The Memory Files: The Story of Elez Rust Islami

Author Alice Taylor
The Memory Files: The Story of Elez Rust Islami

Like a cat that toys with its prey before dealing the lethal blow, the Albanian communist regime liked to inflict psychological cruelty on its victims before destroying them completely. 

Once they identified an enemy, they would use every tool at their disposal to crush their spirit, break down their strength, and render them helpless before condemning them to a lifetime in prison, or death. This demonstrates not only the physical brutality executed by the regime, but it shows they were cold and calculating as well. 

The story you are about to read is not just tragic, it clearly shows the emotional torture inflicted upon ordinary people. 

But before we begin, I want to ask you a question. Would you condemn yourself to death to protect someone else?

The first thing I noticed about Sadije Hamza was her smile. Her eyes creased at the edges and her face exuded warmth and friendliness, despite an undeniable hint of sadness. From Tirana to Puke, she chatted merrily, recounting stories of her life and asking about our children. 

But as we got closer to our destination, I sensed that she became more nervous. She wrung her hands, sighed, and reminisced about those that are no longer with us. 

The drive to Puke is a long one that takes you winding through the hills of High Albania. Thick pine forests make way for yawning chasms in the rock that in turn give way to perilous slopes and remote valleys below. 

On the outskirts of Puke, Sadije asked that we stopped the car and I heard her voice break as she forced back tears. She pointed to the graveyard to the side of the road and spoke of those that were laid to rest there. But there was one name not on her list. Elez Rust Islami, her grandfather who was killed more than 70 years ago but whose body has never been found.

Even after all these years, his family has no way to mourn him other than with the fleeting memories they possess.

Elez was born on 21 January 1913 in Puke, in the North of Albania. He was born into a large, upper working-class family who had inherited significant amounts of land and property. Unable to pursue his education in Puke, he was sent to Shkodra where he attended school and made many friends.

Astrit, a tall, smartly dressed man and the grandson of Elez, described him as a very social man, outgoing and friendly, but who also had a thirst for knowledge. He was lucky to have the chance to study in Shkodra because, at the time, it was considered a ‘cradle of culture,’ and Elez was exposed to many different ideas, views, and people. But after he finished his schooling, he returned home to Puke, keen to build a life on his ancestral lands.

Upon his return, he married Fatima, a woman from the nearby village of Rrapa. She had six children, Agim, Barija, Enver, Shaban, Servet, and Halit. Elez engaged in agricultural work to support his family and build a home.

During his life, Elez became known for being a kind and charitable man. He was respected for the ‘besa’ he maintained with the people around him. In Albanian culture, particularly in the north, besa is a concept based on trust, honor, and the strength of one’s word. For many centuries, it has been one of the critical foundations of Albanian family and social life, binding communities together and keeping the flame of tradition burning.

A man who was passionate about his country, when the first communist cells were created in Shkodra in 1943, Elez was keen to be involved. He dreamt that the problems faced, such as independence, poverty, and corruption, could be solved with the solutions presented by the young communists. He took back the ideology to Puke and created his own communist organization, including those he thought were trustworthy and capable.

During the National Liberation War against the Italian fascist invaders, Elez was elected the Chairman of the local Antifascist Council, and he was proud to fight for his country and freedom. But shortly after the communists seized power, he realized that they weren’t the ones who had fought for their country. Instead, they were spies and those who “had never been men.” 

Astrit explained that Elez was angry because he had fought to liberate Albania and create a state that recognizes property, human dignity, and human rights. But after 1944, he began to see the reality of those in power. 

During the war, his home was used as a partisan center and hospital for the district of Puke. Later, he had managed to get a contract to fell wood on Mount Terbun, and he employed many people. His business flourished, and he supplied timber to the whole of Puke and as far afield as Shkodra. But this success, combined with his growing doubts about the newly installed regime, soon made him a target.

One day, Astrit explained that a guest came to Elez’s house. He knocked on the door and asked if the master of the house was receiving guests. In Albanian culture, the guest is one of the most revered people in the whole of society. Once a guest sets foot into your home, the hosts are bound by tradition to protect, serve, and honor them. To mistreat a guest is one of the most shameful acts imaginable to many Albanians, particularly in the north and especially in the past.

Immediately, Elez’s father Rusta invited the guest inside. They were a member of the Kol Bibe Mirakaj family who the communists were persecuting.

When the neighbors learned of Elez’s guest, their jealousy over the success of his business overcame them, and they reported him to the communists. Almost immediately, the police surrounded the house and demanded that Elez hand him over.

Elez refused, and instead, the pair fled through a tunnel; Elez to the mountains, and the guest from Kol Bibe Mirakaj back to his own home.

Through this act of defiance, Elez had made his loyalties clear. He had demonstrated that his duties as an Albanian, bajraktar, and adherent to besa and honor far surpassed his allegiance to the communists.

The next move the communists made was carefully designed to cause as much pain and anguish as possible. They appointed Elez’s nephew Zenel Coba as the head of the police in the town. They told Zenel that he must either arrest his uncle or make him surrender. 

In this cruel twist of fate, they put the family in an impossible position. If Zenel failed, Elez knew they could kill him, but arrest or surrendering would mean prison and death for him.

Zenel tried to protect his uncle and told him he should surrender. He believed that due to his position in the police, he would defend himself from harm.

Torn between a rock and a hard place, Elez decided to hand himself into his nephew. He arrived at his office on a cold, snowy winter’s day. Shortly after he arrived, Zenel received news that there was an incident in nearby Fushe Laj, and he should attend immediately. He left his uncle in his office, warning him to close the door and keep himself warm by the stove.

Little did Zenel know, but it was a trap. There was no incident in Fushe Laj, and in fact, people had been sent from Tirana to kill him. Upon arriving in Fushe Laj, he was ambushed and murdered. At the same time, communists stormed his office, and Elez was arrested.

Even as they dragged him away, he remained defiant, shouting “down with the communist party, down with Enver Hoxha” into the bleak winter’s night. Such words at this time were a certain death wish, for few dared to so openly call for the end of the regime.

In the days and weeks that followed, the communists sought to destroy the reputation of Elez. They called him an enemy of the people, party, and country. They condemned him for owning property and businesses and claimed he had stolen coal and wood, siphoning it away from what he had to give to the state. Of course, none of it was true. 

His only crime had been to fight for his country, protect a neighbor, and stand up for what he believed in.

He was arrested, but there was never a trial. To this day, the family has not been able to find a single court decision or any paperwork relating to Elez or his supposed crimes. 

Elez was then transferred to a prison in Tirana before being moved to Shkodra, back to Tirana, and Kavaja. The family was labeled as having a bad biography and was persecuted in every sense of the word. 

Desperate to hear news of his father, one of Elez’s sons, who was just 13-years-old, managed to find out which prison he was in. He made the long journey from Puke to Kavaja and finally got to see him. Elez explained he didn’t know why he had been arrested because all his accounts and inventories were in order.

Over the years, his family visited as often as they could. They brought him food to supplement the meager offerings of Albania’s communist prisons. 

Then, Astrit explains that in 1953 his father visited the prison to take Elez a jar of boiled meat and other items. When he told the guard he was taking them to Elez Rust, the guard simply replied, “He is no more; he is dead and has been so for a long time.”

In disbelief at this revelation, Astrit’s father explained that he must be wrong because he’d been bringing food for him for months.

“No, he has long since died,” replied the guard, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. When asked where they had buried Elez, the guard refused to respond.

With no protection from local or central government, and now head of the family to keep them strong, the Islami’s suffered greatly. Elez’s father tried to rally their spirits by saying, “you will live, you will live on your sweat and preserve your dignity, your character, and you will go on as you were taught.”

Not content with murdering Zenel and imprisoning and then disappearing Elez, the communists decided to inflict even more pain upon the family. They seized all their livestock, including more than 700 cows, sheep, and goats. They took their property, including their home and even the wheels of cheese stored within it.

In their eight-roomed home, they were given just two rooms for the entire family composed of 30 individuals. The other rooms were filled with strangers, teachers, and nurses. For years they lived in poverty, with just one acre of land and barely enough means to survive.

The persecution continued through the generations. Astrit and his brother started university, but were soon expelled as soon as the authorities learned of the connection with Elez. His children and grandchildren were denied education and life opportunities.

The family was called several times for deportation in labour camps and only managed to escape due to tthe twists and turns of luck.

Astrit sighs, “I hope better days are coming for our children because we didn’t get what belongs to us, even after the fall of the regime.”

While today he is a successful businessman, Astrit explains that 83% of the town is built on Elez’s land that was never returned to them. 

“We are the only family in the north that hasn’t knocked on others’ doors to ask them to leave because they are on our land,”  he said.

Over the years, the family never gave up hope. They searched in Tirana, Ndroq, Kavaja, and Mali me Gropa, frequenting all the places known to be execution sites. Yet despite their best efforts, they found nothing. The government has offered no answers and no assistance.

The family was even denied politically persecuted status. Due to Zenel being a communist and Elez’s previous role as chairman of the National Liberation Council in Puke, they were dismissed. This was despite other high-ranking communists that then fell out of favor, being granted the privilege.

Sadije spoke, her voice trembling with emotion once again. She explained the horror of the communist system, which was designed to pit families against each other and position even children as spies. She detailed how they lived in constant fear of persecution, such as being expelled from school, or worse.

“We have suffered all our lives, even in a democracy..”

She started to well up, tears forming in her eyes, and her voice became quieter and more strained.

“My mother didn’t know him either. As the communists took him away, they took my mother to say goodbye to her father. All my mother remembers is his hand on her head. Imagine a baby growing up and not remembering her father. Imagine how painful that is?” she cried.

But Sadije is proud to be his granddaughter.

“I am proud to be the granddaughter of Elez Rust Islami. I am proud of the generosity, hospitality, and besa that he gave- never betraying a guest. If he betrayed him, maybe he would be alive today. But he was a man of his word, and for that reason, today we do not know where his remains are.”

Lajme te ngjashme

Më të lexuarat

Dërgo informacion në mënyrë konfidenciale

Nëse keni informacion në interes të publikut mund ta dërgoni te redaksia e Exit duke zgjedhur te mbeteni anonim nëse dëshironi.

Mënyrat e dërgimit >>