Concrete bunkers, a ubiquitous sight in Albania

The concrete bunkers are a ubiquitous sight in  Albania, with an average of 5.7 bunkers for every square kilometer.The bunkers were built during the communist government of Enver Hoxha from the 1960s to the 1980s; by 1983 a total of 173,371 concrete bunkers had been constructed around the country.

Hoxha’s program of “bunkerization” resulted in the construction of bunkers in every corner of the then People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, ranging from mountain passes to city streets. They were never used for their intended purpose during the years that Hoxha governed.

From the end of World War II to his death in April 1985, Enver Hoxha pursued a style of politics informed by hardline Stalinism as well as elements of Maoism. He broke with the Soviet Union, withdrew Albania from the Warsaw Pact in 1968, and broke with China.

His regime was also hostile towards Greece due to suspicions about Greek territorial ambitions in southern Albania. Hoxha was virulently hostile towards the more moderate communist government of Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia, asserting that Tito intended to take over Albania and make it into the seventh republic of Yugoslavia, and castigated the Yugoslav government’s treatment of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, claiming that “Yugoslav leaders are pursuing a policy of extermination there.”The country sank into a decade of paranoid isolation and economic stagnation, virtually cut off from the outside world.

Starting in 1967 and continuing until 1986, the Albanian government carried out a policy of “bunkerization” that saw the construction of hundreds of thousands of bunkers across the country.  They were built in every possible location, ranging from “beaches and mountains, in vineyards and pastures, in villages and towns, even on the manicured lawns of Albania’s best hotel”.

The bunkers were constructed of concrete, steel and iron and ranged in size from one- or two-person pillboxes with gun slits to large underground nuclear bomb shelters intended for use by the Party leadership and bureaucrats. The most common type of bunker is a small concrete dome set into the ground with a circular bottom extending downwards, just large enough for one or two people to stand inside. Known as “firing position”, they were prefabricated and transported to their final positions, where they were assembled. They weigh between 350–400 tons.

There was also a third category of larger “special structures” for strategic purposes. The largest were bunker complexes tunneled into mountains. At Linza near the capital, Tirana, a network of tunnels some 2 kilometers long was built to protect members of the Interior Ministry and the Sigurimi (the secret police) from nuclear attack.  Elsewhere, thousands of kilometers of tunnels were built to house political, military and industrial assets.

The bunkers were abandoned following the collapse of communism in 1990. Most are now derelict, though some have been reused for a variety of purposes including residential accommodation, cafés, storehouses, and shelters for animals or the homeless. Some have been reused as housing for animals or as storehouses; others have been abandoned to lie derelict due to the cost of removing them. A few bunkers have found more creative uses. In the coastal city of Durrës one beach side bunker has been turned into the “Restaurant Bunkeri”, and another bunker in Gjirokastër was turned into a café.

There have been various suggestions for what to do with them: ideas have included pizza ovens, solar heaters, beehives, mushroom farms, and projection rooms for drive-in cinemas, beach huts, flower planters, youth hostels, and kiosks.  Some Albanians have taken to using the bunkers for more romantic purposes. In November 2014, a “five star” nuclear shelter built near Tirana for Hoxha was opened as a tourist attraction and art exhibition. The large bunker contains a museum with exhibits from World War II and the communist period. Albania’s bunkers have even become a symbol of sorts for the country. Pencil holders and ashtrays in the shape of bunkers have become one of the country’s most popular tourist souvenirs. One such line of bunker souvenirs was promoted with a message to buyers: “Greetings to the land of the bunkers. We assumed that you could not afford to buy a big one.”

/Klara Ruci/