All the major towns in Albania will have a Martyrs’ Cemetery and the one for Elbasan is towards the east of the town centre. When it was constructed it probably would have been very much in the countryside, the built-up area around it now seems to be relatively recent, within the the last 20 years or so.
The Memorial Park
It’s accessed by a gateway from the road and you go through an arch and along a tree line path which then comes out to a very wide (virtually the whole width of the site) parade ground. On the right edge of this parade ground can be found the museum building. This is the space that would have been filled with people during significant dates such as Martyrs’ Day (5th May) and Liberation Day (29th November).
Moving forward there are 5 steps up to another flat area. On the wall on both sides of these steps a large star, now painted red, faces the visitor. Just above these stars, and therefore flanking the approach, are two very old, tall and established palm trees. Unfortunately, the one on the right is defunct but that on the left is looking very healthy indeed. The tombs to the fallen are to the left and the right of the steps, five rows on either side, perpendicular to the principal monument. In the centre of this space (which is longer than the parade ground below) are two flower beds, containing both shrubs and flowering plants. These have the effect of breaking up this central space and channel anyone who is approaching the monument on wreath laying commemorations.
In front of you is the monument itself, constructed on a platform that’s reached via 3 wide and 10 normal steps from the previous level. The lapidar consists of a tall, narrow obelisk on the left to which is fixed a concrete panel at the lower part, extending about 5 metres to the right at 90 degrees. This structure is at the very back of the platform.
The obelisk gives the impression it’s divided into two parts but is joined together by a middle section that is inset slightly. The left-hand side is slightly taller than the right. There’s nothing there now but I would have assumed that somewhere at the top of that pillar there would have been a star, perhaps a stand alone Red Star attached at the very top. This obelisk is wider at the bottom than it is at the top a fact which can only be appreciated by observing at it from the side.
The large, rectangular, concrete panel extends from the bottom section of the obelisk. This is about 5 metres long and 2 metres high. The bottom of the panel is raised off the ground and towards the right-hand side it rests on a concrete block which spreads out diagonally downwards to the platform floor. This is both functional but also adds another level of aestheticism to the simple design.
This panel has seven, equidistant horizontal ribs cut into the concrete which are interrupted by a large rectangular box towards the right edge. At the top of this box, in large red letters are the words ‘Dëshmorë të kombit’ which translate as ‘Martyrs of the Nation’. Beneath this heading, in seven columns, is a list of names in alphabetical order of the first name. These names are in black.
This list and heading are probably not original. There has obviously been an attempt to restore the slogan and the list but it hasn’t been completed by a professional artist, more by someone keen to reinstate what had existed when the monument was first inaugurated.
Elbasan Martyrs Cemetery – Lapidar and Eternal Flame
The same goes for the colouring. The obelisk, up to the height of the panel, has been whitewashed as has the façade of the panel itself. The lines in the panel have been coloured in red. This would have unlikely to have been the case originally. Most lapidars were not painted – apart from possibly the highlighting of the red star. It also quite possible that the monument suffered from vandalism in the 1990s and this colouring has been added during some ‘restoration’ process.
From the highest platform two wings protrude back towards the garden and entrance to end at the point that the final set of steps start. On the left-hand side, about 7 or 8 metres in front of the obelisk and slightly to its left is a reverted, truncated pyramid which is the Eternal Flame. This has also been painted white and there’s a star which has been cut into the concrete near the top – this having been highlighted in red.
At the base of this structure a red band has been painted on all four sides. The area surrounding the Eternal Flame is splattered with white paint, indicating more enthusiasm than skill.
I don’t believe the Eternal Flames were ever actually ‘eternal’ and were only lit on special occasions.
There are approximately 25 tombs in each row, making it a monument to roughly 250 partisans who fell in the National Liberation War – there’s a similar number of names on the large panel.
Unfortunately, the condition of the tombs in some of the Martyrs’ Cemeteries can be quite variable, but in Elbasan they all seem to be in a very good condition. The grass was obviously being regularly attended to and free from weeds or any wind-blown rubbish. There were bright, red flowers growing (at the time of my visit) at the head of virtually every tomb. In some other places there might be the occasional artificial flower laid by a family member but in Elbasan everyone was treated with the same level of respect – by the community, by the municipality.
Elbasan Martyrs Cemetery – The tombs
The letters on the plaques bearing the name of the individuals had been highlighted in red – as were the stars that seemed to be on most tombs. This work of highlighting in red again doesn’t look professionally done but, at least, the work was carried out with feeling.
The day I visited this Cemetery, there were two or three women who were generally cleaning and tending to the gardens and the overall impression here, which unfortunately is not the case everywhere, is one of cleanliness and an element of respect.
Elbasan Martyrs’ Cemetery Museum
In the more substantial Martyrs’ Cemeteries throughout Albania there is very often a small building which would at one time have been a museum. Unfortunately, I have yet to visit any cemetery where the museum is open as a museum or where there is anything other than a few old photos to see. (There seem to have been developments at the cemetery in Pogradec but on my last visit I wasn’t able to find out either way.)
In Elbasan the museum building is empty of anything that would have told the story of the National Liberation War. However, the room itself is clean – which is not always the case. For example, the museum which is at the entrance to the Cemetery in Kruja was filthy and there was obviously some dead animal rotting away inside at the time of my visit.
However, back to Elbasan. On the wall facing the entrance are the words Lavdi Deshmoreve (meaning Glory to the Martyrs) attached to the wall in large red letter. The two words are separated by a large red star. There is also a red star high up in the centre of each of the side walls.
The only articles in the room itself were two busts of People’s Heroes. In one back corner was a bust of Qemal Stafa. He was the leader of the youth wing of the Communist Party of Albania (later to be renamed the Party of Labour of Albania) and one of its founding members. He was killed by the Italian fascists on 5th May 1942 in Tirana.
Unfortunately, I don’t know the name of the other male depicted in the bust which was in the other corner.
To the east of the main town, on Rruga Kozma Naska, just after Rinia Park. This road runs parallel and slightly to the north, more or less, of the main road heading in the direction to Librazhd.
It was in the final week of January 2020 that people in Britain became aware of a new virus that was starting to get out of control in China. Was that the first time we came across the term covid-19? If not once we learnt that designation it should have started to ring alarm bells. We were hearing about it at the end of the first month of 2020 but it must have been around for a few months before that.
For most people it probably registered as something serious – but not that serious. We had been told for years that science knew that something like this was bound to happen at some time (we had had three or four ‘near misses’ already in the 21st century) and that our governments were aware and prepared for any such eventuality. How wrong we were.
In criticising the Buffoon and his Government for its actions (or more normally its in-actions) throughout 2020 the term ‘too little, too late’ has often been used. That critique might well have been valid since the end of March last year but it’s more important to remember what had happened (or not happened) in the years – even decades – before the dawn of 2020.
The National Health Service (NHS) had been undermined and parts of it privatised ‘secretly’ through the back door. Care of the elderly wasn’t a concern for any government, whatever their political colour, although they recognised there was a problem, said they would fix it – and never did a thing.
There was no preparation for the likes of a pandemic. No rational stock piling system of necessary equipment (which meant that some of it was ‘out of date’ when needed as there had been no rotation of materials). And, most importantly, no strategy of any kind of how to deal with such a crisis, which took into consideration the myriad of potential problems, and no structure that could be set into motion at the flick of a switch to deal with all related matters from the care of the sick to the dissemination of clear and concise information.
‘Too little, too late’ could be used to describe the situation in Britain since the 1980s.
As a consequence what do we have a year down the line?
the highest per capita death rate of any country in the world
an untold number of fatalities waiting to happen due to the health system being turned over, for months, almost exclusively to dealing with the covid virus
an NHS which is on the point of collapse
an NHS workforce that is being pushed to its limits, not just during the winter (a perennial problem for years) but throughout the year
an educational system that was unfair at the start and becoming even more so
young people totally confused about their futures
an increasing level of unemployment, the level of which we won’t know about for a good few months yet
an economy that wasn’t that healthy before now in free fall
an unimaginable debt which will be pushed into the future (on top of the debt created to pull the capitalist system out of the mire caused by its innate greed which led to the 2008 financial crisis which had also been pushed into the future) and which the young will be expected to pay for – whether they know or realise it or not
a number of vaccines which might (or might not) protect people, which might (or might not) make them less infectious, which might (or might not) deal with the many variants that are popping up everywhere, which might (or probably won’t) be distributed worldwide to populations who need the protection from a vaccine much more than the majority of people in the richer, capitalist countries
And still we’re no closer to actually placing the pandemic behind us than we were this time last year.
Will the next 12 months be like it was in the film ‘Groundhog Day’? Quite possibly. But there will almost certainly be one important difference. Bill Murray’s character learnt from the mistakes he made – the Buffoon in Britain, and all the rest of the Buffoons in government in the rest of the world, are unlikely to be as receptive.
The next pandemic
It might be strange to look at potential pandemics in the future whilst in the middle of one that has ben raging for over a year now but unless we are constantly aware that pandemics are likely to become the norm (rather than the exception) we will be in danger in forgetting how things had been managed in the past and make the same mistakes in the future.
The new mosquito bringing disease to North America – but no need to worry about malaria, this species brings with it all mosquito carrying diseases except malaria. Will that mean the world’s pharmaceutical companies will increase efforts to look for a way of combatting disease carrying insects. When it was just effecting the poor they didn’t really care. Now it might start to threaten the richer countries in the northern hemisphere it becomes a different matter. But even if they do come up with a prophylactic or cure it won’t be the poor that gets the first option – just see how matters are playing out over the covid vaccine.
Infection and mortality rates
Ten months since the first lock down the same slogans are being revived. If everything that people are expected to do now, so long after the first infections were identified in the country, is merely to achieve the same aim, that is, to avoid the NHS from being overwhelmed, then really we’re no further forward than we were in spring of 2020. It means that we have just being playing a waiting game in the hope that the virus would ‘tire and just go away’, burn itself out. By not being pro-active and basically marching on the spot we are no better off than those in the 17th century who prayed to the Lord for salvation from the Plague. The risk averse approach of most scientists to lock everything down (and the criticism that we haven’t locked down society enough) also shows that progress in science and medicine over the centuries hasn’t been able to come up with strategies which use that increase in knowledge for the overall benefit of society. Crossing our fingers and praying that all would turn out well would have been as effective.
Mixed messages have been emanating from the Buffoon and his Government since the pandemic hit Britain ten months (or so) ago. This has only served to cause confusion and despair – and not least one of the reasons some people are not sticking to the restrictions. One of the tactics the Government has been using from the very beginning to get compliance is by promoting an environment of fear amongst a sizeable proportion of the population – and they seem incapable of not stoking those fears (even if they are not based upon any identifiable factual information).
Number of patients on ventilators passes 4,000 for first time. Going back six months or so it was stated that knowledge gained at the beginning of the pandemic had meant fewer people were being put on ventilators. The numbers are announced but not the reasons for this going back to the original approach.
How is the virus changing
There’s a new variant almost every day now. Will this make it harder to get to ‘herd immunity’? Perhaps – but there is still hope.
The British Government is intent on going for the big centres (ten more to open in England – and presumably more to follow) rather than concentrate on a local level. It might be a short term ‘solution’ – we’ll have to see how matters pan out over the next few months – but it might be missing a golden opportunity to develop a structure that can respond to such epidemics in the future.
The jockeying for position in the ‘vaccination queue’ – and also a cynical opportunity to gain some level of popularity. Priti Patel ‘working to get jabs to front-line roles’.
Now there might be justice and validity in many of these preferences but such a discussion shouldn’t be just out for the loudest to get what they want. Once a vaccine was considered the only get out of the pandemic there should have been a ‘task force’ which looked at all the options and could come out with arguments for why the the roll out was focussing on some groups rather than others.
In a rational society that would include not vaccinating some people in the UK until more vulnerable people in other parts of the world had been vaccinated first. But no British government would ever have the nerve to stick to a principled stance. This is even though a pandemic means that if we don’t get to grips with the virus in all parts of the world the chances of a future outbreak can never be ruled out.
UK to look ‘very carefully’ at vaccine dosing after concerns raised over level of protection. But when Israel is involved in the issue it would be useful to remember that the country is basically Pfizer’s poodle and will say anything to keep on the right side of the pharmaceutical giant – as long as it doesn’t involve extending the vaccination programme to Palestinians.
Queue jumping becoming more common – and inevitable as long as there’s no proper and clear strategy about vaccination and as long as the ‘free market’ is allowed to determine matters. Wheelchair firm tells of access to jabs ‘through a back door’.
On 21st January Radio 4’s World at One aired various views on the question of ‘one dose or two’ – and the gap between them.
Why combining the Oxford vaccine with Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine could make it more effective.
Why the UK’s ‘lumpy’ roll out shouldn’t be a concern – this article also addresses the matter of the moral obligation of vaccines being sent to poorer countries.
Vaccinations in the rest of the world
Surprise! Surprise! The richer countries are grabbing all the stocks of vaccines and ignoring the (probably) most needy in the world. The World Heath Organisation (WHO) calls this a ‘catastrophic moral failure’.
Israel has become the ‘poster boy’ when it comes to the speed in vaccinating it’s population. But always with Israel, what you see is only the tip of a very dirty iceberg. Some of those details came out on Radio 4’s World at One on 18th January.
On 19th January Radio 4’s World at One looked at the Israeli response to its ‘obligations’ to the people who’s land they illegally occupy and proposals for vaccinating Palestinians against covid. In this short piece its interesting how the Israelis cite an agreement of the 1990s but ignore how their actions in the intervening 25 years have made any commitments to the health service in Palestine an almost impossibility. For a deeper look at Israeli attitudes to the Palestinian people the report by B’Tselem makes interesting reading.
Even with a number of vaccines the general (scientific) consensus is that testing is also needed to get on top of the pandemic. In the UK it’s almost impossible to know where we stand on this issue. Plans are made, ambitious goals are set, failure is the result. Now to add to the general confusion in the education sector Ministers are now set to halt plans for daily covid tests in English schools.
The ‘vulnerable’ old are dying, the young are getting the dirty end of the stick from the ‘efforts’ by governments to cope with the pandemic. If a measure of a society is how it deals with its old and young then Britain doesn’t (not surprisingly after so many years of institutionalised selfishness) come out too well. Another report emphasises this by coming to the conclusion that one in four UK young people have felt ‘unable to cope’ in pandemic.
One law for the rich and ‘famous’ – one for the rest of us
This story got worse as the days wore on but initially tennis stars’ arrival angers stranded Australians. Even those so-called ‘celebrities’ that come from humble backgrounds rapidly take on the spoilt brat approach when they have a healthy bank account.
Politicians drank on Senedd (the devolved Welsh Parliament) premises despite booze ban. Probably wanting to avoid waste!
(This eventually led to a few resignations. However the point isn’t what they did it’s the idea that there are those who think that because of their position in society they are not covered by the same restrictions as the vast majority of the population. Here I’m not referring to young people going to raves – they’re doing it because they don’t trust those in government and are prepared to take risks.)
The issue of masks
From arguments way back in March that mask wearing possibly had more negatives that positives we are getting to a situation where some high-tech (and more expensive) mask is the way forward. Wear medical-grade masks if you can’t socially distance, Britons told. Whether this will take supplies from places where it might be more useful or who will actually have to pay for this more expensive equipment is not addressed. We will soon have a situation in Britain as it was in World War Two with people walking around with a gas mask in a box hanging from their shoulders.
Poverty in Britain
Poverty is easy to resolve – you just stop al the wealth being collected into a few hands and create a society which works for the benefit of the majority. I accept easier to say than do – and experienmts in the past have not achieved what they set out to do. But what is certain is that there will never be a solution to poverty under capitalism – it’s very existence depends upon inequality. And even if some ‘go up’ it only means that others will have to ‘go down’.
But that doesn’t stop the likes of the privileged Buffoon coming up with another meaningless and impractical suggestion. His latest is that girls’ education is the key to ending poverty.
At the beginning of January the Resolution Foundation brought out a report of how 2021 will be for the poorest in society, in their report The Living Standards Outlook.
Poorer pupils falling behind during lock down. Again, Surprise! Surprise! But nothing gets done about it, such as general provision of computers and connectivity.
This is another of the ‘will they, won’t they’ stories. UK shuts travel corridors and requires negative covid tests to enter. Whether at this stage of the pandemic this will have any real effect must be debatable. What is not debatable is that this provides an ideal opportunity for bandits around the world to make money out of the crisis with the provision of expensive tests to those who ‘need’ to travel.
This short story was first published in New Albania No 5, 1976. It is reproduced as part of the effort to inform people of the cultural output of Albania during its Socialist period, following the concepts of Socialist Realism.
This particular short story also has a direct relevance to the sculptural lapidars of Albania. It’s a story about the events of July 6th 1943 when the Nazi invaders murdered all the inhabitants of the small village of Borova (in the south-east of the country) who weren’t able to escape and then burnt everything of use within the village.
This was part of the normal policy of the fascists as it followed an attack on a German convoy the day before in the mountains close to the village. This form of collective punishment is well known in examples such as Lidice in the (now) Czech Republic but they also occurred in those countries that were occupied by the Nazis, very often in similar retaliation to attacks upon the German Army by irregular Partisan forces.
By allowing the installation of the German Fascist Memorial in Tirana Park, after the collapse of Albanian society in the 1990s, the reactionary government of Sali Berisha displayed its contempt for the murder of its own citizens.
The stone mason from Borova
In memory of 107 Martyrs
by Naum Prifti
Many people wonder and cannot explain what urged Ligor to go to Borova that day. He took no heed either of the warnings of others or of the categoric order of the German command prohibiting the entry of civilians in to the still smouldering village.
Some say that Ligor went there because he was anxious to see what was left of his goods and chattels, whereas others say that he did so because he had had such a shock that he was unable to control his actions and, like a sleep-walker, he plodded through the streets filled with German soldiers between still smoking houses, without realizing what lay ahead. It happened that uncle Ligor was not in Borova on the day of the massacre. He had left the village early that morning taking with him, as usual, his bag with his hammer, trowel, and plumb line, and had gone to Novosel to build a wall. There is no trade in the world that requires fewer tools than that of the stone mason. Ligor was well aware of this because with that bag on his shoulder he had wandered for many years to different points of the northern hemisphere. His hammer had cracked the stones of three continents. He had worked at Khalkis, on both the beautiful shores of the Bosphorus, in the cities round the Black sea and, finally, he had crossed the Atlantic to try his luck in America. For this stone mason life had been hardship and toil everywhere. But finally Ligor had found some consolation in saying that this was due to the bad trade he had chosen. ‘That’s how it is with our trade,’ he would say, rubbing his hands on his coarse woollen trousers. ‘Wherever you go, you are dealing with stones and from them you have to earn your daily bread. But is it easy to bread from stones?’
In the end after his long wanderings abroad he returned to his village and made up his mind not to go away again no matter how things might turn out. Life had not smiled on him anywhere. Then where else would he be better off? In the dirty doss houses in Istanbul, in the damp of Odessa or the soot of Detroit where you cough up black mucus as though your lungs are filled with dye. Here at last he was in his own home, where in summer afternoons he could sit in the garden under the trees and watch the people pass by. His house was on a hill and from there he could get a very good view of both sections of the village.
He had built this house with his own hands after he had returned from abroad.
‘All my life I have built for others; now, on the eve of my old age. I’ll build a house for myself in which to rest my weary bones.’ And so he set to work and built a small house, thinking to himself that this would be the best and the only property that he would leave his children. They would remember him for a long time and then, if they were able, let them build a better and more beautiful house themselves.
For some years now he had been hard of hearing and instead of using his name others had nicknamed him ‘deafy.’ Ligor was not put out about it and admitted himself that ‘my ears fail, me, so shout because I can’t hear!’
Ligor said that this was due to sticking nails in his ears. Anyone, who has worked with momento stone masons knows this secret. When the nail won’t drive in the wood and there is no oil or lard at hand, they smear it with ear wax? The wax serves as a lubricant and the nail goes in with ease.
…That afternoon, while he was working, from the top of the scaffolding he saw a dense plume of smoke rising in the sky over his village.
‘What can this fire be?’ he said to himself, standing hammer in hand. He shaded his eyes with his free hand and tried to make out which section of the village it was coming from.
‘It must surely be the children burning the straw left in the sheds. Or is it St. Peter’s Day? How silly of me, St. Peter’s Day was a week ago whereas, today it is July 6! But may be the children have found some rubbish in a corner and have set fire to it.’ It had been the custom since ancient times to clean out the sheds at the end of June each year and burn the straw and chaff that had been left over from the past year, before putting in the new fodder. These bonfires were the joy the village children. They gathered at the village square or threshing floor, lit the fire and jumped through the mounting flames. According to an old belief, those who jumped over these fires burned the fleas left from the winter.
When he was a child, Ligor had done this, too. The memory of those days came back to him through the mists of the past, and he smiled. Was it sixty or seventy years ago?
‘However, this doesn’t look like a straw fire. The smoke from straw is white, while this is columns of grey and black. This looks as if a house or shed has caught fire. And how will they put it out in this hot weather!’
‘Some poor family,’ Ligor thought to himself, ‘It is they who meet with such misfortunes; it is their houses which burn so easily. It’s hell of a life!’
The fire seemed to come from near the stream and he tried to remember the houses there.
‘Well, what’s done is done!’ he said, ‘I’ll find out when I get back to the village. Now I must get to work to earn my wages.’
He took a trowel-full of mortar from the bucket and spread it on the wall, with quick, deft movements then stepped down from the scaffolding to select a cornerstone.
Like any mason who was master of his trade, he knew that the better the corner is built the longer the wall will stand. That’s the whole secret.
Back on the scaffolding with the cornerstone on his shoulder, he gaped in surprise. The smoke over Borova had become a dense cloud as if the whole stream were in flames.
‘What’s all this? What is happening.’
Instinctively his eyes turned to the hilltop, to his house half hidden by the trees in his orchard and his courtyard;
‘Izet, Izet! Leave that mortar and come up here a minute!’
A thin boy in a collarless shirt and red breeches made of the signal flags of the Italian army appeared on the ladder to the scaffold. Ever since his son had joined the partisans, Ligor had been compelled to hire another assistant.
‘What do you think is going on, son? Look over there towards Borova. It seems like a lot of smoke, or are my eyes deceiving me?’
Borova was not an hour’s walk away from Novosel and although it was daytime, the boy could make out the tongues of flame lapping the sky.
‘You’re right, boss, several houses are burning.’
The mason pursed his lips and stood thinking. His mind turned to his partisan son, and the war which was becoming fiercer.
‘Do those damned Germans intend to burn our village, too, as they burned Vodica? It’s possible. Then the houses of those whose sons have joined the partisans will not go unscathed.
How much toil it had cost him to build and complete that house! A whole lifetime! And the enemy might burn it and in a few hours everything he owned would be dust and ashes.
‘And they might do it,’ he said to himself. ‘You can’t expect any good from the enemy. My son was right.’ He recalled the conversation he had had with his son before he joined the partisans.
… It was on a Sunday. Father and son had been working in the garden planting out onions and, when they had finished and were washing their hands, his son had asked: ‘Father, have you a rifle hidden anywhere?’
Ligor shook the water from his hands and. from under his grey eyebrows, looked at his son in surprise.
‘I have wielded the hammer and have had no time to strut around with a rifle on my shoulder.’
‘Oh, I just asked in case you had one?’ ‘I have no rifle. If you need a hammer I can give you one’
His son hesitated to reply. Then he said slowly:
‘I thought of joining the partisans.’
His father looked him up and down and then, surprisingly, asked only:
‘Any day, now.’
Ligor had stood up face to face with his son.
‘Have you made up your mind to sneak away like many others or are you asking my permission?’
‘I have decided to go, but I don’t want to leave home without your permission Father, you understand, our country calls us …’ Ligor did not allow him to finish the sentence. He wiped his hands with his handkerchief, folded it, put it back in his pocket, and then said slowly:
‘Have you thought it over well?’
‘Yes, I have.’
‘Well, son, you have thought it over and had your say. Let me think it over as you have done and then I shall give you my reply.’
And after thinking about it all afternoon pacing around the house and darting quick glances on his son, in the evening he had called him aside and asked him:
‘Even if I don’t give my permission, you will go anyway, will you not?’
‘Yes!’ his son replied.
‘Good. But if I were in your place, I would have asked my father whether he had any right to stop me if a greater father had called me?’
‘You gave me no time. You said you would think it over and walked away,’ replied his son, red with embarrassment.
‘Had you said this to me, I would have been red with shame as you are now. Poverty is hard, it is bad, but bondage is worse. The hammer doesn’t seen to change this world, let’s hope the rifle will do it!’
And thus they had parted. Nearly four months had gone by since his son had taken up his rifle. Now and then he managed to come home by night, and Ligor’s heart leaped with joy to see his son happy, cheerful and optimistic as never, before. This was not just the joy that springs from youth alone, but from something deeper …
Ligor placed the cornerstone and lining it up with his eye from above and from the side, and tapped it lightly with the hammer to shift it a few millimetres inwards, as if to say, ‘that’s the right place for you, stay here and see how well-placed you are!’
‘Boss!’ called Izet catching him by the sleeve.
Like all those who are hard of hearing, Ligor Pandoja craned his head foreward and met Izet’s eyes.
‘I hear rifle shots. Listen!’
The stone mason puckered the muscles of his face as he strained to listen.
‘I hear nothing!’
‘I hear rifle and machine-gun shots!’
‘Rifle shots? Perhaps the partisans have attacked them.’
The fires were increasing quickly and now the black smoke formed a dense cloud over Borova. This cloud was growing bigger and blacker.
Ligor picked up another stone, but stood with it in his hand. His eyes were turned towards the village.
‘I can’t work. It’s no use.
He left the stone on the scaffolding, picked up the hammer, the trowel and the plumb bob and line, put them in his kit and stepped down the ladder.
‘I’m going to Borova.’
Thus he set out from Novosel to Borova when the cloud of smoke had cast a shadow over the valley and turned the whole sky black. He always walked at the same steady pace. The tools on his back rattled together. He was aware of the noise they made without hearing it, for he was used to it.
The smoke over Borova had become an enormous dense cloud as if the crater of a volcano had suddenly erupted and the setting sun cast the shadow of the smoke for several kilometres over the gravel stretching to the foot of Mount Gramos.
On the way he met the first refugees, his fellow villagers, who had managed to get away amidst the bullets and the fires.
A woman leading a child by the hand, her face deathly pale and wide staring eyes, still filled with terror, began to cross her hands and beat her head as if cursing both heaven and earth.
‘The German fascists burned our homes and killed the people! Ohlahlah! Words cannot describe what our eyes have seen!’
Her gestures were more eloquent than her words, while the child sat in a daze by her side. The woman turned towards Borova and began to shout and curse at the Nazis as if they were there before her: ‘May you and all you have be wiped out and turned to ashes! May you never reach your homes alive!
The woman seized the child by the hand and pressed on, not knowing where she was going. The child stumbled along as if half asleep.
Ligor stopped in the middle of the road. Other refugees were emerging from the creek and among them he caught sight of his wife and children.
‘They are safe!’ he said to himself relieved of the nightmare worry that he might have lost them. From their sketchy accounts, Ligor learned what had happened during those two hours in Borova.
The partisans had ambushed a motor convoy of the German Nazis, attacking them in the pass of Barmash. The Germans had turned back, taking their dead and wounded with them. The nearest village to the scene of the attack was Borova and the Nazis had decided to wreak retribution in the cruellest and most barbarous way. They had posted up some white sheets of paper near the bridge, they had attacked like mad dogs. What did those posters say? No one knew. They pronounced sentence of death on Borova. Squads of Nazi soldiers were deployed throughout the village. Shoot the people, burn the houses!
‘We would have been killed, too,’ said his wife, ‘but we escaped because we saw the Germans coming and got away through the back gate to the garden and down into the bed of the stream.
‘Did they set fire to the house?’
‘Yes!’ said his wife, ‘but who cares about the house. We are lucky to be alive.’
‘Where shall we go, where Will we find shelter when winter comes, what shall we do for food, for clothing ?’ All these questions crowded into Uncle Ligor’s mind and he shook his head in despair. Life had brought them to a very critical pass and there was no ray of hope to be seen anywhere.
That night he went to one of their friends in Novosel.
The host, as if he understood what was worrying Ligor, said:
‘Stay here with us until we win. What we have we shall share together.’
‘Thank you!’ said Ligor, ‘but these are not the times to be a burden on others. Everyone has his own problems nowadays.’
‘It’s in bad times you need a friend. And our boys are not fighting in vain. I tell you, the Germans are hard pressed; that’s why they are doing such things.’
Amidst the grief, uncertainty, and general distress the short July night seemed to drag on and on.
Next morning Ligor was up early as usual. Could that dozing, interrupted by moans, sobs, and sighs, be called sleep? The heartache, grief and anxiety abated through the night and in the morning it all seemed to belong to another time.
Ligor began to pace the room. Only the children were still asleep. He poked his head out of the window that looked towards the village. He could not sit still, and the idea that he should go to Borova, and see with his own eyes what had happened there, kept tormenting him.
In the end he made up his mind.
‘Turn back, Ligor,’ said his wife, ‘there is nothing to see. Borova has been destroyed. There’s nothing left but ruins and ashes!’
‘I’ll not turn back!’ said Ligor, and his wife, who knew him well, realized from his tone that he had decided and nothing would turn him from his course.
He had his bag with his hammer, trowel and plumb line on his back. His hearing was not good, but he was aware of their rattling because their melody was like a leitmotiv that had accompanied him all his life. Why had he taken his tools along? He himself did not know. Mostly from force of habit since he was used to walking with that small burden on his back.
Near the village, he met a group of people. They had set out to bury their dead relatives left lying in the roads and gardens, but the Nazis had not allowed this. They had threatened them with machine guns and had not allowed any one to enter the village. They told Uncle Ligor it was useless to try – ‘Better turn back before too late’ – but they could not convince him.
‘I set out for the village and that’s where I shall go.’
‘But they will kill you, Uncle Ligor!’
His question was truly astonishing, but quite sincere and logical. Why should they kill an old man who was coming back to see his people, his village and his home?
The Nazis had condemned the village to extermination and they meant to carry the order out. However they did not stop Ligor. Why not? Because he entered Borova with an air of mastery, proud, head erect, disdaining them and entirely unperturbed.
Deafy walked between their vehicles without hesitation or fear, without even deigning to glance at them. He had seen any number of vehicles and armies in those far away countries and their appearance aroused not the slightest interest. Chest out and head erect, he walked firmly down the cobbled road with extraordinary calm and self-assurance. His steps were long and heavy, and echoed on the road. He made no attempt to hurry, to go away or to hide himself. He marched ahead steadily, proudly, like a man who has an important mission to perform, who assumes majesty from the importance of his task.
The German patrol opened the way to him and Ligor entered the village. He saw the burned houses, the blackened beams, the gables and foundations lying together and a knot seemed to gather in his chest. Near the bridge, on the walls around the springs and gardens he saw the posters. ‘These must be those white sheets of paper they told me about,’ he said to himself, paying them scant attention.
He left the highway and took the path towards the hilltop. The Germans were watching him from the road. According to them, this man could have nothing to do with the village. He must be some traveller who happened to pass this way.
Ligor stood in front of his house and looked it over carefully. The roof had fallen, the walls were blackened and the windows gaped empty. Some smoke was still trickling skywards from within the walls. A bitter, choking smoke. Everything had come to a sudden and unexpected end. The stones were blackened and split from the great heat. He knew every one of them, for he had laid them there with his own hands, and it seemed as if the stones knew him, too. Their gaping mouths spoke a language which the mason could understand.
He took the bag from his shoulder and walked around the house. Smoke, sorrow, silence.
Then he turned and looked over the village. The white walls, painted gates, windows with curtains and pot plants were no more Ruins, heaps of ashes and the bitter smell ol smoke that stung the eyes and throat.
From the bridge the Germans followed the movements of this man, who had walked up the hill and was surveying the village.
‘We’ve got to start from the beginning again,’ said Ligor, shaking his head. And, like a man, who knows what he is about, moved to one side, took off his jacket, folded it and laid it on the wall.
The July heat was scorching, the stones of the still smouldering houses and even the cobblestones were scorching, but more than all this he was burning with emotion.
His shirt gleamed white against the blackened walls and trees.
Ligor bent down and caressed the golden down on leaves of the tomato plants between his fingers, breathing the aroma. He loved this smell and it seemed as if he were eating fresh tomatoes. The tomatoes were still small, the size of hazelnuts and hidden among the leaves.
Then he lifted down his bag of tools, took out his hammer and trowel, rolled up his sleeves, and built an improvised scaffolding of some boxes and boards which were lying in the courtyard. He climbed on it and began to remove the ends of half-burned beams. In a little while, his hammer began to beat out the old song on the still hot stones.
The Nazis, who all this time had watched in stunned surprise, flared into anger. The challenge of this stone mason infuriated a German officer, and he ordered his soldiers to open fire.
Bullets began to fly towards the hilltop, whistling angrily through the trees, raising chips of stone and dust from the ground. They were tracer bullets which left behind a red, green or blue line. Ligor saw these missiles which flew by like so many brilliantly coloured butterflies and he was pleased. He did not hear the shots, seeing only the coloured lines the bullets left behind in the air, and he was astonished for it was something he had never seen before. ‘What are all these butterflies?’ he wondered, for he knew nothing of the new inventions in war equipment.
The bullets seemed afraid and avoided him. They flew past, through his clothes, beside him, in front of and behind him. He was like a target which could not be hit.
Then the mason thought he would make a little mortar and water his tomatoes and lettuces. So he went to the brook to fill a bucket with water. On the way back the Germans all fired one after the other, and a bullet punctured a hole in the bucket. The water began to spurt out from each side. ‘What’s happening to me today?’ he murmured to himself, ‘I don’t understand. This seemed a good bucket that didn’t leak. Or may be it was like this and I hadn’t noticed it.’
He bent down, gathered some leaves, rolled them in a wad and plugged the holes from which the water was flowing.
From the side of the bridge came a shout of relief for they thought that they had killed him, but Ligor Pandoja stood up again and walked towards the garden.
Orders, curses and shouts in German were heard, but not by the stone mason, and even if he had heard he would not have given them any importance, for he would not have believed they had anything to do with him. And Uncle Ligor walked on with the bucket in his hand up to the moment they knocked him down.
From his garden, wherever you turn your eyes, you see only mountains. Ligor saw the mountains for the last time that July afternoon. They seemed to waver, to rise higher than they were, to sink down, become misty, and be lost to sight. Then they emerged again clear and still. The vision of the mountains remained fixed fast on Ligor’s retina, and he did not close his eyes because he wanted to preserve their image forever.
The breeze rustled the grass, the leaves, the tender twigs, and sprinkled his white shirt with the pollen of flowers.