‘Death to Fascism’ Mural in the National Historical Museum, Tirana

The complete mural

The complete mural

The mural that covers the whole of one wall in the room of the National Historical Museum in Tirana that’s devoted to the War of Liberation against the invading fascists of 1939 to 1944 is one of the few which can still be appreciated at leisure by any visitor. There’s another which can be seen, but not fully understood, as it’s in a room which is undergoing renovation at the moment. Whether it will be covered in some way as part of this renovation is unknown – but hopefully not.

Since the end of the 1990s, when relative stability was regained in the country, various Albanian governments of various colours have sought to slowly but surely eradicate the period of the construction of Socialism, from 1944 to 1990, as if it had never existed. Those of the neo-fascist right (some of whom were even members of the Party of Labour of Albania for many years but changed their allegiance once the opportunity presented itself – therefore justifying the idea of Joseph Stalin that the Party constantly needs to purge itself of opportunist elements) want the past eradicated so that their names cannot be associated with those actions and tactics which they now deny.

Those of the opportunist now social-democratic ‘left’ don’t want to show themselves in their true colours, offering ‘easy’ options to difficult problems and denying that the efforts to construct a wholly new world order had any value whatsoever. They look for comfort in the ‘tinkering’ of the system as they are totally inadequate in the task of substantially changing society forever. Efforts by those who have tried to do so in the past – whatever the failings and the mistakes that might have been made – only show them up for the weak and cowardly opportunists that they are.

Capitalism has, in the last hundred years, constantly criticised Socialist states of ‘re-writing history’. This is not the place to argue the truth of such accusations but what is certain is that this ‘holier than thou’ approach is mainly used as a smokescreen for the oppressive and exploitative system to justify the way it has, still does and will until the days it is destroyed forever, interpreted history in a manner which portrays capitalism and imperialism as the only possible system that can exist throughout the world – despite the innumerable crimes it has, still does and will commit in the future.

But back to the mural.

This one depicts images from the war against German Nazism. It does not pretend to be a view of a particular battle at a particular time and place. It’s more of a montage with images that attempt to record, in a visual manner, the struggle of the Communist-led Albanian Partisans against the Nazi invader.

It seeks to portray the Partisans as fearless and determined fighters who will do any and everything to rid their country of the invaders. In doing so the painter (and this has been repeated in an number of other places, both in paintings and in the sculptures of the Albanian lapidars) effectively has dehumanised the German soldiers.

This ‘dehumanisation’ is necessary to stress the difference between the moral authority of the Partisan fighters in resisting the invaders and the lack of such authority of the German forces who sought to dominate and enslave the Albanian population.

The depiction of the Nazis as no more than unprincipled and vicious animals also seeks to remind the Albanian people of the atrocities that were perpetrated by the invaders during their time in the country. In their frustration against their inability to defeat the Partisans (who carried out for the first part of the organised armed struggle after the formation of the National Liberation Front in Peze in 1942 a guerrilla war against first the Italian and then the German armies) the Germans carried out a total war which, among other things, involved such actions as the massacre and annihilation of the village and people of Borove after a particularly successful and stinging ambush carried out near-by.

The painting seeks to remind the viewer, in one relatively small space, of all of that and to value the sacrifice of those Partisans who gave their lives for the freedom of their country.

The fact that now, seemingly, the majority of the population of Albania don’t give a toss about that sacrifice is neither hear nor there. The reality of the struggle in Albania is that it was the Communist Partisans who liberated their country from the invaders without the assistance (other than material) of any external major ‘power’.

The mural tells that story by the use of images which can be seen in various lapidars throughout the country.

The armed, fighting, fearless, female, Communist Partisan

The armed, fighting, fearless, female, Communist Partisan

The principal and central character is a female Partisan. It is around her that all the action takes place. She’s physically the largest representation and in her image she tells a lot about the history of the success of the Albanians against the fascist invaders.

What I consider the most important aspect of the manner in which she has been portrayed is that she is armed, heavily. This is an aspect I have seen in visiting all those lapidars (monuments) and other art works produced during the Socialist period (from 1944-1990) – such as bas reliefs and mosaics – in that if a woman is represented in a military context she is always armed.

This can be seen in the wonderful mosaic (The Albanians) at the front of the very same building as well as in the Martyr’s Cemeteries in Lushnje and Fier, to name just a few.

Not only is this depiction of the female Partisan as an active armed fighter for the liberation of her country a recognition of the role that women played in the victory in Albania it also stresses what Mao Tse-tung expressed so succinctly ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’. True ‘female liberation’ will not be achieved until workers have freed themselves from oppression and exploitation and the system of patriarchy that has been strengthened and perpetuated under the economic system of capitalism. It won’t come naturally even then but will never happen unless this pre-requisite is achieved.

We don’t know if she’s the leader of this Partisan group but she’s in the vanguard of the attack and although she is moving forward she looks back to those behind and with her left arm she is signalling for others to hurry as the battle is being waged. The speed of her onward rush is captured by her cape, her long, black hair and her scarf which fly out behind her.

In her right hand she holds a light machine gun, she has a couple of stick grenades (captured from the enemy in a previous attack) tucked under the belt that holds ammunition pouches and there’s another ammunition belt across her chest. She’s also the only one of the Partisan fighters who wears what resembles a uniform.

The Communist calls for the attack

The Communist calls for the attack

We know she’s a Communist as she proudly displays the red star on her cap and the red scarf around her neck reinforces that declaration of political allegiance.

In fact the use of red in this painting is quite interesting. In general the palette used is quite mute but the bright red appears only from the dress and symbols of the Partisans – apart from a flash of flame from the machine gun being fired by the Partisan on the extreme right and the flames from the burning Nazi tank on the extreme left. Even the blood of the dead and dying Nazis is a dull, lacklustre red.

Traditional footwear in a modern war

Traditional footwear in a modern war

We also know she’s from the countryside, as most Partisans would have been at the time, by her footwear – sandals and the colourful woollen socks. This is in contrast to the heavy boots being worn by the Germans and even those of two of her male comrades.

Forward always

Forward always

To the right of the female Partisan is a young male. In his right hand, stretched out in front of him giving the impression of his rushing forward to join in the attack, is a rifle. His stance is of one who is fighting in mountainous terrain, with his right leg bent and his left stretched out behind him to give his forward movement more force. This is a stance that is very reminiscent of that of the Partisan statue on the Durres seafront.

But his role in the picture is not as a fighter but as a bearer of the symbol of the Albanian Partisans. He is the flag bearer and in his left hand flutters the rallying point of the Communists.

The Albanian Communist Banner

The Albanian Communist Banner

This is the red flag on which is the black, double-headed eagle with a gold, five pointed star embroidered above the two heads. This was to become the national flag of Albania after the declaration of Independence on 29th November 1944.

This would normally be of a brighter red – as the red stars on the caps and the red scarves – but I assume that the artist didn’t want to detract from their flashes of colour which a large expanse of red in the middle of the picture. So he has chosen more of a purple colour for the flag.

He knows where he's going

He knows where he’s going

Apart from him being responsible for the flag we also know his political allegiance, again, by the red scarf that’s around his neck.

Her red scarf, her sacrifice blood

Her red scarf, her sacrifice blood

Behind him, and slightly in the background, we are reminded that victory in anything, especially war, comes at a cost. And here we see the cost being paid by a young female Partisan who is shown at the time of death, her back arched as she is about to fall. We don’t see her face but we sense the pain as the bullet that kills her enters her body. She has no weapon but there is spare ammunition in her belt and her red scarf singles her out as a Communist.

Shooting down from the mountains

Shooting down from the mountains

The Partisan in the extreme right corner shows the extent of the population that joined the National Front against the fascist invaders. He is older, also from the countryside but here almost certainly from one of the mountainous regions of Albania.

He is also a Communist, with a red star on his fez, but in place of a scarf around his neck he has it wrapped around his hat. Typically at the time men from the mountains had moustaches and he sports a dark, black one.

A Communist peasant from the mountains

A Communist peasant from the mountains

He shows his physical strength by firing a moderately heavy machine gun but without the need of the normal tripod. His proximity to the dying woman also gives the impression of him taking revenge for the loss of a comrade. His machine gun spits fire and the bullets fall in a shower down by his feet.

The British contribution

The British contribution

It’s true that the British did supply the Communists Partisans with war material during the War of Liberation. They would rather have given the supplies to the Nationalist forces but 1) British representatives on the ground realised, and advised, that the Communist forces were the more effective and 2) the Nationalists eventually tried to pull the German Nazis out of the mire they had dug themselves into by attending a Quisling Assembly in 1944. The answer of the Communist Partisans was to drag a canon up the hills above Tirana and deliver a response to this traitorous act in the shape of a shell. It was exactly the same type of cannon that is seen, slightly in the background, in the centre of this painting.

A number of British died in Albania during the war and there’s now a small cemetery in Tirana Park – bizarrely using the old grave stone which was denied Enver Hoxha (when his remains were removed from the National Martyrs’ Cemetery and re-interred in the city cemetery at Kombinat) when the counter-revolutionaries gained control in the 1990s.

For some reason the British thought (whether it be the government of Churchill during the war or the government of Atlee after it) that because they had provided a few weapons they had the right to determine the future of the country. This led to Britain, in concert with the Americans, attempting to achieve ‘regime change’ before the term became popular. This included the aggression that was later referred to as the ‘Corfu Incident’.

They also constantly winged about their assistance not being recognised by the ‘ungrateful’ Communists. However, there are any number of paintings and sculptures where the Mills bomb (grenade) is depicted – to the best of my knowledge only, in that particular style, being produced by the British.

Bullets and sandals

Bullets and sandals

It’s strange when I think of it but as I’ve tried to understand the stories told by Albanian Socialist Realist paintings and sculpture I’ve learnt that the detail the artists have placed in their work when it comes to what people wear (or sometimes don’t wear – as in the great arch at Drashovice) can tell a great deal about the politics of the time. Here we have another example where the Partisan wears what he had worn from his youth – hand made shoes of his area and not the industrial production of western capitalist states. Probably made the fighting more comfortable.

Spitting fire and death

Spitting fire and death

Once you get to know Albania as a country you get to understand how hard it must have been – for both sides – to fight in such terrain. An incredibly beautiful country with its mountains and ravines are a different kettle of fish in a war situation. Now, obviously, war isn’t easy at any time but when you enter mountainous terrain into the equation it becomes even more difficult. Especially for the invader.

What the Americans, and the French before them, discovered later in Vietnam, the Italian and German Fascists discovered in Albania during then Second World War. Whatever material advantage you might have on paper it’s as nothing if you can’t dominate the terrain. The Albanian Partisans did in their country, the Vietminh did so in theirs.

And that fact of mountain fighting is represented in many works of Socialist Realist Art in Albania. As here the Partisan is firing down – into a valley, into a road during an ambush from a high point. The Partisans always controlled the high ground and that was one of the aspects of the Liberation War that ensured them success.

The battle continues in the background

The battle continues in the background

There are only a handful of ‘actors’ in the foreground to tell the story of the struggle but obviously there were many more involved and here they are depicted almost as ‘ghosts’ in the background – as can be seen in the previous couple of pictures.

The mountains are a protagonist

The mountains are a protagonist

Because the mountains of Albania played such a crucial role in the battle between the Partisans and the Fascists they are also often represented in works of art that tell the story of the struggle. Often, if it is of a particular battle it will be the mountains that would have been near-by and recognisable by the locals. These seem to be ‘generic’ mountains but they might have meant something to the artist.

Death to Nazism!

Death to Nazism!

Not all fighting in a war is at a distance and from time to time it comes to a hand to hand struggle. This is where we find the final, identifiable Partisan in the painting. Just to the left of the female Partisan we see a life and death struggle between another Communist Partisan and a Nazi soldier. We don’t see the face of the Partisan, just a glimpse of the side of his face, but we do see the Nazi. His eyes are wide open in horror as the Partisan has his left hand grasping his throat and in his right hand he has a dagger which is about to end the horror for the German soldier. This soldier is depicted almost as a demon, the human characteristics being erased from his features. This approach can also be seen on the lapidar at Berzhite.

Dead Nazis and dead Fascist Panzer Tank

Dead Nazis and dead Fascist Panzer Tank

Apart from a few ghostly and shadowy figures in the background the invader is confined to the extreme left of the painting and along the bottom, where their dead litter the ground.

The Nazi red is either flames or blood

The Nazi red is either flames or blood

Their tank is of no help, the flames leaping from the turret and the clouds of smoke indicating the crew are probably dead and unable to use the superior fire power. And anyway, in the terrain where the fighting took place in Albania tanks wouldn’t have been much use, the uneven ground and lack of any clear shots would have meant they did more damage to the mountain than the Partisans.

Those who are about to die ....

Those who are about to die ….

Those that are still alive and prepared to continue the fight are depicted as featureless, only the shapes of their faces in profile being seen. Here again the artist has stripped them of their humanity. They are killing machines so don’t merit individuality.

Faceless Nazis fighting for their lives

Faceless Nazis fighting for their lives

And in the case of one of them he is shown as no more than a shadow, a dark shape in the background.

The Nazi banner and the Nazi dead

The Nazi banner and the Nazi dead

Whereas the Communist banner flies high and proud the banner of the fascist invaders with its swastika symbol lies in the dirt, tattered and torn, the hand of a dead Nazi touching it reinforcing it as a symbol of death but one that itself is in the process of dying.

(The fact that this symbol is seeing a resurgence at the moment is down to a number of factors – amongst them being the betrayal of the Revisionists in those countries that had achieved the Socialist Revolution (including in Albania) and the failure of the working class in the industrialised countries to take power into their own hands. They might, some day, rue the consequences of their cowardice and pusillanimity as they suffer the death and destruction that accompanies fascism when it gains momentum.)

Arrogance pays its price

Arrogance pays its price

The remaining images of the invader are all of death. Fittingly the soldier that was so surprised of death knocking at his door that he has his mouth open is lying on the ground directly beneath the foot of the principal female Partisan.

The Iron Cross is no saviour against a Communist

The Iron Cross is no saviour against a Communist

And even the holder of an Iron Cross is no match for the onslaught of the Communist Partisans.

The Artist

Unfortunately I can’t say who is the artist of this mural. There’s no signature and I can’t definitively identify the artist by comparing his (there seem to have been few female artists whose work was displayed in museums and art galleries throughout Albania – I don’t know why that was the case) style with other paintings I might have seen.

However, I assume that it was created for the opening of the Museum in 1982.

Bus travel from Tirana to Istanbul

Bus travel from Tirana to Istanbul – with, hopefully, some practical information (including surviving the first couple of hours or so) and some observations

Leaving Tirana

The buses from Tirana leave from the International Bus Station (N 41.333204, E 19.801029) which is off Rruga Dritan Hoxha, the ‘new’ route to Durres. The bus station is slightly hidden behind the Palace of Sport/basket ball court, This is opposite the bus station that operates buses to the north of Albania. Though not absolutely necessary it would be wise to book in advance.

There’s no opportunity to exchange currency during the journey so, if possible, have a few Euros for food and drink at the Greek stop.

I didn’t know it until I left but there are two bus companies that have buses leaving at the same time – 12.00 every day (apart from Friday). The one I used was Alvavel/Alpar (https://www.alparturizm.com.tr/en/home), from kiosk 3 at the station. The cost of a ticket was €40 one way, €60 return. The other was Expres tur which was a bit more luxurious in that there were three, rather than four seats, abreast. The bus itself looked more modern and not a second hand cast off from some other country as was mine. Also the service was more efficient. At a late night stop, when both my bus and the ‘luxury’ bus were at the same service station, the Express driver spent some time cleaning the windscreen and the front of the bus and the helper cleared rubbish from the inside of the vehicle. On my bus the ‘staff’ were in the restaurant before the passengers.

Expres tur also have a kiosk at the bus station but I haven’t been able to find a web address and hence not certain about their timetable. If the budget stretches to it I would suggest the the Expres service – the seat of a second-hand bus gets hard after a few hours and these newer seats turn into a virtual bed.

I was told the journey would take 20 hours – which with the hour difference between Albania and Turkey is a good timetable. Arriving at 09.00 would be a civilised time in a place that you might never have visited before. The website says arrival time is 07.00 – but that’s not true either.

Both companies had a pickup in Elbasin. After that, at about 14.00, the bus stopped for the driver’s lunch break on the road between Libradzh and Prenjas, for about 30 minutes.

Alvelar/Alpar have a depot in Korçe and took a number of passengers from Tirana to Korçe but few, if any, passengers joined the bus there. There’s a separate service from Korçe to Istanbul – see website.

After Korçe the bus was less than half full. I travelled at the end of September so things were getting quieter in general but at that time it meant that most people, if they wanted, had a double seat – making things slightly more comfortable for an overnight journey. It wouldn’t have been as comfortable if the bus had been full.

From Korçe the bus heads to the town of Billisht and then on to the border with the same name. The bus arrived at the border just before 17.00 and the whole process of passing through both Albanian and Greek passport control/customs took just over 30 minutes.

Leaving Albania and entering Greece

The process is as such:

To leave Albania take all luggage, both from inside and the hold of the bus, into the customs hall. There’s a random, cursory, hand check of luggage. I have a waterproof liner in my rucksack and I think the customs officer was caught slightly off guard in that what he was feeling was the same he would have done (more or less) if he had just felt around the outside of the bag. There was an X-ray machine in the building but it wasn’t used when I passed through. After the customs check the immigration window is a few metres away. I’ve always found Albanian passport control one of the easiest to negotiate. However, you don’t get a stamp in your passport when arriving or leaving by land in Albania (which was a bit disconcerting when I first arrived in Albania by land).

After returning to the bus the process to enter Greece is even easier. You only need to go to passport control and no luggage was checked, either hand or from the hold. Presumably random checks take place from time to time.

After crossing the border there wasn’t a stop until 21.45 which lasted about 30 minutes.

Crossing into Turkey from Greece

The Greek/Turkish border is reached at about 00.30-01.00. You know you are getting there as on the approach you pass a very long queue of parked up lorries.

The helper collected all the passports and presented them to the Greek immigration. That allowed the passengers to spend some free time in the duty free shop.

It’s one of the curious matters about customs that there are supposed to be established rules but they are often just ignored or openly broken. The bus staff bought a huge amount of booze, what exactly I didn’t see, way over what would be considered for personal use. Some of this was then stashed in the cold compartment where free water is normally stored. The stash of booze was then covered by the water bottles and any extra given to willing passengers to ‘call their own’ – in the event that any questions were asked.

Now this ‘smuggling’ was going on openly. I could see what was happening. There was no effort to hide what was going on. The Greek customs must know about this. If not they must be one of the most inept, incompetent or corrupt organisations in existence. But they do nothing to stop this. If you have laws and rules at least abide by them – if not just scrap them. This excess of duty free also accounted for the distribution of duty free bags earlier in the journey for passengers’ rubbish – not too good for the planet either.

Passing through Turkish immigration was equally as quick and easy. My printed visa wasn’t even looked at so I’m not sure what happens there – whether my passport scan brings up an OK I don’t know.

Arrival in Istanbul

The bus arrived at Otogar (the main Istanbul bus station) at around 05.00 – a lot earlier than I expected – and before things started to wake up, including the Metro and the public transport system in general. My bus had made a couple of stops in the old town before heading to the bus station. I noticed a sign post to Taksim Square, near to where I would be staying, but not knowing the area at all it didn’t seem a wise thing to do to get off there.

I was fortunate in that I had a very little Turkish money from a previous visit some years ago. This enabled me to pay for the use of the WC (TL1.50) – to change from shorts to trousers. I was the only one wearing shorts on the bus and started to think I might stand out once on the streets of Istanbul. Doing so in Tirana you are one of the crowd. Doing so in Instanbul marks you out immediately as a tourist.

Next thing to do was to find a cafe to sit down and wait for the city, or at least the bus station, to wake up. Not having a single word of Turkish didn’t help but assumed that life would start again after about 06.00. It was interesting that, with the fame of Turkish coffee, my first cup on this visit was made from Nescafe Instant – and it was as bad as I had remembered.

Otogar might be one of the biggest bus stations in the world but it is certainly the ugliest. Coming into it was like passing through a half constructed concrete car park. Buses everywhere but with a feeling of dirt and decay. I didn’t think it would look any more inviting in the light of day. Having only seen a small part of the city when everything was quiet this goes against the general feeling of the city which appears to becoming an homogenised western city. Such globalisation is taking the character out of so many cities throughout the world. Otogar has been left out of this modernising process.

Over the years in various countries I sat and watched – for what now seems like countless hours – street traders waiting for customers. It was the same in Otogar. The cafe was open, as were a number of other stalls/kiosks in a small ‘shopping centre’ but there were only a handful of customers for almost two hours. Whether it ever gets really hectic I’ll probably never know from personal experience but it must be a mind blowingly boring existence for so many people to just sit and wait.

By 06.30 things were still very quiet and I didn’t know if I had over-extended my welcome at the cafe. However, as I had spent a lot of time in Albanian bars where I had had a few beers whilst others had just had a small coffee but were there as long as myself, I assumed the culture to be the same in Turkey.

It was still dark and I wasn’t sure if the Metro had started up so after I got to this point in my typing I decided to wait and move once the morning had arrived before going exploring – first for a cash machine and then the Metro, assuming I would find both in the same place – that was another assumption that wasn’t correct.

When I did stir it was light – fortunate that I travelled before autumn had really set in and the days got shorter. But life is never easy. Finding the Metro (as in railway system) was made more confusing by the existence of a bus company called ‘Metro’ and they seem to have an office every second space at the front of the bus station. The Metro railway entrance is, in fact, in the middle of the huge square in front of the Otogar, slightly to the right when you have the bus station to your back.

But first, like me, you might need some cash. Once you find the Metro entrance look at the row of shops directly opposite the bus station entrances and there you will see a branch of the Turkiye Is Bankasi which has an ATM to the right of the entrance. Currently (autumn 2019) there are about 7 Turkish Lira (TL) to the £.

(One of the consequences of the light is that your first impressions of the bus station are proved right. In the dark it’s bad, in the light it confirms itself as a right shit-hole.)

As is nearly always the case ATM’s only issue you with large denomination notes but for the Istanbulkart – which you need to travel on the local transport system – you really need a couple of tens – I don’t know how the machine would react if you inserted a larger denomination note.

My solution was to go for a bowl of soup at the cafe close to the entrance gates that allow you into the Metro system. The soup was quite good and definitely filled a hole after spending 16 hours on or about a bus, cost TL10 and it was understood why I needed a couple of ten lira notes in my change.

Obtaining a Instanbulkart

Right in front of the gates to the Metro there are three machines which dispense or top up the Istanbulkart. In theory the system should go to English but I couldn’t get that to work. Fortunately a helpful local took me through the procedure.

First you put your TL10 note in the slot and after the machine has eaten it you press the bottom of the three buttons which will issue you with a card. This costs TL6 so you have TL4 credit but this will only get you on to one train/tram/bus. To top it up for a few journeys, place the card with the picture face up on the grey reader to the right of the screen. This has a lip to prevent it from slipping off the machine. Put another TL10 in the slot and once eaten press the second button (the one in the middle). This will then give you a total credit of TL14, sufficient for four/five journeys.

To enter the Metro system place the card picture side up on the reader to the right of the turnstile. A single journey costs TL2.60 and the balance on the card can be read.

Make sure to keep the card reasonably well topped-up. There’s no transfer system so if you need to change Metro lines, or from Metro to tram or bus, then you need to enter the system anew. However, if you do so within a couple of hours each transfer is slightly less that the one before. The card is also valid on the ferries but the cost depends upon the route taken.

You now have cash and the means to get around the city. And to suffer the caterwauling every day.

The Mother – a Socialist short story

The Mother - Fatmir Haxhiu

The Mother – Fatmir Haxhiu

The Mother – a Socialist short story

In various posts on this site I have been concentrating on providing descriptions and analyses of some of the many Lapidars in Albania. That is ongoing and there are still more to post in the future. At some time I also want to have a look at Albanian paintings from the Socialist period (1944-1990). Some of these have been introduced as they cross over with the sculptures on the monuments. There is still an opportunity to see some of these paintings in various locations throughout the country – principally the National Art Gallery in Tirana but also in the City Art Gallery in Durres, the Historical Museum in Fier and the Museum in Peshkopia.

But it wasn’t just in the plastic arts that Socialist Realism had a role to play in the construction of Socialism. Putting the role of the working class and peasantry in the forefront of all that happened in society, in the post, present and future, was also a task of writers of short stories and novels. For those interested in this aspect of Albania’s road to Socialism the various foreign language publications (especially the large format, monthly colour magazine, New Albania) provided translations from the Albanian language in English, Russian, French, Chinese and Arabic. The story below appeared in New Albania, 1971, No 6.

This particular story dealt with a fictional incident in the National War of Liberation against the Fascist invaders – assisted by local collaborators who were always a threat to true patriots.

Note on translation. Translations into English were good during the time these magazines were being produced – but not perfect. I have made a few minor, obvious grammatical changes to the original but have not sought to correct all errors due to the fear of losing the meaning that the author was wanting to convey to the reader.

THE MOTHER

Skender Drini

There was a man walking, or rather dragging himself slowly, along the bank of the river, weary and hungry. The pain from the wound in his left shoulder made it agony to breathe. He stopped, bracing himself against a tree or a big rock and drew breath very slowly and carefully as the pain stabbed at him. With great effort he pulled himself together.

Great dry flakes of snow that stuck wherever they touched were falling so thickly that they blotted out the world. Earth and sky were blended into a white gloom. He mustn’t stop. There was no road, no tracks but this didn’t trouble him. In his ears was the roar of the Black Drini. When the sound came clear he carried on; when it died away a little he angled more to the left and went ahead again. The Drini, swollen with the past week’s rain, tore madly down its course. Where it narrowed at the bends the waters hurled themselves upon the rocks and obstacles in their way with a sound like the fury of a distant hurricane.

The man lifted his head and listened.

“Good, I’m on the right track”, he whispered. He pushed on. River and man proceeded side by side, the one loud in its arrogant strength, the other wounded and nearly all in. Despite that they carried on side by side. If it had not been for the Drini who knows where Sulo Arifi, courier of the Dibra partisan unit, might have been lost. He had been travelling all night with the river for his guide and companion. He came from Cermenika where he had picked up some letters from headquarters. He was returning to his unit but did not find it where it had been at Ostreni. Instead he found a letter in the secret communications place. ‘Follow us down the Drini. We shall meet in Dibra. As fast as you can.’ “Trimi”. “Trimi” was the Commissar.

Sula Arifi had never done this trip before but that was not important. He would follow the tracks of his comrades down the course of the Drini. He could rely on the Drini. He would get there, come what may, he would get there.

He started early from Ostreni. Although the sky was dark and threatening neither snow nor rain had begun to fall.

Sula climbed the spur, leaving Cerrieci and Gorice on his right. He passed Zalli of Bulqiza and Majtari and daybreak found him near Devolan. So far the trip was going well. He tried to slip undetected past people and houses because there were enemy bands prowling about but he couldn’t get away without being observed. Shots rang out. Bajraktar’s men took a delight in blazing away at any stranger. If he happened to be a partisan, then so much the better.

Sula Arifi exchanged three short bursts with the two who were firing at him from behind a bank and then slipped away. But he hadn’t gone five hundred paces when a fearful pain caught him in the shoulder. A glance showed his jacket stained with blood. ‘Oh, the devil’, he thought. ‘Those dogs of Bajraktar have managed to get their teeth into me. What rotten luck!’ Painfully he managed to struggle out of his jacket and tried to stem the flow of blood by tying strips from his shirt around the wound. It was deep and bleeding heavily. Sula tested his arm, moving it backwards and forwards. ‘Thank goodness – at least it hasn’t touched the bone’, he comforted himself. ‘But I suppose that bit of metal’s still in me. I must get there and the comrades will pull it out.’

He made to move off, but he was no longer the man he had been the evening before. His makeshift bandage slipped and the bleeding continued. He was obliged to stop and tighten the strip of rag. On he went.

‘Oh! it’s a long way, this Dibra!’

Near Cetushi a fine drizzle began and quickly turned to snow. And what snow! Flakes as big as your hand. The whole world was blotted out. Within an hour six inches, a foot of snow had fallen. Sula struggled forward, lifting his feet high as he plodded along. Unable to see a thing, he strained his ears for the sound of the river. ‘I’m all right’, he whispered, ‘I’m on the right track. Bless you, Black Drini!’ And he hurried his steps as if to keep pace with the river as it rushed northwards. Behind the partisan the snow immediately covered his footprints and the spots of blood.

Sula Arifi came to a halt. His legs would no longer obey him. His whole chest was a fire of agony from his wound, as if his ribs had been riddled with bullets. It was snowing as hard as ever. He couldn’t see ten paces ahead and neither could he hear the Drini. It had fallen silent. ‘Either I’ve lost my way or the river’s wider here and not making much noise’, thought the partisan.

Unexpectedly, a sweet lethargy began to steal over him, spreading over his limbs and warming them, making him drowsy. Hundreds of figures, some new, some familiar, danced before his eyes. He seemed to be back in the old bakery where he had worked so many years as an apprentice. The baker, with his great hairy arms like a bear, quenched the burning paddles from the oven in a tub of water. On the broad counter, trays full of pies, roast meat and pastries, were lined up side by side. Further over, on the shelves, buns fresh from the oven and shining with egg-yolk were steaming. He took one and sank his teeth in it, but he couldn’t get it down his throat. The baker hit him hard in the belly with the butt end of the paddle.

Sula Arifi pulled himself together, scared. It was a near thing. One moment more and he would have been asleep. In the snow, that would have been the end. He took a handful of snow and rubbed his face with it. At first it felt cold, then the sting turned into a scalding heat which flushed his cheeks. Sula Arifi took a proper hold on himself. At that moment he remembered the words of the letter: ‘As fast as you can, comrade’, he whispered mechanically. But his legs would not function. His limbs seemed frozen and numb. The partisan lifted his head. Through that snowy stillness, that fearful stillness, a muffled roar was becoming gradually louder, heading towards the north. ‘Ah! there it is again. Bless you, Black Drini!’ Sula Arifi took one step forward, two steps, then he was on his way again, as though drawn along by the roar of the river.

About midday the snowstorm began to peter out. The flakes thinned out, then they stopped altogether. On his right Sula Arifi could see a village, on his left, the river. He turned from the village, moving towards the river. What would he have given, at that moment, for a crust of bread! It was painful to think that there, five hundred paces away, there was a fire, bread, and people who might gladly give it.But this village ahead – was it Brezhdani? Or Kishavici? March, Sula Arifi, as quickly as you can! But his legs would scarcely move, while the Drini roared furiously on its way. Now, with its banks covered with snow, it seemed like a narrow stream snaking along. ‘This must be Kishavici! But what is the name of this stream?’ He could go no further. He stood, breathing heavily. He was not sleepy now. His limbs were laden, while his feet seemed like two strange, lifeless lumps. He no longer felt his wound. The blood had clotted round the bandage in a heavy crust.

A tall stone house where perhaps he might rest loomed before him in the gathering darkness. The courier stood looking at it, isolated, rising from the snow-covered plain. The other houses were a fair way off, scattered over the ridges and valleys and indistinct now in the deepening twilight. He turned his eyes again to the plain. What was going on behind those cold walls, behind those narrow, loophole windows? There seemed something ominous about the way the angles of the stone stood out in the gloom, clean-cut as with a knife.

Sula Arifi wavered, paused, then moved towards it. It was a partisan base. It was an open fire where wet clothes could be dried and exhausted limbs stretched out. It was a piece of corn bread gladly given, a pleasant corner where one could dream of the morrow.

He approached the house, and pushed open the big door. The wooden stair creaked under his feet, the steps slippery with slushy snow.

‘There’s someone here then’, thought Sula, clinging to the banister. The sight of the open door gave him strength to struggle up the last few steps, but he froze rigid on the threshold. In the room beyond the door lay a dead man. An old woman sat with bowed head beside him. Her face was buried in her hands and partly obscured by her black shawl. Two other women sat in silence, a little to one side.

The old woman looked up. Sula Arifi shrank back against the door. ‘Oh women’, called the old woman, ‘stand up and welcome the guest.’

Sula mumbled with embarrassment, ‘I … I … ‘

‘Oh you women’, repeated the old woman in a deeper tone, ‘stand up and welcome the guest’.

‘No’, said Sula firmly, ‘I am going’.

‘You’ll not cross the threshold alive, my boy!’

She stood up and strode towards him.

Sula took off his cap and approached the body.

‘Your son, Mother?’

‘My son.’

‘When did this happen?’

‘Today. Halil Alija. *But relax, boy, don’t get excited!’

Her glance fell on his chest. ‘But you’ve been shot!’ she said. ‘Oh, damn their eyes, you’ve been shot, too.’ Quickly, women, we must get those clothes off him.’

But the women had disappeared. ‘They’ve gone, the fools,’ she whispered. ‘They were afraid. But I’ll dress this wound without them.’

‘No, no!’

‘There, there, dear boy. My son wouldn’t like his mother to leave you in this state.’

The old woman, with a glance at her son, rose to her feet. The flames from the fire at her back cast a long shadow right across the room. As she moved towards him with her great stride, she seemed to Sula Arifi like a mighty oak with a massive trunk and broad-spreading branches. He tried to remember her eyes when he had first seen her through the doorway. They were cold in the beginning, almost lifeless, but the life blazed up in them immediately she noticed the partisan.

‘Ah, what a brave old woman you are, mother, a brave old woman indeed,’ whispered Sula Arifi.

The old woman came back carrying a roll of cloth prepared precisely for bandages. A shudder passed over the partisan when he saw it. In that roll of bandage, the whole blood-stained history of the banks of the Drini was expressed. There wouldn’t be a house without such bandages, nor a woman who didn’t know how to weave them. The bride brought them in her dowry. The blood feuds ran on from century to century.

Reluctantly the partisan lay down. He felt ashamed at being treated. Ashamed and embarrassed in the presence of the dead. But what a woman this was! A slight groan escaped his lips. Immediately the old woman lifted her hands from the wound.

‘Did I hurt you, son? Did I hurt my dear Abaz?’

Sula Arifi looked at the dead man. A lock of blonde hair had fallen across his forehead. The look of death had not yet touched his face. The old woman was confused. The living partisan seemed like her dead partisan son.

She turned his head towards her and wiped his tears. It was too much. Her hand was roughened and cold, but Sula Arifi seized it and pressed it on his face.

‘There, there, dear boy, mother’s here!’ She rose and filled a cup with coffee.

‘Drink it, son. Now I shall get you some food’

‘What courage,’ murmured Sula Arifi to himself. ‘Even at such a time she thinks about food for me.’

‘My son did not leave me on my own this night, you came, my boy.’ The cup quivered in the partisan’s hand. He no longer felt his wounds. Didn’t this old woman show how to bear pain?

Sula put down the empty cup. A rifle shot rang out from nearby. The partisan reached for his gun.

‘Hand over the partisan, old woman, if you don’t want to follow your son to the grave!’

The voice came clearly from just outside the wall. Sula rose to his knees. The pressure of the old woman’s hand on his shoulder prevented him from standing up. From outside the threats were repeated. The house was surrounded. Sula stood against the wall.

‘I’m going out,’ he said.

‘Do you intend to give yourself up, boy?’ The old woman was looking fierce. ‘I’ll never surrender while there’s breath in my body, mother, I want to go out to face them.’

‘No, not while I live. One I gave them, another never!’

‘They will burn the house down.’

‘One I gave them, another never,’ whispered the woman again. ‘Let the house go up in flames!’

In her agony of indecision she began to pace backwards and forwards across the big room. What to do? How to save Sula Arifi? Until then she had been so brave, faced with her dead son. Now, before her living son she seemed lost.

Sula peered out a loophole. They were shooting from outside. Bullets whistled and smashed against the stone walls. It was pitch dark out there.

The old woman threw a pitcher of water on the fire. Darkness enclosed the room. Who knows how much suffering this woman has seen, how many times she has quickly doused the fire when the rifles started at night. Outside they were keeping up a furious fire. Sula fired the odd shot in reply. There seemed to be no end to the volleys. Tiles flew from the roof and smashed to the ground. Dogs were barking from somewhere near.

Sula turned to see what the old woman was doing. To his astonishment, she was coming towards him, with a gun in her hands.

‘Slip out through the little door at the back. I’ll hold them off, they won’t suspect anything.’

‘Oh mother, mother,’ whispered the partisan, ‘I’m not leaving. You go,’ he said to the old woman.

‘I’m carrying letters from headquarters. They must be delivered to the unit at all costs. You know the way. You go, mother.’

‘I have a brave son here,’ she said.

‘Now go! One son I gave another never!’

‘But I am wounded. I’ll not get there.’

‘The letters must be delivered at all costs. I am wounded.’ His words became almost delirious, beseeching. He could not leave her on her own and go.

‘Away you go! A wounded man can make it, a live man can make it, but not a dead one. I want you to live. Abaz would have listened to me. Now please go!’

And he went. He valued his life that night no more than a hair of his head, but there are bigger things, more important things than that.

As he went, for a long time he could hear a shot with a particular sound distinguishable amongst the others, the sound of a carbine. It continued all through the evening until nearly midnight. Then it was silent. Sula Arifi went on towards Dibra.

*Halil Alia was a collaborator with the fascists and one of chiefs of the traitor forces that fought against the National Liberation Movement.