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.
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.
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.
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.
- Compensatory Albanians suffered under communism and now have a chance to be financially compensated by the communist system by blowing up its bunkers.
- 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.
- Economic Barometer The more wealthy Albanians become, the less financially appealing blowing up the bunkers will be.
- 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.
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)
Stories and related reports on the internet about de-bunkerization and bunkers in general:
Report interviewing those who bunkerized and those who de-bunkerize (Albanian. this is a great article Id love to translate and post)