Disappearing Bunkers

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yours truly on my peace corps approved bunker

Imagine you’re sitting in a freezing classroom in a foreign country trying to learn a difficult language. Suddenly the class is interrupted  by a distant yet very loud explosion. You look out the window and see smoke rise on a nearby mountain. “Bunkers. They destroy them for money” the teacher says. The lesson continues. Then an explosion happens again 20 minutes later. then again.

Thus was my first experience with today’s blog topic: Albania’s debunkerization.

found on reddit. 100% historically accurate.

found on reddit. 100% historically accurate.

Something unique to Albania is its system of 700,000 steel an concrete bunkers scattered across this tiny country. “Bunkerization” of Albania occurred under communism in response to the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia and increasing political isolation following Albania’s falling out with Yugoslavia, the USSR, China, and almost everyone else in the world. While the extreme paranoia on Dictator Enver Hoxha’s part may make us smirk, let’s remember that the cold war as a whole was a crazy endeavor: For decades, humanity was ready to destroy itself… to defend itself. Some countries built inter-continental nuclear missiles. Albania built bunkers.

Today, these bunkers are disappearing one by one.

this bunker out of service due to being aslpoded.

this bunker out of service due to being aslpoded.

How do thousands of concrete and steal bunkers just disappear?

Money and Explosives. Albania remains very poor and each bunker, which has no clear owner, is filled with valuable metal that can be sold for scrap. A normal little bunker can fetch 35000 new leke or a little under $350 in scrap. Considering youth unemployment is around 30% and GDP per capita is around $4000, these bunkers may as well be filled with gold.

This informal de-bunkerization for scrap has had a more formal counterpart on the coasts. Once lined with bunkers, beaches are now relatively bunker-free for tourists. In fact, I recently visited a cemetery for dismembered bunkers on the far end of the beach boardwalk in Durres.

Among Albanians, the bunkers are not seen as “cool” or “historic” or otherwise worth preserving. If anything, they’re understandably seen as relics from an embarrassing past. This differs with the value tourists, albanianists, and historic preservationists see in bunkers. I’ve noticed Albanians rarely see the touristic value of their country (besides the beaches), but that’s a topic for another post.

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this bunker also out of service due to being asploded.

Save the Whales Bunkers!

Any bunker preservation program would have to involve overcoming the financial incentive to destroy them for scrap with a greater financial incentive. The program would need regular monitoring, a systematic inventory of all preserved bunkers geo-referenced, and of course funding. All of this in a country that still doesn’t have water 24/7 and where mountain people are stunted by malnutrition. You can see why such a program would face challenges.

So what is the fate of these ubiquitous bunkers? Before we lament their disappearance, let’ s remember 700,000 of them were built and that they’re spread out all over the country. I doubt we will see them all removed but they will certainly become increasingly rare and less visible at this rate. Looking at old photographs, I can tell they are already much less present today than they had been 20 years ago.
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Here are some  ways to understand debunkerization:
  1. Compensatory Albanians suffered under communism and now have a chance to be financially compensated by the communist system by blowing up its bunkers.
  2. Metaphorical As time passes, the psychological and cultural effects of almost 50 years of Stalinism are fading. The bunkers, ubiquitous physical reminders of  the former system, are fading as well.
  3. Economic Barometer  The more wealthy Albanians become, the less financially appealing blowing up the bunkers will be.
  4. Challenge to Historical Preservation. Preserving items from a dark history is fraught with challenges. However, that these bunkers are a significant part of the Albanian physical historic landscape and unique in the world cannot be denied.
Until something changes, Albania will continue to be de-bunkerized. For better or worse.

Ciao

see below for bunker pics

———–

You can read more about the cultural and political issues regarding preserving Albania’s built legacy of communism in this masters thesis. (english)

Perhaps the best source on bunkers, in english: Concrete Mushrooms (english ebook)

Stories and related reports on the internet about de-bunkerization and bunkers in general:

a 24 year old guy died blowing up bunkers for scrap (albanian)

men arrested for blowing up bunkers with military grade explosives to sell for skrap. (Albanian)

Report interviewing those who bunkerized and those who de-bunkerize (Albanian. this is a great article Id love to translate and post)

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fun bunkerfact: much of the little bunkers around Albania were at one time connected to their close neighbors with little concrete tunnels. this bunker has probably lost one or two neighbors. nowadays these concrete tunnel parts are often used for small bridges over streams. (picture courtesy of my dear friend Ralph)

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Me posing inside of components of the tunnels that used to connect the bunkers. In Saranda (photo courtesy of my friend Maria)

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(picture courtesy of my dear friend Ralph)
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often bunkers have sunk into the ground in the past 30 years to an extent that closes off their entrance

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4 responses to “Disappearing Bunkers

  1. Pingback: Top 10 (Actually Interesting) Facts about Albania | dude, where's my gomar?·

  2. Above the village of Lin on Lake Ohrid is (or was a few years ago) a bunker that was turned into a mini orthodox church.

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