Transitional justice is defined as “the ways countries emerging from periods of conflict and repression address large-scale or systematic human rights violations so numerous and so serious that the normal justice system will not be able to provide an adequate response”. Albania is a country that most wouldn’t think of in conversations about transitional justice, despite the near forty-year period its people spent under an oppressive communist regime. Though proper transitional justice never truly occurred in Albania, grassroots movements like the oral history based project Even Walls Have Ears are working to bring the country closer to reconciliation with the past.
When dictator Enver Hoxha took over Albania’s government in 1944, the country was not only struggling economically, but was also marred by widespread illiteracy, epidemics, and other socio-economic issues. Hoxha may have been praised for his early economic policies which nationalized most of Albania’s industry, and his quick expansion of socialist rule to even the most rural parts of Albania, but there is a notable dark side to the Hoxha regime. Hoxha cut ties with other communist states fairly early into his regime, which meant that the Albanian economy relied on forced labour camps to stay afloat economically. The need for free labour, coupled with Hoxha’s policy of using fear to legitimize his authoritarian regime, led to widespread human rights abuses across Albania
The near constant spying of the Sigurami, Hoxha’s secret police, led to the creation of “biographies (biografitekeq)” for each individual in society. Having a “bad biography” — essentially being allied with anti-Communist or anti-Hoxha ideas — “often [resulted] in torture, imprisonment, and death”. The exact death toll of Hoxha’s regime is unknown, but “at least 50,000 [Albanians were sent]…to prisons, and internment camps”. These atrocities continued until the almost worldwide fall of communism in 1991, and it was as though Hoxha’s regime never happened. “Our community is very divided on this topic”, says co-founder of the Even Walls Have Ears project Kristale Ivezaj Rama. Rama attributes this to the lack of transitional justice for Albanians, as she says there has been “no public apology, no memorial dates, and no public acknowledgement on the topic of persecution” on the part of the state.
Academics Jonathan Ellison and Robert C. Austin hold that there was no meaningful transitional justice process in Albania because the process was “used by Albanian political leaders as a means to maintain power and as a weapon for exacting revenge against opponents”. Any laws passed after communism on the topic of reconciliation were merely tools for the party in power to keep the opposition from gaining access to positions in the government, a cycle that went on for many years. Ellison and Austin highlight the fact that despite the country’s history of oppression, there remains a certain level of disinterest or apathy towards facing the past. It is hard to know whether this apathy is because of disinterest, or because Albanians were never given the luxury of transitional justice itself.
The root of the problem
Even Walls Have Ears is a grassroots project that is ““multi-dimensional…[and] dedicated to sharing the untold stories of Albanian’s dictatorship 1944-1991 through story-telling, photography, film and conceptual art”. Rama’s own family history motivated her to create this project, as her grandfather Pal was separated from his mother when he fled Albania as a child. The declassification of the Sigurami files in 2017 allowed Rama to access her great-grandmother’s file, and found out that her great-grandmother Rina raised two daughters in the Tepelena Concentration. Rama was moved by this part of her family history, and interest evolved into a project aimed at addressing “the intergenerational trauma that exists within the Albanian community” and understanding how to engage with the process of restorative justice.
The interviews done for this project were used as part of a conceptual art piece by artist Alketa Xhafa Mripa, which displayed the words of those interviews on public landmarks. They were also made public on the Even Walls Have Ears website, the text being in both English and Albanian to widen the audience of this work. Rama believes this project is a “tiny seed” in the greater movement towards transitional justice, something those living in Albania need to be able to move forward. Limitations on free speech and an unstable economy are just some of the lasting effects of this period in Albania, and as Rama so eloquently put, the “people can’t think about the past if they are too preoccupied with the present and worry about their future”.
“Thirty years after the collapse of communism, many survivors live next door to their perpetrators as the communist criminals were never punished”, said Rama when questioned about the failure of transitional justice. This reality is reflected in the interviews available on the platform, as interviewees’ strong commitment to sharing their own truth is a common theme. Agim Gjakova, a Kosovar refugee who worked for the state’s Telecommunications department, speaks about the psychological trauma he experienced being under intense surveillance for simply joking around with his coworkers. Gjakova holds that “new generations must learn to not allow the repeat of atrocities that were committed at the expense of people who were aware, who were dignified”.
Bringing human rights into the present
The featured image of this piece shows a structure painted in vibrant colours, which reads “nje botë, me ngyra” (a world of colours). This structure is one of the 173,000 bunkers built by the Hoxha government, which now serve as permanent reminders of one of Albania’s darkest times. Interviewee Sokol Mirakaj says that “it’s a pleasure to speak, even more so an opportunity to speak, and to say goodbye to evil” when discussing sharing his story. Mirakaj’s ability to find positivity amidst speaking about spending 46 years in a forced labour camp bares some similarities to the beautification of the bunker; Albanians cannot remove the past, but talking about it brings it into the present, and sharing the horrific story brings the eventual positive result of being able to move forward, and the hope of not repeating this dark history.
The work done by Rama and all people involved in Even Walls Have Ears demonstrates the importance of restorative justice in dealing with human rights abuses, and how governments not addressing these issues only deepens inequalities and resentment. “Democracy today around the world is in danger because of this extreme polarity, people feeling distant and critical towards the other, using demonizing language to undermine those who do not share their views because of different lived experiences,” said Rama when asked how her work is relevant to the politics of today. Rising tides of authoritarianism in Western democracies makes conversions around human rights imperative, as the injustices we ignore and rationalize today are the lives lost, the traumatic experiences, and the structural inequalities of tomorrow.
Edited by Zachary Beresin.
Adriana Gabriela Franco is a fourth year student at McGill University, pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Arts with a double major in Political Science and World Islamic and Middle East Studies. Adriana has been a staff writer at Catalyst for three years, and her areas of interest include food anthropology, and identity politics.