institute for Democracy, Media and Culture and she employs a skeleton staff. The Institute works in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and focuses on engaging society in discussions, debate, learning, and the studying of topics that facilitate a better-developed democracy. Some of the work they undertake is related to the crimes of the past and the way in which Albania’s totalitarian past has not been fully acknowledged and many are still seeking justice. Jonila takes a multi-disciplinary approach to raise awareness both at an individual and a societal level.
But for such a publicly accomplished woman, Jonila takes the matter of her privacy very seriously. She doesn’t talk about her family nor does she discuss more personal matters.
“They’ve written what they want about me, but through it all, I have kept my privacy,” she told me.
She goes on to explain how one of her previous assistants sent her a list of all the most common search terms that are related to her name. No one searched for her achievements, qualifications or career, they only wanted to know about her personal life.
“The number one thing they asked was who I am married to, then how many children I have, and what kind of ‘scandals’ I was involved in.”
We discuss how women in the public eye are often famous for everything else, rather than what they should be famous for- a sad reality in today’s world. But Jonila rises above this and is determined to keep her private life private. She wants to be known for her hard work, her contributions, her accomplishments and the things she wants to do but has not yet done.
In the future, Jonila hopes to continue her work with her students and through the Institute, exposing the crimes of the past and not allowing the memories to die.
“You cannot close the past as long as you have victims and their family members still alive. It will be like an open wound that is always there, a very painful wound. People like my family, my mother and many others who suffered much more- they never got their dignity back and society never accepted that what was done to them was bad,” she said.
Jonila explains that while we are no longer living in a dictatorship, the government at the moment appears to be developing in an authoritarian style. This, she says, is why her work with young people is so important.
“They have to see how democracy really works. No one has taken responsibility for crimes, no one has taken responsibility for the 30 years of transition. You cannot have reconciliation without accepting the crimes, the names of victims, the names of perpetrators. We have to talk openly about it.”
Speaking once more about her time as a journalist, she tells me she feels ashamed for not condemning the crimes that were committed during those dark years.
“I was just writing about what happened in those moments, I didn’t look at what happened before. If I could go back, I would condemn the crimes of communism at that time,” she says.
“Women, children, elderly, babies of two months old were all imprisoned in Tepelene prison- these were Albanian people against Albanian people. This is why it’s hard to make justice because we have to fight for it against ourselves.”
This article was originally published on The Balkanista.