Spac prison sits on a precipice at the top of a perilous road, amid a canyon in the North of Albania. A winding dirt track snakes up towards it and a large chasm falls away on one side with a small river at the bottom. The views here are spectacular and the brilliant blue of the sky combined with the luscious green foliage and dramatic views fooled us for almost a moment that this wasn’t a place with a horrifically brutal past.
For over 30 years, Spac was a forced labour camp, a gulag if you will, where political prisoners of the communist regime were imprisoned, tortured and forced to work in the pyrite and copper mines. Today, the mines have been given to a private company who profit from this land that is still soaked in the blood of innocent Albanians whose only crime was to have fallen foul of the communists.
The prison was established in 1968 by the Communist government of dictator Enver Hoxha. Due to its remote location, it wasn’t even necessary to have a fenced perimeter as anyone trying to escape would not make it through the surrounding terrain. Prisoners were brought here in chains, kept in small rooms with as many as 50 other inmates, and put to work each day for their alleged crimes against the state.
Each prisoner was required to fill four wagons (each around 1-1.8 tonnes) each day. Failure to do so would result in a beating. Meeting the target would result in the quota being increased the following day. When they failed to meet the increased targets, they would get a beating. Sometimes the guards asked the prisoners if they preferred to be beaten before or after food- sometimes they got both. It was backbreaking work in extreme temperatures-sometimes as high as 40 degrees and as low as minus 15. Teenagers, the elderly, and the sick-it didn’t matter, their fate was the same.
As well as forced labour, violence was a part of everyday life. Other forms of torture were inflicted on people and suicides, executions, and death from the horrific conditions were all too common. Thousands of people passed through here, countless lost their lives. Those that were liberated have to live with the trauma of their time there, as well as the knowledge that their oppressors walk free.
To date, none of those that worked there or were responsible for giving orders relating to Spac has faced prosecution, let alone a conviction. The gross and immeasurable crimes against humanity that took place here have gone completely unpunished. The ruling Socialist Party, the descendant of the Communist Party has not even given a public apology for Spac, the other 50 forced labour and prison camps, and the countless crimes committed under the Communist regime.
Those that survived carry the weight of what happened here while their abusers and torturers walk the same streets, sit in the same cafes, and draw their pensions with no consequences for their actions. Some of those with responsibility for Spac and sending people there even sit in positions of power in the government, police, state institutions, and judiciary.
The prison has fallen into a state of disrepair. Its walls are crumbling, holes are present in the brickwork and large metal struts prop up sections of buildings that appear to be on the verge of collapse. It is supposedly a protected monument but the government has little interest in preserving it, let alone turning it into a museum or a memorial.
Multiple local and international NGOs have proposed plans for its rehabilitation and while the Ministry of Culture initially seemed to support them, when the projects were handed to them, they stopped responding. Now, the prison, a stark reminder of the very recent communist brutality that took place, is near to falling into the canyon below and being erased from the minds of Albanians and Europeans alike.
Every rainfall, vital parts of history are being washed away. Gaudy socialist slogans painted on the walls to remind captives that they were working towards the glory of the motherland are faded almost to the point of disappearing. The 1-metre square solitary confinement cells where people were left for months at a time have been left to decay completely and most probably intentionally.
As I walked around the prison with the glorious sun shining down upon me, it was hard to imagine the reality of want went on here, as recently as in my lifetime. The buildings seem almost toy-like in their size and placement. Stripped of every fitting, they remain bare and with remnants of animal inhabitation.
The inmate accommodation which houses over 1000 inmates has almost damaged beyond repair yet the officer barracks just behind it are in pristine condition with freshly painted doors and window frames set with glass. A coincidence I assume, but ironic nonetheless
Another building that looks as if it will crumble into the valley below at any moment is the small block where families were able to meet their loved ones that were imprisoned there. A small sign explains that there was barely room to stretch through the bars to touch fingers, and they were only allowed 15 minutes. I don’t know how many families actually made it to Spac-the journey here would have been long, difficult and arduous without cars or other forms of transport
View this post on Instagram
Today I visited Spaç prison, a former communist era 'gulag' or forced labour camp in the north of Albania. Here political prisoners were kept in cells with up to 50 others and forced to work for over 8 hours a day in the mines. Those that didn't keep up with their work quota were placed in solitary confinement and tortured. Beatings, starvation, torture and death awaited those that were sent there. Today, those that survived Spaç are forced to live in a society where their jailers, abusers, and oppressors have not faced justice for their crimes and many are in positions of power. The prison has been left to fall into ruins despite many calls and proposals to turn it into a museum. The Socialist Party who are direct descendants of the Communist Party want us to forget what happened during those years, but we mustn't. #albania #albanian #spaç #spaçprison #prison #gulag #communism #communist #forcedlabourcamp #labourcamp #lezhe #lezhecounty #rreshen #balkans #history #humanrights #balkantravel #neverforget
Spac is one of the few remaining ‘gulags’ in Europe and it’s certainly the most recently used. It remains as a large piece of evidence of the crimes committed against decent, honest Albanians as little as 30 years ago. It also serves as a stark reminder to the abuses and human rights violations that were perpetrated here that have not been condemned publicly, or legally.
I sat on a ledge to survey the scene around me and, I couldn’t help but remember the recent words of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama. In Parliament, he uttered the words that yes, his father was a communist and that he along with many others were on the right side of history. What did he mean by that?
As many as 25,000 people were executed under the regime. Thousands more lost their lives from illness, starvation, and other issues caused by the Communists. Hundreds of thousands were persecuted, had land stolen, were beaten, tortured, shunned, and excluded. Many still feel the repercussions of their treatment during this time, today. We have schools named after communists, ex-communist officials, ministers, judges, and spies in positions of significant authority, and a state that lauds the communist legacy. The state tries to stop the studying of communist crimes, bans journalist from accessing records from that time, and drives academics into political asylum in fear for their lives.
I sat and looked across the bleak landscape, imagining the ghosts that once walked here. Then I realised they are not ghosts-they walk among us on the streets, in the shops, and the halls of power. I felt immense sadness for all of those impacted by this godforsaken place.
An Albanian flag flapped flaccidly at half-mast in front of me, refusing to uncurl despite the strong breeze. It was almost as if it was ashamed-ashamed of what happened here but also of the fact justice is not served and instead, Spac is being left to rot.