Longform | Albania

The undefeated enemy of the people

By - 13.11.2020

The legacy of an execution in communist Albania.

In July 1978, when Albania was still a communist dictatorship, two serious events shook the state. The first was a letter from the Chinese government informing Albanian leaders that it was cutting off economic and military aid; the second was a letter sent by two political prisoners to the Central Committee of the Party.

Although they were unrelated, the events were communicated by the same means: the sending of letters. But while the letter composed by the leadership of China became public, the other one — written in a prison cell — was kept secret. After 42 years it is not easy to go back to the world of that time, to understand the inner workings of a state system that had gradually become an instrument of torture for anyone who opposed its operation, or even questioned it. 

A letter from a prison cell

This was exactly what was being done by Fadil Kokomani and Vangjel Lesho. The two men had been imprisoned alongside each other from 1963, first in Burrel prison and then in the infamous prison at Spaç. 

Their letter of July 9, 1978, told an obscurantist, infamous, heartless and bloodthirsty regime that “in a state where general and individual life is subject to the political thought and path of one clique, it is without question that this state has been conquered by an abyss of immorality, and that… in socialist Albania, as soon as a child leaves his mother’s womb, he is given the rifle, only with the humanitarian purpose that when he, the child, grows up, he will kill himself!” 

This was not just an accusation or opposition, but was also an extraordinary act of courage. It was this frank and courageous assertion of truth that shook the gloomy communist leadership just as much as the breaking off of relations with China.

In its “abyss of immorality,” the regime possessed considerable power to punish. The imprisoned letter writers, Fadil Kokomani and Vangjel Lesho, were executed a year later. The incident was kept secret and family members were notified of their death only after a few months, while nothing was said about the bodies. But no-one asked about them any more: It seemed like everything was quickly forgotten. 

The regime would live another decade and the violence, inhuman punishments, shootings and disappearances of the so-called enemies of socialism would continue uninterrupted, until the end. After the fall, the survivors emerged from the dilapidated prisons. Some also returned from exile, hoping to be sent back to where they had left off. The most sensitive ones began to search, silently, for the missing.

A farce and a tragedy

Before the execution of Fadil Kokomani and Vangjel Lesho, a trial had taken place — though it had, of course, been rigged. Other prisoners, some of them friends, had testified against the pair, under the threats and torture of the operatives behind the scenes. 

During the court hearings, the judges did not lose their composure even when the investigators’ lies came to light, or when the situation was clearly in favor of the defendants. Unfortunately, the jury was determined to play the farce to the end and it would conclude, necessarily, in tragedy. 

That was the purpose of this process. Everyone in the hall understood this. Writer and researcher Fatos Lubonja, a former defendant along with Kokomani and Lesho, recounted in detail the painful memories of these sad hearings in his book, perhaps the best in 30 years: “Second Sentence.”

But beyond the weakness that grips the soul on acquaintance with the atmosphere and shocking facts of this trial, one can not help but be deeply moved by the heroic attitude of the two prisoners, especially Fadil Kokomani, who was described by witnesses as standing like a god above the gloomy faces that filled the hall. At the end the judge asked him, “Do you feel remorse for what you have done against the Party and the government?” 

“Certainly not, as I did it deliberately,” Kokomani replied. Those were his last words. He was 46 years old.

In a 38-page letter from July 9, 1978, Kokomani and Lesho said that “today’s generation needs to leave the scene and make room for people who are prepared for a new world.” Photo courtesy of the Dossier Authority.

On the 41st anniversary of his death, I was interested in learning more about him. Was there anything left of this extraordinary mind? 

I wondered about his family and whether there were any indirect descendants alive. I knew it would not be an easy search — it had been almost 60 years since he first entered prison, and I knew that such state persecution left its mark not only on the prisoner but on their wider family. To save themselves from association with such a liability, family members and friends often cut all contact. People retreated, living in fear, and in shame.  

After searching through repetitive internet information, I found Fadil Kokomani’s nephew. This man, Spartak Poçi, became Minister of the Interior in 1999. I hurried to meet him, and he invited me to sit with him in the lounge of a design office where he worked with his architect sons. 

“Many moons and winters have passed. The waters may have washed them away,” he began. “A narrow stream flowed nearby, and perhaps the erosion shifted them further. But we did not rule out the possibility of wrong coordinates. We dug for days, even when it was raining. Somewhere nearby we discovered some old bones, but it quickly transpired that our data did not match. The operation lasted more than three weeks, and we saw no sign of them. They may have been buried elsewhere: No-one knows for sure. There is no document, no sign, map or manuscript.”  

He was telling me about the search for Fadil’s body.

“Everything was based on just one claim,” he said.

“Could you tell me what this claim was? How did it come about?” I asked.

“I had just taken office. We were not doing well with public safety. It was right after ’97 and gangs were out in the open. Armed groups moved through the streets, freely, even during the day; at night as well. Safe passage was completely out of the question on the country’s main access routes. 

“I had wide support and I had a good relationship with the U.S. Embassy, and we were making lists of officers to train in America. Everyone wanted to go, but of course the officers were to be screened and selected based on how clean they were.” 

Spartak Poçi’s story

“On one of these hectic days, the secretary knocked on my door and told me that a particular officer wanted to meet with me. I waited for him. I knew of him: He had graduated from the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and then, as a recent graduate, had been admitted to the police Directorate of Road Traffic. He had worked there since 1978. 

“This officer told me, ‘I have been expelled from the training group that will leave for America. Someone must have slandered me with allegations of profiteering, but the truth is that I have nothing to do with that at all. Believe me! It’s just about jealousy and greed so that they can support other people, or to favor themselves. They want to tarnish me,’ he continued, ‘unjustly.’

“In the end he said to me: ‘You as a minister have the power: Either remove this blot on my reputation and I will leave with my friends for America, or remove me from the job completely.’ 

“I called the personnel director and asked him what this was about. ‘No, there’s nothing,’ he told me. ‘He is clean, as he told you.’ His documents were immediately brought to me. I gave them a read. It was obvious that he had not committed any offense. 

“I had until the next day for a final verification. I definitely wanted this guy to be shown for what he really was. If he was dirty, let him be seen as such, and of course, there would be no place for him in this ministry. The next day at noon, the investigation confirmed the same positive result: He was clean! This was submitted in writing and the material was added to his file.”

“So you certified his innocence,” I intervened.

“He was clean, and was even one of our best specialists.”

Spartak Poçi

“Yes, yes! After that, the files were completed: When I had arrived at the Ministry, almost all of them were empty. Shortly afterwards, I called the U.S. Embassy and spoke with the Ambassador. I explained to her that the allegations about the officer to be trained in America were baseless, as the examination had revealed the opposite: He was clean, and was even one of our best specialists. 

“After a week the group left for the United States for training that lasted over a month and a half. 

“One day after their return, the secretary knocked on my door again and told me that that officer wanted to meet me again. I received him amicably. After thanking me for the training, he said: ‘I can help you find your uncle’s bones.’ 

“I paused for a moment, unable to say anything. He proceeded with a convincing certainty. He told me that a colleague of his who worked as a lecturer at the Police Academy knew the place where my uncle had been shot. But he felt uncomfortable and couldn’t come himself, so he had asked for help from a mediator. 

“I told him that for me it was not a problem — if his friend had not pulled the trigger, it would have been someone else. He hurried to explain that his friend had not been the executioner, but had just been present during the execution. 

“The next day, we went with the officer to the place he’d told us about. It was located next to a miserable military barracks, which, though without any apparent function, was guarded by a soldier. We crossed a small gorge that lay between some low peaks and after 300 meters we found ourselves in a green shrubland. The officer indicated the potential location with unusual accuracy, as if the events there had occurred only a few hours earlier. I hesitated for a moment. This precision seemed almost impossible. 

“Nevertheless I set up an excavation team right there, and we started that day, but by dusk we had found nothing. They continued the next day, the day after… And so, one week passed.

“The bucket with its steel teeth sank slowly into the soft ground and dug for over an hour.”

Spartak Poçi

“We had set up an excavation routine, according to a well-defined plan. Every afternoon an engineer came and reported to me, but it was always to say that still nothing had been found. In time, hopes faded. 

“I met once again with the officer, in my office. This time I made it easy for him. ‘Listen,’ I said, ‘so many years have passed. It is impossible to remember with such precision. Call that friend of yours to come here, now!’ But he calmed me down and asked to go back to where the excavations were taking place. 

“We went. When we arrived he gestured at the same position: ‘They are here.’ The excavator started again. The bucket with its steel teeth sank slowly into the soft ground and dug for over an hour. 

“Again nothing! I asked to speak on the phone with the officer’s colleague. I was losing patience, as it seemed unacceptable to me to continue communicating indirectly like this, achieving nothing. I told the officer to get his colleague to call me, or that he should bring the man to me urgently. But he pulled me aside and asked to go back to the office. There was something he wanted to explain to me, but not there. 

“I guessed that there was more to this story. When we returned to the office, he started speaking in a soft and gentle tone, but it weighed me down like a boulder.

“I am the one… There is no one else. I was there that night, with the group that executed Fadil and the others!” 

He paused, but then went on and told me everything he knew.

In court proceedings before their execution, Kokomani and Lesho were accused of “hostile agitation and propaganda.” Photo courtesy of the Dossier Authority.

The officer’s story

“‘I had not even been with the police for a year when the commander called me to his office. He seemed gentler and more friendly than before. He told me that some enemies would be shot tonight and that I had been assigned to take part in the execution. It seemed like a terrible thing to me, very different from my daily routine, and I sensed I was being tested. As he explained to me then, this was done to strengthen the courage of some of the new officers, mainly those who came from civilian life, and to increase their hatred for class enemies. 

“‘I had not heard about this process before. I didn’t even know the convicted men, but I didn’t dare ask. At home I was feverish. I stayed like this until close to midnight and at the appointed time I showed up where I had been told to go. The prisoner transport and a small car stood waiting near a neon light which emitted a faint red glow. There was a mean rain which seemed as if it didn’t reach the asphalt. 

“‘We arrived at Unit 313, where the prisoners were being held. As far as I remember, we stopped the cars there in front of an iron gate, which did not take long to open. 

“‘The big car slid silently toward the inner courtyard of the prison. It was dead quiet. Accompanied by the guards, the prisoners arrived, with their hands tied behind their backs. They climbed up into the back of the car. There were three of them and I peeked at their faces. They seemed miserable and pale. 

“‘When the car started, it was Fadil who asked where we were going. He did not receive a response. Surprisingly, he seemed calm throughout the trip, while the other two were incredibly weak and confused.

“‘That afternoon’s feeling that had lit me up inside was transforming into a general numbness. I have often tried to recall that torturous journey, but I have never been able to reproduce a complete and clear picture of what actually happened on the way. Although the journey did not last more than 30 minutes, I remember just the few seconds when Fadil Kokomani asked with a sad calmness, “Where are we going?” Apart from this memory, everything else has been erased. I have never been able to understand this erasure from memory, although I have constantly tried to find an explanation. 

“‘I will never forget that night; those distressed faces. I often fall asleep and remember all three,’ the officer told me.”

“‘We stopped on a narrow, dark path. On the left, in the middle of the bare terrain, we spotted the contour of a low-lying slope. Adjacent to it was the pit. It was a terrifying sight. We brought them to their knees, facing the pit. When they saw it, they started moving. It seemed like an internal alarm, but it only lasted a short while: They were shot immediately, almost simultaneously. In the head, from behind, at very close range. 

“‘They did not say a word. Not even a groan. 

“‘The doctor checked them. A worker who had come with us covered the pit. A record was also kept, which, due to the rain, we signed inside the car. I will never forget that night; those distressed faces. I often fall asleep and remember all three. It lasted an hour, but the nightmare has been haunting me for a lifetime. I have not experienced greater horror than that dark night: I suffered an indelible shock. I feel a permanent and inconsolable regret and I can never forget that place, that pit.’”

‘Was this man Fadil’s killer?’

When he finished recounting the officer’s confession, Spartak leaned back in his chair. He told me that the search had continued for several days but they had found nothing. 

“There must have been a map, or documentation related to it,” he told me, “but apparently they were all gone — taken, probably, by those who were there that night, by order or otherwise.”

“Was this man Fadil’s killer?” I asked.

“You mean, was he the one who pulled the trigger? I didn’t ask, and I wasn’t even curious to know. Going through such details seems to reduce the importance of the fact that it was someone else who decided to shoot them. The whole story of Fadil has nothing to do with this officer. And I ask myself, ‘What would I do if I were in a similar situation?’ I say to myself, ‘I’d convince people not to do it, I’d do something … I’d tell them I couldn’t go.’ But if this officer refused, another would have gone in his place. I am sure of that. 

“I would rather hate a man who had slandered Fadil, or who had constantly plotted against him, or who had tried in every way to set him on that path toward execution. I feel hatred and contempt for the diligent Sigurimi intelligence investigators and operatives who forced people to confess, through violence and torture, to things that never happened. They not only broke the law, but transgressed every moral norm, every cruelty. In a sense, the execution was carried out by others, long before that night when the physical death occurred.” 

Fadil Kokomani was first arrested in 1962 along with Vangjel Lesho and four others. Photo courtesy of the Dossier Authority.

“The letter was the reason, right?”

“Actually, there were multiple letters. In a way, Fadil’s entire battle, his fight against the ‘seasoned juggler,’ as he openly called Enver Hoxha, was waged only through letters. He made no move to form groups and organized no subversive activities against the state, but he wrote persistently against the usurpers; against the regime that was bringing poverty; against the ‘Sultan, who was replacing one regime with another.’ His family had also fought in favor of a different regime — in the anti-Fascist war — but Fadil chose another path: knowledge. He fought through letters and for that, as much as in a war, he sacrificed his life. 

“I have not seen any comparable case of those who survived prisons, continuing to stand by their convictions and openly discrediting the regime, like Fadil Kokomani and Vangjel Lesho did in their letters. The ’78 letter was the most significant. Fadil drafted it together with Vangjel in Spaç prison and wrote out two identical copies and sent them to the Central Committee. The letter was conceived as a hope that major shifts — such as the break with China — could influence the regime to recognize Khrushchev’s liberal socialism again. But it became a deadly piece of evidence against them, I think. It was the reason that they punished them again. 

“But apparently the dictator did not calm down. They were brought before the court again, a few months later, for the third time. Years later, when I read Fadil’s speech before the court, I realized that it was even more significant than the letter. His words were the real indictment in the courtroom. 

“When they were arrested for the first time, in 1963 — first Vangjeli and Fadil a few weeks later — in addition to the attempt to desert, they were also accused of distributing pamphlets in Tirana. Among other things, Fadil had written ‘Moscow you are right! Hoxha-Shehu and Co. are leading Albania to a dead end!’ He was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He was not yet in his 30s. He had got married a few months previously and had even moved into a new apartment with his wife, Margarita. But he could not return home.”

“Tell me about Fadil; how do you remember him?”

“Fadil was my uncle. I was 8 years old when he returned to Albania from Russia, in 1957. He had brought with him 2,000 books, each signed with his favorite signature: Fadok. He had just graduated in journalism, along with Vangjel. They were the first Albanians to graduate from a journalism faculty. But he had also studied music at Leningrad University in what is now St. Petersburg. 

Fadil Kokomani in his workroom next to his Riga 10 Soviet radio receiver, soon after returning from Leningrad. Photo courtesy of Edgar Kokomani.

“Once I asked him about Moscow: ‘Uncle, is Moscow beautiful?’ Because here we reckoned Moscow as one of the wonders of the world. 

“‘It’s beautiful,’ he replied, ‘but Leningrad is even more beautiful.’ 

“Fadil had participated in an international socialist youth festival, winning the cup. But his talent did not end there. He attended the theater department at the Moscow Conservatory. He planned to return to defend his degree: He had great skills and energy. 

“The timing was also good. At that time the Soviet Union was being liberated from the anxieties of war. Enthusiasm had affected the young people and the Khrushchev Spring profoundly influenced Fadil’s convictions and vision. However, it would have been incredibly naive to imagine that things would progress as well here. Albania’s Stalinists had other plans. 

“The anxiety and impatience were only increasing; Fadil showed obvious dissatisfaction. Everyone knew. Although he was supported economically, as well as politically, inside he felt a deep sorrow.” 

His star rising

“Fadil started writing in several newsrooms at once: stories, reports and literary sketches. He was then assigned to radio. There he started his first shows. He was once invited to join the party; to become a member. He was ridiculed because he considered it pointless. He seemed to have no inclination for these jobs and he left when such discussions started. He was an apolitical man, believe me!

“I remember once he took me to the cinema. I was still a child, but I remember everything about it. Even the schedule of the cinema (from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.). It was “Hamlet.” I asked Fadil about the film: whether there would be war, partisans or tanks. But he laughed. 

“‘From now on you should not deal with wars or battles,’ he told me, ‘you should choose what you see.’ To my surprise, I liked his “Hamlet” immensely. I often remember the white screen in that dark hall. 

“The atmosphere in Tirana, particularly in the evenings, was fun. Fadil and his comrades did not let this relative freedom go to waste. In the evenings they met in the bar of Hotel Dajti and often picked up the microphone and sang. This was the brightest period of his life: His star was rising. It was the time when he met Margarita, whom he married in 1962. 

“The tragedy began a few months later, when one of his close friends reported the group for desertion to the Ministry of the Interior. My father, a war veteran and still an active military man, was directly informed by Hysni Kapo, one of the main communist leaders, that Fadil’s name was implicated in desertion. As friends and comrades-in-arms, Kapo offered an opportunity for Fadil to be pardoned — of course, in exchange for repentance. The night before the arrest, my father talked to Fadil. I remember that evening when the two of them entered the room to discuss it. An hour later they came out in silence. 

“‘Fadok’ was arrested the next day. Long afterwards I was told he had turned down the offer.”

“We are still searching for the grave — the bones — while he has reached immortality.”

Spartak stopped abruptly. He leaned back in his seat and placed his hands on his knees. It seemed to me a general exhaustion had come over him. Undoubtedly, it was a shocking story. 

We stared at each other for a while. I felt that something had changed within me and for a moment I thought that the tragedy of Fadil was weighing on my shoulders. He had become closer and more beloved to me, although he remained as mysterious as before.

“I still try to understand why this man sought to follow his conviction to the end, even if it cost him his life. Because he knew where he was going; what he could achieve. We are still searching for the grave — the bones — while he has reached immortality.”

What was not clear was whether it was Spartak or me who said these words.K

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Feature image: Fadil Kokomani and his wife, Makbule. Photo courtesy of Spartak Poçi, redesigned for the article by K2.0.

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