All of the stories we have shown you so far have been different in various ways. But the one thing, sewing them all together with a black and unbreakable thread, is the pain felt by not being able to retrieve their loved ones’ remains.
Being able to retrieve their bones, lay them to rest, and give them the funeral they deserve is of great importance to these families. Not being able to do this leaves them with a gaping wound that will not heal. Not only do they suffer from the unknown, but they feel they have failed or are prevented from giving their ancestors the dignity they deserve.
They have searched, asked questions, looked to international organisations for help, and even tried to retrieve them themselves, but obstacles are put in their way every time. Albania is home to generations of people who will never know what happened to their loved ones or where their bodies lie.
In the fourth episode of the memory files, we will hear a story that demonstrates this anguish and paints a horrifying picture of the persecution people faced during these years. When you begin to understand how the communist party treated people and how a lack of justice impacts them today, you know that while the regime has fallen, its brutal legacy continues in the minds and lives of the people to this very day.
When we arrived at the Velaj house, situated close to the centre of Tirana, behind the National Museum, I already had a fixed idea of the people expecting us. I had contacted Aurora, niece to our subject, and she made it clear several times how vital telling this story is both to her family and her personally. She had been very invested since an early age in thoroughly researching her grandfather’s life and legacy. So, it comes as no surprise that when we meet our hosts, they are somewhat anxious.
The first things we were shown were old photographs of Tefik Sfiri, the subject of our interview, and other items of sentimental value. These included a handmade cane that a fellow prisoner made for him, embellished with tiny beads of different colours, and preserved beautifully.
Other family heirlooms have been lost in their forty-something years of struggle to survive.
“It’s because we want to do our grandfather justice; we want to tell it properly,” says Aurora imploringly, looking at her father, Sazan. He is 84 years of age, and I could hear he had difficulties breathing when he spoke.
It strikes me that it is undoubtedly about justice. It’s about giving Tefik Sfiri a small portion of the justice he deserves and didn’t get before his life was brutally taken from him. Also, justice for his family in the form of a bit of closure. So far, closure has been denied as they have never been helped or permitted to find his body.
It’s only in such a mindset that you can understand why, despite his age, memory and breathing problems, Sazan Velaj Sfiri is determined to tell us about his father’s life and why it came to an abrupt end.
Sazan starts to tell us about their family, which was based in Sfiraj in the southern district of Mallakastra. The Sfiraj were a very prominent family in the area; they had been local officials and career officers in the Turkish empire administration. But, the Sfiraj were fundamentally a family rooted in their community and their support and well-being.
Therefore, when the Tanzimat reforms were imposed upon Albania, they joined their compatriots in rebellion. Such was the case of Tefik’s grandfather, Shuaif Sfiri, who was interned in a camp in Selanik for his role in the insurgency for many years.
It was the same with Tefik’s father, Sabri, who joined a group of 8500 people protesting Esat Pasha’s agreement with neighbouring countries concerning the division of Albania.
Tefik’s father opened the first school in Sfir, teaching mathematics to prominent families in Vlora. He wanted his son to have the best education possible and thus moved him to study in Berat and, eventually, to the prestigious Harry Fultz School in Tirana.
Tefik developed a love for poetry and lyrics from 15 and loved to read Albanian renaissance poets, calling them “Albania Illuminists”. He also found a friend for life in Ilsan Qereshniku from Berat. Their bond would eventually be transformed into real family ties as Tefik would meet and marry one of Ilsan’s sisters, Zyra. They went on to have five children, our narrator Sazan amongst them.
As was to be expected of his family members, Tefik was constantly engaged in matters of public interest. In the early ‘30s, there was general dissatisfaction with the King Zog monarchy. He was one of them, and official documents suspect him to have organised the Fier uprising in 1935.
He was subsequently labelled a “communist”, as were many of the organisers when he was, instead, against the monarchy. Later, in 1937 he was imprisoned for publicly stating that the King was a traitor for having sold Shen Naum to come into power. Official documents collected by Aurora show that he was in prison for over two months but was released due to a lack of evidence.
Sazan tells us that not long after Italy occupied Albania in 1939, Tefik went to Skrapar and joined Mestan Ujaniku’s unit, eventually called The Oldster unit. A year later, he formed his unit in Mallakastër, along with Mehmet Shehu.
Tefik Sfiri was elected commander of the unit, with the blessing of Mehmet Shehu, who would become the political commissar. The move was calculated to win the support of the local people.
But Shehu had bigger ambitions, and when a chance came his way, he didn’t think twice about abandoning his old friends to join Dusan Mugosha to set up a partisan unit of their own.
Tefik, as a commander, understood the importance of unity in the fight against the occupation and went to Klos to mend ties between the two groups of people: the nationalists and communists. But Shehu didn’t accept any of their proposals, and the situation quickly escalated with parties threatening each other. Mugosha was present, which impressed upon the attendants.
It quickly became apparent to Tefik that the Yugoslavs and communists intended to take up power. They were thinking about fighting the foreign enemies and the people who might prevent their power grab and instil a communist regime.
Tefik gave up and instead formed a separate unit made of 52 local nationalists (Ballist) personalities.
They fought many battles: in Ruzhdije, which lasted for three days and Kurje, which left him with five wounds and a burned down house, and the struggle of Cakran and Ngreçan. His family had to move to Fier under the threat of their lives.
The last battle in Sinj Tefik Sfiri fought alongside Mehmet Shehu, each with its own units. Tefik led 200 people in that battle.
But fighting against the enemy was not enough to be spared by the newly empowered communists. In fact, not even family ties, which by tradition compel Albanians to offer protection and shelter even to distant relatives, were enough. Shehu had become engaged to Zyra’s niece, Fiqrete and was, therefore, now a relation.
Sazan had to stop from time to time to breathe and reconcile his account. Many events elude him, but he remembers one day when his father was in hiding. Shehu visited them and took him and his little sister and made them kneel, asking them if they were with the Communists or the Ballists. The children sided with their father.
But this was no courtesy visit, and Shehu wasn’t making small talk with the children. He came to ask where their father was point-blank. The children answered that he was hiding in the woods.
The Communists had issued a general order to capture all leading figures of the National Front, many of which were preparing to leave the country. But Tefik refused and hid in the woods of Mallakastra instead.
The regime sent the XVII brigade after him, and after six months, they killed a friend of Sfiri while interrogating him on his whereabouts. That prompted Tefik to surrender, and he was tried and executed on July 27, 1945.
Not only did the communists take Tefik from his family, but they took almost everything they owned as well.
“They left us only five spoons, five forks and five mattresses; everything else was taken,” Sazan recounts. Almost every book in Tefik’s extensive library was taken, except a French encyclopedia. The money received from selling that book on the black market fed them for six months.
In 1951, Tefik’s son was arrested over a bomb detonated in the Soviet Embassy in Tirana. He was initially sentenced to two years in prison, but they kept extending his sentence. His entire life was spent behind bars, from the age of 16 until the regime’s fall in 1990.
When talking about their suffering in the prison camps, first Berat and then Saver, Sazan welled up with tears. He needed no assistance from his daughter in remembering those events; he remembers them very clearly.
“For six months, all we had to eat was one biscuit per day because we did not have vouchers; they did not give them to us. Man is strong to survive such suffering,” he says in a sad, almost solemn voice. [The front voucher (Triska e front) was a document that proved you were part of the Democratic Front, the main organisation after the communist took power. Having it gave you the right to get food vouchers, clothing and a passport. Those considered enemies by the Communist Party could not have a front voucher.]
Sazan had to work very hard in potato production to be noticed by the authorities. When the Minister of Agriculture, Hysni Kapo, visited along with Defense Minister Beqir Balluku asking what he wanted for his hard work, he asked for the right to study. He was given this right, but when Balluku was deposed, his right to study was revoked too. He protested, claiming it was Kapo who’d given him the right to study, but the institution’s secretary told him he should be in prison for his father’s crimes, not demanding to study.
I thought to myself, “Father, why did you make me?” admits Sazan.
Yet, he persisted, secretly enrolling and completed a four-year course in just 18 months.
It helped that the regime had changed the family surname from Sfiri to Velaj. The Communists wanted their enemies’ legacy to die, and it was common practice to change their family’s surname during these times.
Tefik Sfiri’s remains were never found. It’s all his family would have wanted, Sazan tells us.
He was decorated in 1995 for his patriotic contribution, but that’s the closed to justice that they will ever get. His father wrote a special letter to all of his children. In it, Tefik advises Sazan to never meddle in politics, for it will cost him his head.
In this letter, Sazan also spoke about the cruelty and the reality of communist Albania.
“A man, excluded from society. That front voucher was dangerous. The class war was even more dangerous. All of Albania was a concentration camp! ”
In loving memory of Tefik Sfiri. With thanks to the Sfiri / Velaj family.
Project Funded by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung