The following is an excerpt from “Mud Sweeter than Honey: Voices of Communist Albania” by Margo Rejmer, published in English translation in November 2021 by Restless Books. Originally published in Polish in 2018, the book is an oral history of the people who suffered and survived under Enver Hoxha’s regime. This chapter is the story of a man who wanted to escape.
A Stone on the Border
Voices from Communist Albania.
I was born in the ethnically Greek village of Derviçan, under seven and a half miles from the border as the crow flies—and I’d always had that border under my skin. I used to see the hills on the horizon glowing pink at dusk, and I’d think: “On that side there are other villages, other rivers, other homes.”
But our Albanian life was as plain and austere as a wax candle. Nothing belonged to us; everything depended on the state. When I was in my teens, my parents sent me to Gjirokastër to train to be a carpenter. And there in the workshop, I met three guys who were just as inquisitive and hungry for life as I was. We talked about everything, including other worlds.
“Apparently, in other countries everyone has a television.”
“And a car!”
We couldn’t imagine it. We snatched at scraps of news whirling on the wind: Someone had been to Yugoslavia and seen something there, someone had listened to the ads on Greek radio and had no idea what they were about. The propaganda shouted: “Defense of the border is our highest duty of all!” and the whole of Albania was encircled in barbed wire—higher here, lower there, single-strand here, double-strand there. None of us had a passport; a passport was an honor bestowed upon very few: Party hacks, athletes, and members of folk ensembles. And only when it was absolutely certain they wouldn’t immediately use it to run away.
"Sometimes, the border meant death, because the guards were allowed to shoot anyone in their line of sight."
And anyone who did escape had to live with the knowledge that they’d left suffering in their wake. The families of traitors were punished in the same way as traitors. Usually they were interned in the most isolated and backward regions, where every day was a fight for survival, so that their suffering should serve as a lesson for others.
Sometimes, the border meant death, because the guards were allowed to shoot anyone in their line of sight, but sometimes not even death was the final punishment. In the 1980s, the guards tied the body of a fifteen-year-old boy they’d shot to the tow hook on the back of a truck and dragged him along a gravel road to his family’s village. What they dumped beneath the biggest oak tree in the village was just a ragged mess. The authorities reduced a cheerful teenager to a bloody heap of rags, but what the hell for? To make us all feel afraid? To be sure we’d never forget?
And yet people still gambled with their lives. We talked about a family of nomads who in 1956 simply walked across the border while herding a large flock of sheep and found refuge in Greece, because it never occurred to the guards that even some dumb shepherds might have the sense to get away.
“Perhaps it’s not all that hard . . .” we said to each other.
Is an animal that yearns to break free a brave creature or a stupid one? When an animal that lives in a cage is put into an even smaller one, does it stop to think: “They’ve stolen my life”?
There were four of us, a great bunch of guys, or so I thought, but in fact there were three of us and a spy. The fellow who informed on us had lost his job as a teacher, so now he needed to suck up to the authorities to get a foothold. We didn’t know him well, but we soon counted him as a friend because we were stupid and trusting, and he was always a good laugh. If I could get my hands on him now . . . He ruined our lives, and now he’s dead . . . My friends are dead, and so is Anastas, the Judas. He took his guilt with him to the grave.
The system came banging on my door when I was sixteen. I was just a silly, naive child who’d dared to have a dream and say it aloud. I should have been going to school but I went to prison instead—the worst school of life. They called me an enemy of the people, but I simply didn’t understand that in Albania communism was in control, that the propaganda was etched on people’s minds, and we lived in a trap. It was only in prison, in a concrete cell, that I saw Albania as a great big cage. I was stuck inside it all alone.
In their darkest hours people were kept alive by the thought of their family, but I never got a single letter or parcel, not a word for the whole five years I was in prison.
I was twenty-one when I was released. They fired me from my first job after a week, yelling “You traitor!” in my face. After that, no one wanted to hire me, although I went from one factory to the next and asked for help wherever I could. I was like a dog that anyone could kick.
"I wanted to escape because I was driven by the desire for a better life awaiting us on the other side, where I wouldn’t have to lie to my child."
When you’re young, you don’t know when to give in, you think you’ll be able to shoulder any burden. I fell in love and got married, but when my wife fell pregnant, I realized what a dreadful life lay ahead of us. Every day I had to fight the system just to bring home food. Even at liberty I was like an animal in a cage.
My thoughts of escape kept recurring, last thing at night and first thing in the morning . . . Death on the border didn’t frighten me—how could it be any different from the living death we were enduring every day? I was a young man, yet I felt old and lifeless. I didn’t want to escape to make a great dream come true, I wasn’t chasing a fantasy or some incredible plan. I wanted to escape the misery of our life, the lack of hope, the degradation. I wanted to escape because I was driven by the desire for a better life awaiting us on the other side, where I wouldn’t have to speak to my wife in whispers, I wouldn’t have to lie to my child, and we wouldn’t have to wonder where our next meal was coming from. Where people would treat me like a human being, not a louse.
When my wife was six months pregnant, I finally convinced her that we should make a run for it. It was a race against time, her belly was growing and so were our problems. “We’ve got nothing to lose,” I told her, although our lives were at stake. But we’d be fleeing as a family, the two of us. I had no one left, but she was hesitant because she felt sorry for her parents. In the end she agreed—perhaps because she loved me, or perhaps because she hated Albania. Perhaps she had run out of hope.
We left the house as if everything were normal, with just a few slices of bread in our pockets, and off we went. In a country where there were hardly any cars and you had to fight for a seat on the bus, a bicycle or your own two legs were the only reliable means of transport. I’d spent my whole life walking to some place or other. And now I was walking, too—straight ahead, to meet my own fate.
We didn’t talk much on the way. Step by step, mile after mile, we got closer to the border, keeping as far as possible from the checkpoints. I was single-minded, but she was getting more and more tired, holding her belly in silence.
I knew the area—I knew where there were the fewest guards and where the fence was lowest. Once we were quite near, I ran on ahead. “Get across as fast as possible, as fast as possible,” I kept thinking. And I left her behind. I climbed up the fence, scratching my legs until they bled, but I couldn’t feel a thing. I jumped down, ran straight ahead, and threw myself into the grass. I was overcome with joy. Just a while and she’d get there, too, and we’d be free. We’d make a new start. I gazed up at the sky, and for the moment I let my mind go blank. For the first time in ages I let myself stop thinking. I was free . . . or so I thought.
The sun was gradually setting, but I went on waiting, hidden in the grass. I thought about her, the fact that she was carrying our child, and that she was the only person I loved. An hour or so went by, but she still hadn’t appeared. What had happened? I looked ahead of me, at the hills tightly surrounding me, filling the view. What should I do? Go back for her, or walk straight on to freedom, to a better life?
And at that moment I made a decision. I put my life on one side of the scales and love on the other, and I chose love. I didn’t know what that choice would mean. I didn’t know that she would have to make a choice, too.
I went back.
She was sitting on a stone, with her head bowed, holding her belly. The moment she saw me, the moment I looked her in the face . . . I realized, but it was too late. At once the guards surrounded me.
"Right there, sitting on that stone, was the last time I ever saw her."
They’d found her much earlier, but when they noticed she was pregnant, they guessed she hadn’t been on her own. They didn’t know if I’d come back for her, but they’d waited. They’d been waiting for me, just as she had.
I don’t know what she was thinking as she sat there on that stone. Had she been mentally begging me to return, or had she figured I wouldn’t look back? As I gazed at her and her belly, I felt so terribly sorry.
I went back because I knew I had to be faithful to her. If you love someone, you’re faithful. And you mustn’t betray the person who loves you.
Right there, sitting on that stone, was the last time I ever saw her.
For attempting to escape the country—in other words, for betraying the fatherland—I was sentenced to twenty years in prison. My wife only got ten because she was pregnant. I don’t know what any of it was like from her point of view, I don’t know what she thought. Only scraps of information got through to me: that she’d had the baby in prison, that she’d given our son up for adoption, and that she wanted a divorce.
I was completely alone. Somewhere out there, far away, my son was living in an orphanage—the child for whom I’d risked everything—and he was alone, too.
I signed the divorce papers. Too bad, if that was what she wanted. Then I found out that just after the divorce she’d ended up in a mental hospital in Vlorë. Our shattered Albanian family. Me in prison, our son in an orphanage, her in an asylum. Three destinies like three snapped twigs.
I never tried to get in touch with her again. All I heard was that when she left the hospital, her family married her off again. Someone told me she didn’t want to do it, but they forced her. I’ll never know if that was true. It doesn’t matter now, anyway.
In prison the hardest thing was thinking about my son, and I thought about him every day. What was he like, what was he doing, was he like me? Had he taken his first steps, said his first word, drawn his first house? Did he know who his parents were? Did he bear me a grudge? Was he suffering? Did he feel trapped at the orphanage? Did he ever think about me? Had it occurred to him that we’d taken all that risk for his sake? That I’d gone back out of love for them? That by recrossing the border, I’d signed my own sentence, too?
Years went by—years of hard, forced labor, bleak and hopeless. Ten years at an oil refinery in Ballsh, then at a copper mine in Rubik, then in Laç . . . Draining marshes in central Albania. Dreadful work, which made people drop with exhaustion, like overworked cart horses. Then we’d go back to our cells, to be locked up like caged animals. Alongside the suffering, I could feel hatred and evil brewing inside me.
"I had to learn freedom again from scratch, insofar as a former convict in an enslaved country can be free."
I came out after twenty years. They didn’t take a single day off my sentence. I was free in a country of three million free prisoners. I had to learn all over again how to walk like a human, how to think like a human, how to breathe like one—because I walked, thought, and breathed like a prisoner. For years, day after day, I’d been taught discipline and terror, so I was entirely made up of discipline and terror. I felt as if everyone around me was giving me orders. Whenever I spoke to someone, I stood as straight as a ramrod. I had to learn freedom again from scratch, insofar as a former convict in an enslaved country can be free.
I immediately thought of my son. He was twenty; he’d lived his entire life at the orphanage. What kind of a man had he become in the care of the state that put me behind bars? What had he been told about me? Had his guardians instilled in him hatred for his father, an enemy of the people? I badly wanted to see him—I longed to tell him everything. I wanted him to understand me and forgive me.
I found out that he was studying in Elbasan, and I managed to get in touch with some of his fellow students. In the end we agreed to meet; on the appointed day, I was to wait for him at the bus station in Gjirokastër. And I did. I scrutinized the faces of all the young men, looking for a sign, waiting for my heart to skip a beat. But none of the faces meant anything to me. I didn’t recognize my son.
And yet he was there that day at the bus station in Gjirokastër. He came. He even walked past me. But it was 1982, and we were all stifled by terror. Neither of us dared to simply come up and ask: “Is it you?”
Only a week later we finally managed to meet, at a different place. We threw ourselves into each other’s arms, without hesitation. Back then, even an ordinary, human gesture of that kind was an act of bravery. My son took a risk by hugging me, an enemy of the people, a former prisoner. But he badly wanted to have a father. And at forty-four years old, all I had to my name was twenty-five years in prison and a son, nothing else. People kept telling him: “Leave it—what good is a father like that to you? He’ll only bring you trouble.” But my son refused to listen to them. He’d grown up to be a good person. He’d grown up to be the son I’d always dreamed he’d be.
Meanwhile, the country was crumbling and grinding to a halt—there were no raw materials, the factories were at a standstill, there was no petrol for the machinery—but my life moved forwards as if it were finally on the right track. I got married again, and my second son was born; we lived in poverty, but I no longer had any dreams or expectations. “Just as long as there’s no more suffering,” I thought.
And then my wife ended up in prison. Seven years for stealing a radio. A sentence for her, me, and our son. We were left on our own, he and I. To get milk for him, I used to stand in line from four in the morning. I’d stand and stare into the darkness, waiting for the sun to rise at last. And when I saw it, I never thought it had come up that day to shine for me. I thought it had come up to scorch my face.
"There are things I simply don’t want to remember because the pain is blinding."
As soon as the system collapsed in 1991, I went to Greece with my sons. I wasn’t expecting much of that country, because I was worn out by then—I could feel the years of labor in every bone—but once again I took a risk, this time for my sons. As simple as that. For them, life in Greece turned out to be a salvation—the older one found work, and the younger one went to college. Today, one of them lives in Sparta and the other in Canada, they’re in no danger. They have a good life, they’re safe.
And I’m here in Albania, on my native soil. Nothing bad can happen to me now—and nothing good, either. I have no illusions. I can say whatever I like about the fact that there’s no work, there’s no money and no future, and no one’s going to punish me, so I’m a free man. When I was sixteen, I thought I was always going to fly high, but then someone clipped my wings. I fell and crashed to the ground. I could never rise again. Now there’s nothing else ahead of me.
I often meet up with friends at this bar. We talk about the past, we go back to the same events hundreds of times, but there are things I simply don’t want to remember because the pain is blinding.
I don’t know if I’ve ever been happy. Perhaps when looking at my sons. But my life has consisted of short periods of calm punctuated by a series of unlucky blows. I don’t know why fate spares some people and sends so much suffering to others. I don’t know who writes our lives, I don’t know whose hand was shaking so badly as they wrote mine. I did what I could to determine my own life, but I still spent twenty-five years in prison. I tried to live and think like a free man, but I still ended up living like an animal. If only I’d kept walking that time . . . If only I hadn’t gone back for her . . .
Life takes you where it wants. If only I’d managed to escape . . . but I didn’t. I failed to elude my own fate.
There’s a poem by Martin Camaj:
When I die, may I turn to stone
On the confines of my land
May I be a landmark
I turned to stone while still alive, on that day when I crossed the
border and went back.
Copyright © 2018 Margo Rejmer.
English Translation copyright © 2021 Zosia Krasodomska-Jones and Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Used with permission of Restless Books.
Feature Image: Ferdi Limani / K2.0.