Ndoc Ashta has arranged our meeting at The Ex-Persecuted Association office, adjacent to where he works at the Municipality of Shkodra. I thought it was because it was convenient, but it’s because, as he shows us, photos of his murdered family members are all grouped on a section of the wall, under the title of “ The Bajraktar Family of Shoshi”.
All the office walls are adorned with similar pictures of the many victims of communism. Being in that office is like being out on the coldest night when nothing can warm you up. It could be due to their tragic end or the lack of justice, but it isn’t easy to look that wall up for long.
We immerse, quite naturally, in the socio-political reality of present-day Albania and the latest debate about Decommunistisation. We all seem to agree that it is very much delayed and has resurfaced for political reasons.
“Shkodra is like an open wound,” says Ndoc, meaning that most of the people who were targeted by the regime originated from there.
Ndoc lost many family members to the communist regime, but it is the story of three particular victims that will be the focus of our story.
His uncle, Gjelosh Lulashi, a young man of 26 in 1946, had graduated from the Franciscan Order in Italy and had obtained a scholarship to study law further there. Still, as the country needed help, he was barred from leaving and started to work as Chancellor in the Military Hospital of Shkodra instead.
Discontent in the city had grown fast since the regime had gone after the Christian clergy, imprisoning and murdering many of them for cultivating ties with Italy and spreading dissent against the newly established system. Furthermore, political adversaries accused the communists of betraying the national cause to gain power with help from Yugoslavia.
Such was the organization “National Unity”, which was formed in Shkoderr to fight back. Gjelosh joined and threw the support of his family, the Bajraktars of Shoshi, behind the resistance as well. It was the first wave of revolt against the tyrannical communist dictatorship, and that’s why they moved to crush them with an iron fist.
But Gjeloshiìs moves and those of his collaborators were discovered by the Sigurimi (the Secret Service) and a group of around 39 people were arrested, with the help, as records show, of Communist Yugoslavia.
Gjelosh was 20 years old when the decision to execute him was made. His lawyer pleaded with Hoxha himself, trying to commute the sentence to life in prison, but it was denied.
Ndoc tells me that his uncle was tortured extensively before his execution because the regime wanted to know the full extent of the organization and all the involved people. His mother, Mire Vuksani, was made to witness the execution. When she asked to touch her son for one last time, the Commander of the Firing Squad told her: “You can’t touch him, no! You deserve the same fate, for he is your spawn.”
He was buried in the Rrmaji cemetery, and his mother pinned an iron rod to the ground late that night, so she could come back to mourn him in secret. She did so occasionally only for a few years before the authorities bulldozed the area and threw the remains of all the people executed and buried there into the nearby river Kir.
After Gjeloshi’s execution, the State Police stormed the family’s property to arrest his father, and Ndoci’s grandfather, Losh Gjeloshi. The latter was old and bedridden too, suffering many health problems. His family tried to convince the officers that they would bring the patriarch to the station, which was not far.
Present was his own nephew, Beg Delia, who worked in the Prefecture, and told his colleagues he would bring the old man himself, but they refused. He did not know that a squadron would return to the house later that day and set it on fire. While trying to do so, they encountered the resistance of another family member, Koker Kola, who was due to become a father himself. But the communists shot him dead, and his son, Pal Palna, never knew his father. Just two months later, his father, Kol Marashi, was also killed by communists for resisting arrest.
He didn’t know that another squadron would get back to the houses later that day to set them on fire. There they encountered the resistance of a 33 years old Kokerr Kola. Only a month later, he became a father to a boy, but he was shot dead and never got to know his son Pal Palna. Two months later, his father, Kol Marashi, would be killed too by the Communists after resisting his arrest.
Hearing about the order to arrest all male adults in his family, Beg Delia fled and hid with other relatives. A few of them had their lives pardoned, but his name was not on that list. He encouraged the pardoned to surrender while staying hidden, telling them that if captured, he was sure to be tortured.
He meant not to endure such punishment. If it came to it, he would end his own life, and when the State Security surrounded him, he saved the last bullet for himself.
The rest of the family was either arrested or sent to the Berat labour camp. Around 13 members, primarily women and children, would spend the next seven years in the “Old Bey’s Tower”. Three family houses were burned down and all their possessions confiscated.
It was in the camp, says Ndoc Ashta, that tragedy struck again. The conditions they lived in were miserable, and hunger and cold were forever companions.
Malnourishment brought one morning the death of his father youngest brother, the little Geg Zefi, no more than three or four years of age. His body was retrieved by camp staff with brutal efficiency, and Mire, his mother, wasn’t allowed to accompany them in burying him.
Ndoc narrates with a sad voice, repeating stories told to him by his grandmother, Mire Vuksani, over and over. He tells the story of another woman who kept the cold body of her dead little one for over three days so that her other children could benefit from an additional meal from the camp.
Ndoc says that his grandmother had scolded the woman and wept bitter tears holding the dead child, even though she perfectly understood the mother’s reasons.
Not long after, Ndoc’s paternal grandfather, Losh Gjeloshi, would succumb to torture and die, along with his brother’s son. The family engaged their connections to try and retain the bodies and were extremely lucky to succeed in interring them properly in a cemetery.
When the family was allowed to leave the labour camp, they were dropped in Shkoder with little possessions and no money. They had to walk back to their old burned-down house because they had no other place to go. They had no food and dared not speak to anyone, so they spent the night in the ruins. The next day, the matriarch of the family, Ndoci’s grandmother, walked to another village to ask for help from her brother.
Ndoc stopped for a moment and he seems unable to find his words. “Their suffering,” he says, “and those of countless Albanians at the time are unimaginable!” But what bothers him is how their stories remained sealed or lost and were forgotten so that the younger generations will think of them as “tales”.
“…because maybe my children, after 10-15 years, may not believe it. It may seem like mere stories to them, like a fantasy.” – he adds.
Ndoc was also unlucky on his mother’s side of the family, for his maternal grandfather was killed during a religious celebration in their courtyard. Living in Theth, a border area, people would be watched frequently by the regime for fear of their escape into Yugoslavia. During the fire Ndoci’s maternal grandfather and his nine-year-old nephew died with two other people ending up gravely injured.
The family counts 11 family members from four generations, killed by the regime, with the bodies of three missing.
Tired from their tormented existence, Pal Pana, whose father Kokerr Koli and grandfather Kol Marashi were killed in 1946, tried to pass the frontier in Dajc by boat in 1990, with his mother and 11 old daughter Liljana. But they were detected and shot dead. The child fell into the river and never washed ashore while her parents were found in the boat by Montenegrin authorities and buried.
Remembering a long-forgotten conversation he had with a man who had served in Shkodra’s prison, Ndoci says that the aim of communism was for its enemies never to be remembered and for their tombs not to be turned into pilgrimage spots. “So they could disappear, with no trace,” he said,
I asked Ndoc how he coped during communism with the burden of his family’s history. He looked emotional, his eyes showing what looked like an ancient pain, and he started to speak.
He describes his life under communism as “unbelievable”, remembering one instance when his teacher assigned him to recite a poem for the end of year festivities in school. The Party’s local Secretary visited them during the rehearsals, who instantly remembered his origins. He criticized the teacher for choosing someone whose family had a bad biography.
The community shunned the family, and they were forbidden to visit people on different occasions. He recalls that at the first wedding he went to, he was already 30 years old. He remembers how he used to yearn to be invited to one of them when friends would discuss the weddings they had attended. They were completely isolated.
Ndoc says that time can never erase such memories; they exist within him like two different lives.
I think about how little we were challenging at school about these stories, even after the fall of communism, and how they remain largely absent in the mainstream public discourse, along with the contents of the Museum of Memory and Remembrance.
We are slowly, but surely, losing the chance to form a layer of shared consciousness about the consequences of Communism in Albania. We need to do more, and we need to do better, for we owe it to the martyrs, victims and their families, and we owe it to our children, so they are never led to that destructive path again.
In the loving memory of the Bajraktar Family of Shoshi.