When the night came, the interned were isolated within the walls of what was once a military barracks. Inside Tepelena Camp, they had nothing else to do but to sleep. There was no electricity, no light. The only light they would see was the sunlight of the next day.
But there, it was even hard to sleep. The wooden bunk beds, only a little more than 1.5 meters wide, were used by up to four people. In the four camp bunk rooms, each of which contained around 500 people, life was lived in severe conditions. The camp had two other buildings: One was used as a sort of storage room, and the other as a morgue.
At 5 a.m. the prisoners would start their shifts of forced labor. Before this, they would gather in the yard to be counted by the guards. The ones that were late would be kicked and dragged. Under the supervision of the guards, they would go to the village of Turan — known for another internment camp — where they would cut trees for the whole day. More tiring than the cutting was their task of taking the wood back to the camp by carrying it on their shoulders.
However, hunger made them suffer more than anything else.
“Hunger was with us every second,” said many of the survivors of the camp, recalling how in many cases, before they died, the last word people would utter was ‘bread.’ “You could endure the torture, but the hunger was terrible.”
In the short documentary film “Virtual Museum, Tepelena Camp” — screened during the 18th edition of DokuFest International Documentary Short Film Festival in Prizren last week — director Elton Baxhaku brings the stories of the survivors of the infamous camp, part of the communist heritage of Enver Hoxha’s regime in Albania during the second part of the 20th century.
“Virtual Museum, Tepelena Camp” is built on the spoken testimonies of survivors, and includes images from the camp today, many parts of which are destroyed.
Dubbed by survivors “the Albanian Auschwitz,” the infamous Tepelena Camp functioned from 1949 to 1954. In the absence of documents from that period, we don’t know what the circumstances were that led to the closure of the camp.
The camp is considered to be one of the first camps during Hoxha’s dictatorship in which people who were considered “enemies of the party” were interned. Baxhaku highlights that the “building was prepared for communist objectives,” since the barracks had been built by Italians during their invasion of Albania during World War II.
“We wanted to show Tepelena Camp as a building — an artefact — and to turn the place into a museum,” he says. “Even though it is not physically visible, to make it visitable virtually, to bring the spoken testimonies of people, because we owe it to them, for the sake of their suffering.”
The story of Aziz Ndreu, the imprisoned child who was forced to play the role of a nurse in the camp, was the most striking part for Baxhaku.
The director laments the lack of knowledge that the youth have about internment camps, or in general about the life that was lived in Albania during those years. This was one of his reasons for making the film, although the director believes that his work is but “a drop in the ocean.”
In the film, Baxhaku also shows sketches made by painter Lekë Previzi, who was also interned there. “Unfortunately, Lekë Previzi is the only one to have brought a visual interpretation of Tepelena Camp,” he says.
Aside from the lack of images of the camp from the time when it was functional, there is also a lack of official data about the number of persons who were interned there, their age, and the exact number of casualties. All that we know, we know from testimonies of survivors.
Survivors of the camp say that people mainly died from hunger and disease, but also from the torture they endured from guards.
“Up to six people died each day… mainly children and elderly people,” says one of the camp survivors in Baxhaku’s documentary.
“When they died during wintertime, we wouldn’t report them for three or four days, so that we could eat their rations,” recalls Klora Mirakaj, another survivor of the camp.
She still relives the day when she saw a woman give birth to twins, both of whom died that day. Cradles were used as coffins for the deceased children.
The Institute for Studying the Crimes and Consequences of Communism is a body with the objective of gathering, studying and analyzing facts related to the communist period in Albania. Luljeta Llushnaku, research director at the Institute, highlights that the camp functioned “without documents,” saying that this prevents the exact number of victims from being known. She adds that from the five years in which the internment camp existed, the only documents related to the Tepelena Camp are two CIA reports.
According to Llushnaku, one of the reports states that there were 2,500 casualties, whereas the other states that there were 3,500.
“Minors were excluded from the internment list because they could not be sentenced in any form due to their age,” Llushnaku says. “So this is a category that were legally free, but in reality they suffered hell in a camp that was surrounded by barbed wire, in the middle of the mountains.”
Llushnaku says that the public must be informed about Tepelena Camp so that they can reflect upon the past to understand today’s reality and foresee the future. But above all, she says documentations such as these comprise a moral and historical obligation toward those Albanians who suffered unjustly and were cruelly maltreated by Hoxha’s regime.
“Three generations were massacred in the name of the War of the Classes. We cannot reimburse them for the lives they did not live, nor for their losses, but the least we can do is recognize them,” she says, adding that the sensitivity about the drama of Tepelena Camp is related to the fact that in that camp it was mainly women, children and elderly people who suffered.
“So all human norms, laws and the very political principles of that state were broken within that camp, because I cannot consider them as political adversaries, nor as people who were dangerous for society.”K
Feature image: Sketch by Lekë Previzi, survivor of Tepelena Camp.