Throughout the summer of 2010, a small group of friends, bonded by sorrow, spent their days not walking, swimming, or with family, but digging with a Chinese-made excavator in the wooded foothills of Mount Dajti, five kilometres from Tirana’s Skenderbeg Square and near the village where today’s Prime Minister Edi Rama later built his modern home.
When they stopped in early autumn, the remains of 13 people lay in black plastic bags – the discarded bones of those who were secretly executed by gunshot during the dark years of communist rule.
The Tirana prosecutor or other government officials were nowhere to be seen because this exhumation was a private campaign – the desperate effort of two men to find their fathers who had been wrongly convicted and killed many years before.
Three decades since communism’s fall, thousands of Albanian families are still waiting to learn how and where their relatives were killed.
The exact number remains unclear: post-communist governments of all stripes have not figured that out. Most estimates circle around 6,000 people who were killed or died in state custody between 1944 and 1991, their bodies never returned.
Surviving victims of communist-era persecution have largely been recognised and compensated. But the families of missing persons must literally dig by themselves into the past.
“The politicians just don’t care,” said Jovan Plaku, 46, the main organizer of the Mount Dajti dig, whose father Koco Plaku was executed in 1976 after a conviction for treason, sabotage and agitation and propaganda against the state. “They’re too busy making money.”
Frustrated and ignored, Plaku and others have planned and financed their own investigations, collecting official documents and piecing together stories from former interrogators, prison guards and spies from the Sigurimi state security agency. Plaku gathered audio recordings of his father’s court proceedings and interrogations, which was the first time since early childhood that he heard his father’s voice.
“Procedural reasons were given time and time again by the prosecutor’s office as to why orders for exhumations could not be given,” said Matthew Holliday, Western Balkans Director at the International Commission of Missing Persons, ICMP, which released a report this month on missing persons in Albania from communist times.
The report acknowledges the various laws and institutions that exist to address communist-era crimes but laments the lack of cooperation and coordination that has resulted in “limited progress in addressing the missing persons issue”.
The list of secret dumping grounds extends far beyond Mount Dajti. About 70 reported locations are sprinkled across the country, roughly 25 of them credible, and a dozen of them confirmed to have human remains.
In addition to the Mount Dajti site, family members, the ICMP and Albania’s Institute for Integration of Formerly Politically Persecuted have repeatedly asked local prosecutors to exhume a site near the southern town of Ballsh.
In response to questions, Albania’s General Prosecutor’s office said that district prosecutors can order exhumations for communist-era crimes that do not exceed the statute of limitations and referred questions about the Mount Dajti and Ballsh sites to the prosecutors of Tirana and Fier.
In contrast to the state’s inaction, Prime Minster Rama responded to a request from the Italian government to find the remains of an Italian banker named Giussepe Terrusi, who was arrested after the war and executed in 1952. Without a court order or forensic expert, a team with a backhoe dug two trenches at Burrel prison in September 2020, finding nothing but dirt.
The prime minister’s office did not respond to questions about Terrusi or its wider approach to communist-era secret graves, referring queries to the Albanian Authority for Access to Information on ex-Sigurimi Files, a body established in 2016 to manage the archive of the former secret police but without authority to conduct criminal investigations.
The ICMP is not the first international body to examine the issue. The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances visited Albania in December 2016 and published a critical report the following year, finding that “Albania has yet to deal adequately with the gross human rights violations committed between 1944 and 1991”.
“Ad hoc and fragmented” was how the UN Working Group described Albania’s search for the disappeared.
The country’s obligations are clear. The European Convention for Human Rights, to which Albania is party, covers the right to life, and the state has a procedural obligation when that right is abused. Albania is also party to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which requires investigations and prosecutions when people go missing from state custody.
In May 2018, the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances encouraged Albania to “redouble its efforts to effectively shed light on enforced disappearances that took place during the communist regime”. Albania should investigate these crimes, prosecute those responsible and provide reparations to the victims and their families, the committee said.
The ICMP is offering to help at the Mount Dajti and Ballsh sites with funding from the European Union, but it took heavy diplomatic pressure for the Albanian government to even approve a cooperation agreement with the organisation in 2018.
“The government cares about public relations,” said one person who followed the process closely. “Beyond that, they don’t want to face abuses of the past. It’s a challenge and doesn’t bring in funds.”
Critics say that government efforts have focused on glitzier projects, such as the former military bunker Bunk’Art and the former Sigurmi listening centre, the House of Leaves. Both projects help to illuminate the past but largely cater to a foreign crowd. They do little to soothe the suffering of roughly 6,000 families who seek comfort, closure and compensation.
Since 1991, the approach of all governments, Socialist and Democratic, has been “calibrated not to irritate the old guard”, said one diplomat who followed the issue.
Fred Abrahams is author of the book Modern Albania: From Dictatorship to Democracy in Europe that covers the fall of Communism and the turbulent transition after four decades of labour camps, thought police and one-party rule.