Mujo Ulqinaku – Durrës

Durres '7 April' - G Priftuli and N Bakalli

Durres ‘7 April’ – G Priftuli and N Bakalli

(I was just about to publish this post about the lapidar in Durrës to Mujo Ulqinaku when I was informed by Vincent, of the Albanian Lapidar Survey, that it has been removed from its original site due to some sort of commercial development. The plans for the statue in the future are unknown. If I get more information I’ll update the post. Until then I consider the following to be a contribution to the maintenance of Albania’s proud revolutionary history and to remind visitors to Durrës – Albanians and foreigners alike – of what used to stand close to the waterfront.)

The first shots in Albania’s National Liberation War (although it wasn’t called that at the time) were fired on 7th April 1939 when the Italian Fascist forces invaded the port city of Durrës (as well as other locations along the coast). For years the country, ruled by the self-proclaimed ‘King’ Zog I (even before he was dead he was planning a dynasty!) had been a puppet state of the Italian Fascists and when the invasion did take place no official structure was in existence to defy the invaders. It was therefore left to brave individuals, such as Mujo Ulqinaku, to take up the banner of resistance. His sacrifice is commemorated by a monument close to the coast where the invasion took place.

Italian Fascist Invasion 1939

Italian Fascist Invasion 1939

(The white building on the hill was the palace that Zogu left in a hurry on being informed of the imminent Italian Fascist invasion.)

The statue has the figure of Mujo (although it doesn’t look much like him from the available photos) standing with three-quarters of his body outside of some fortified structure. He’s not wearing a uniform – which might be a bit strange as he was a member of the Royal Border Guard, a branch of the Royal Albanian Army – but is in civilian dress.

Mujo Ulqinaku

Mujo Ulqinaku

However, there’s a political statement here. If Mujo was in his officer’s uniform it would give the impression, to the casual observer years after the event, that there was some sort of organised resistance to the Italian invasion. In fact, the head of that very ‘Royal’ Albanian Army was running as fast as his little feet (or more accurately, someone else’s little feet) could carry him to safety. As soon as he was aware of the invasion instead of standing at the head of his army and preparing to meet his death he decided on the cowards option and was spirited out of the country, eventually ending up in Britain, and having a very nice war indeed, thank you very much, in a large country house a long way even from the bombs raining down on London let alone the destruction being inflicted on ‘his’ country.

The statue represents an idealised representation of the action that Mujo took on that Friday. Armed only with a machine gun he fought until he was killed. He never left his post. It was reported that he had killed and wounded dozens of Italian soldiers with his machine gun.

Mujo Ulqinaku Statue

Mujo Ulqinaku Statue

Mujo’s loose jacket is thrown out behind him in his animation. He has his right arm fully extended, pointing in the direction of the sea and the invading forces. He is looking back to others of his countrymen (but not at that time countrywomen, they would only be involved when the Communist led National Liberation Front was established after the Conference of Peze) to see why they are not with him, to see why they are holding back when their country is under such a dire threat. Some did join him at that time, but not that many. It took, again, Communist organisation to rally Albanians in their thousands to fight the invader in an organised manner in order to defeat them.

In his left hand, the arm fully extended due to the weight, he holds a heavy machine gun. By all reports that was all he had to face the invader. He just dug in and kept firing until a shell from one of the Italian warships eventually destroyed him and his position.

Mujo Ulqinaku with machine gun

Mujo Ulqinaku with machine gun

This stance is repeated many times on the lapidars throughout the country. This idea of rallying the masses to the cause, to bring as many people to the battle front as is possible, holding back is no choice as it will lead to oppression and exploitation – a call that is as valid in the construction of Socialism as it is in the opposition to a foreign invading force. This image can be seen in such lapidars as diverse as the magnificent Arch of Drashovice and the sadly neglected lapidar at Sqepur, amongst others.

Mujo Ulqinaku died on the 7th April 1939 but so did many others. At one time this sacrifice by equally brave Albanians was recognised on the column upon which the bronze sculpture stands. However, for reasons I am not aware, when the monument was given a new look it was decided that these other Albanian heroes would have to go.

Mujo Ulqinaku statue with original text

Mujo Ulqinaku statue with original text

Originally the wording on the column was as follows:

Lavdi deshmorëve të atdheut q[ë ra]në më 7 prill 1939

meaning:

Glory to the martyrs of the fatherland who fell on 7 April 1939

This was then followed by what exists now, i.e., the name of Mujo Ulqinaku and People’s Hero, and then the list of seven other fighters who lost their lives in the battle against the Italian invasion. Those who gave their lives between 1939 and 1944 from Durrës (or the region) are also commemorated in the Durrës Martyrs Cemetery.

Up to the end of 2011 it was still possible to see the marks of where the names of the other martyrs were attached to the column. However, by 2014 there had been some ‘restoration’ work and unless you know what you’re looking for it’s not possible to tell that there has been an alteration.

Presumably at the same time a plaque with the same information was fixed to the wall of the Venetian Tower, across the road to the south of the monument. This ancient monument is now a private cafe. Sometimes the manner in which the Albanians have allowed their cultural heritage to be taken over by private, commercial interests surprises even me – when I thought I was almost immune to the stupidity of people world-wide when it comes to the theft of public assets.

Recent plaque

Recent plaque

The new plaque on the wall has:

Të rënët e 7 prillit (The fallen of April 7th)

Mujo Ulqinaku, Heroi i Popullit (People’s Hero)

Hamit Dollani

Haxhi Tabaku

Hysen Koçi

Ibrahim Osmani

Isak Metalia

Ismail Reçi

Ramazan Velia

(At present I don’t know if this plaque is still in this location. Without the near-by statue the information it contains is slightly confusing.)

But by not replacing the names in their original location the ‘new’ local government is, itself, making a statement about how to commemorate the resistance of the Durrës workers against the Italian Fascist invasion. They turn collective resistance into a personal martyrdom, an individual act. They turn Mujo from a representation of resistance into a lone fighter against foreign intervention, they take away the politics of anti-Fascism. And now he has been taken away as well.

Mujo Ulqinaku alongside Venetian Tower

Mujo Ulqinaku alongside Venetian Tower

In an artistic sense, when looking at other lapidars in Durrës, we can see that the monument (within sight of, and no more than 50 metres away from, Mujo) is a much larger monument to the Partisan, a monument that looks more and more neglected as the years go by. The monument to the collective is sacrificed to that to the individual.

Original Location:

The fact that the monument has been moved from its previous home to ‘an unknown location’ is a worrying development.

On top of years of neglect and both political and mindless vandalism we now have the removal of monuments due to commercial interests whose aesthetic in contemporary Albania is non-existent. Witness the neo-Classical monstrosity which is the private Albanian College, Durrës, which sits on the site of the long abandoned and derelict Durrës Tobacco factory – the location of a brave strike against Fascism, in 1940, when the Albanian people were still prepared to fight for their dignity – which was a hundred metres or so from the lapidar’s location for many years.

The monument used to be was located at the junction of Rruga Taulantia (which runs parallel to the coast) and Rruga Anastas Durrsaku. This is only a few metres from the seashore and very close to where the conflict in April 1939 would have taken place. Therefore an obvious location for the statue.

To place it in any other location wouldn’t make sense but to confine it to some sort of storage would be to refuse to accept the lessons of history. Someone really fighting (and dying) for the independence of his country is denigrated whilst the politicians, every year at the end of November, head down to Vlora to ‘celebrate’ the so-called ‘Independence’ of 1912. Real independence in Albania is in inverse proportion to the statements made about it.

GPS:

N 41.30965699

E 19.44652397

DNS:

41º 18′ 34.74” N

19º 26′ 47.472” E

Altitude:

5.5m

Tobacco Factory – Durres

Tobacco Factory - Durres

Tobacco Factory – Durres

The work of the Albanian Lapidar Survey, in documenting and quantifying the monuments throughout the country, has produced an invaluable resource for those who have an interest in the Albanian version of Socialist Realism. However, due to time, resources and the difficulty of identifying the vast amount of examples of a new form of popular expression (made even more difficult with the criminal destruction of the archives of the Albanian League of Writers and Artists) many unique pieces of art were not part of the survey. The concrete bas-relief on the facade of the (former ‘Stamles’) Tobacco Factory, close to the seafront in Durrës, was, therefore, one of those not documented and now it has gone (unless someone with foresight was able to save it) forever.

Once you start to look at the history of Albania after the invasion of the Italian Fascists in April 1939 (which coincided with the fleeing of the self-proclaimed ‘king’ and despot Zog – to live a life of luxury and safety in a mansion in Britain – he even ran away from the capital city to a house in the countryside when the bombs started to fall on London during the Blitz) you realise the bravery of the Albanian working class – who couldn’t run anywhere – and their preparedness to stand up against the armed fascist invaders, as the tobacco workers did in their strike in 1940.

It was probably a challenge to the Italian soldiers (conscripted workers and peasants) to be faced with unarmed workers on the streets the invader declared they controlled. The German Nazi invaders (who replaced the Italians in 1943) were more prepared to murder civilians than the Italians – as they did at Borovë and Uznovë, amongst other locations – but the Italians seemed reluctant to gun down Albanian workers on the streets of Durrës.

Durres Demonstration - Sali Xhixha

Durres Demonstration – Sali Xhixha

That sign of weakness (a contradiction that besets capitalism, imperialism and Fascism if the working class can just but recognise it) can be used by the politically organised working class if they accept the idea, which was later encapsulated in the slogan of Mao Tse-tung 20 years later, that ‘All imperialists are paper tigers’. This means that the enemy is only strong if we accept they are. Challenge them and they will retreat, even though we have to accept that they will lash out with viciousness in the process. They use fear as a control mechanism, if you don’t fear them they are no more than thugs with weapons, afraid that their ‘Emperors new clothes’ will be seem as they are, just a figment of the imagination.

But we have to go back a few years to understand why things were such after the country was invaded by the Italian Fascists.

Although this history is gradually being obliterated in Albania there was a tradition during the socialist period, from 1944 till 1990, to celebrate, commemorate and remember those people, those events of the past that had played a part in the liberation of Albania from foreign domination. The fact that these physical declarations of the country’s past are disappearing is only a manifestation of the disappearance of any semblance of independence the Albania people had achieved and only maintained for a little over 45 years.

As Marx wrote way back in the 19th century the capitalists create their own grave diggers and a plaque on the building celebrates this, not the establishment of the factory as such but more the fact that by building and opening the tobacco factory, in a predominantly peasant country in 1924, the Stamles company was preparing the groundwork for its destruction.

One of the plaques, which was directly beneath the frieze, on the facade of the factory had the following:

Ne prill te vitit 1924 u ngrit ketu e para fabrike e cigareve, klasa punetore e se ciles u be çerdhe lufte per te drejtat shoqerore dhe e levizjes nacionalçlirimtare.

This translates as:

In April 1924 the first cigarette factory was established here which, for the working class, became a nursery in the battle for social rights and of the National Liberation Movement.

Tobacco Factory Foundation Plaque

Tobacco Factory Foundation Plaque

In the 21st century this small building would be barely considered a workshop let alone a factory but in 1924 this was a huge step forward in terms of ‘development’ for the people of Durrës. This would have been seen as part of the modernisation of the port city. A country that had previously only produced the primary means of production was now turning what they had grown in the countryside into a finished product which had added value and could be exported to other, external markets. How successful the Stamles company was in this field I don’t know but with the establishment of such companies there was, at least, a potential to take Albania out of the situation of being a client state.

If it didn’t do that for capitalism – the forces against them too great in nearby neighbours, especially Greece and Italy – at least it taught the workers a lesson. They might have earned more but their security would not have been any greater. The ‘Great Depression’ of the later 1920s and early 30s would have introduced these ‘young’ industrial workers to the reality of capitalism – another crisis is always around the corner, then and now.

But then it would also have been a school of revolution. Lacking in present day capitalist societies in Albania in the 1920s/30s there was a revolutionary movement seeking to change the old world order.

That movement, initially through trade unions, was able to create a situation where, in 1940, the workers, both men and women, of the tobacco factory were prepared, and had the courage, to go on strike during the Fascist occupation of their town and country. I won’t go as far as saying this was unique but I can’t think of many other countries invaded and occupied by the Fascists at the time where the workers went on strike – and this bravery and disregard for the possible consequences, of the Albanian people, was the reason they were able to free their country of the invaders with their own efforts.

Another plaque that used to be on the side of the building (situated next to one of the ground floor windows, just as the wall of the building curved around the corner) celebrated that strike:

Me 12 korrik 1940 punetoret dhe punetoret e shoqerise kapitaliste ‘Stamles’ nen drejtimin e komunisteve te grupeve, bene nje greve te madhe, e cila qe nje aksion i rendesishem politik antifashiste klasor.

In English:

On 12 July 1940 the employees and workers of capitalist society ‘STAMLES’, under the leadership of communist groups, went of a great strike, which was an important political, antifascist class action.

Tobacco Factory Strike Plaque

Tobacco Factory Strike Plaque

This was probably placed on the building quite soon after National Liberation on 29th November 1944. It would have been during Albania’s Cultural Revolution, starting in the mid-60s, that plans for the bas-relief would have been formulated.

Now to the sculpture itself. The frieze is a pictorial representation of that event and when I saw it for the first, and only time, in November 2011, it looked sad and neglected. I don’t know exactly when the factory ceased production but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it was very soon after the counter-revolution gained control in the early 1990s.

Failures of the Party of Labour of Albania as the leader of the workers of the country, together with their inability to counter the foreign-controlled attacks on the socialist structure of the society provoked shortages and instability that caused too many Albanians to think that the ‘grass was greener on the other side of the fence’.

Durrës is on the coast. It was the country’s most important port. Contact with Italy – the old imperialist, invading, dominating power (going back to the time of the Roman Empire) was attractive. The ‘shortages’ encouraged by the reactionaries (by scaremongering and active sabotage) meant that people became disillusioned with their homeland and ‘wanted’ to leave. Anti-communism meant that Albanians, leaving to seek ‘freedom’ were ‘welcomed’. The opportunity arose, they took it, including the workers from the tobacco factory.

The reason I mention this before the actual sculpture itself is that this is all part of the story. People have a reasonably paid job making a product which has health issues but at least they are being paid. Then there’s a growing panic within society. If you don’t leave first you will be too late. Shortages in most societies aren’t caused by shortages but by panic that there will be a shortage.

People leave in droves, the tobacco factory closes. No workers no production. People start to worry that if they don’t get to the trough first there will be nothing left. Those who don’t leave, for whatever reason, have nothing constructive to do so they become destructive – they loot. When all the machinery has been taken they take away the windows. This mindless destruction of much that had been built since 1944 was widespread and included museums and libraries. If you travel around the country you will see innumerable examples of abandoned, ossified, infrastructure.

That’s what they did in Durrës to the tobacco factory and the blind, empty windows meant that the dirt from inside was swirled around by the wind from the sea and it settled on top of the bas-relief, located on the top of the ground floor of the facade of the factory facing the old city walls. The grey concrete has a black cap. This does make it slightly difficult to make out exactly what is depicted but not impossible.

What we have is a demonstration. This demonstration has two principled causes. The perpetual demand against the employers for a greater share of the profits, that is, higher wages, and in the case of Durrës in 1940, a strike against Italian Fascist domination of their city.

Tobacco Factory Banners

Tobacco Factory Banners

This is seen in the banners carried by the men and women on the street. But there’s an important positioning of these demands. In a capitalist, bourgeois society the demands of the workers are ‘selfish’, immediate, economic, but here the demand at the front of the demonstration, where the workers will come in conflict with the Italian invaders, the most important slogan is:

‘Poshte Fashizmi’, meaning ‘Down with Fascism’.

Yes, the economic demands of the workers are important. A Fascist invading country is unlikely to be prepared to offer higher wages but the task of a trade union is to fight for the rights of its members but this always depends on the circumstances at a particular time. There is no way workers will get improved conditions unless they deal with the most important and principal contradiction, and in Durrës, in Albania, in 1940 that was Italian Fascism, and its destruction and eviction from the country.

So this economic banner is further back along the frieze – and it must be remembered we are talking of a bas-relief that was probably about 10 metres long.

The second banner reads: ‘Kerkojme ngritje e pagave’, literally demanding a wage increase.

We have the majority of the participants in the demonstrating looking and moving in the same direction, i.e., marching and looking, from right to left. We don’t see the opposition, but in a painting by Sali Xhixha above, we can see that they would have been Italian soldiers. They would have been confused about what to do. They are faced with angry men and women, shouting and screaming at them in a language they don’t understand. In such circumstances it is not unknown for a frightened soldier to fire and then precipitate a slaughter but I’m not aware of any injuries during this strike or demonstration.

There are 23 definable figures on the frieze and most of their features were clear to the viewer after years on the building with half of those in neglect. The majority are male but I think it’s possible to make out 7 women involved in the action. This would have been the case in the 1930s, new industry taking both men and women from the countryside and, if we consider cigarette manufacture in different parts of the world at the time, women would have been a substantial part of the workforce.

Tobacco Factory Strike Bas-Relief - left

Tobacco Factory Strike Bas-Relief – left

One aspect which makes this frieze different from some of the other lapidars so far described and that is we are left in no doubt that these people are workers. Their clothing and hair styles are of a town dweller. There is no sign of the traditional clothing still worn in the countryside at that time and none of the women are wearing head scarves – even capitalism offers women a certain amount of ’emancipation’. Another characteristic that is different from other sculptures is that they are all, both men and women, of a similar generation, there’s no obviously older people and only a couple of young boys and girls.

In the front rank are two men. The one at the back is wearing a worker’s cap, his shirt is loose and fluttering open, giving a sense of movement. His anger is shown by the fact that he is shouting and he has his right arm raised with a clenched fist, although unarmed his whole body language is presenting a threat to the fascist authorities. Beside him the young man is side on to the opposition, his right shoulder leading with his right arm raised towards his left shoulder, the clenched fist seeming about to lash out against those unseen forces of occupation. He is bare-headed.

Behind them is a group of three, two women and a man, slanted up from right to left. All of them have their mouths open, shouting slogans, taunts or obscenities against the Fascists. We can only see part of the clothing of the woman closest to us and she wears a light shirt that a worker would be wearing in the hot Adriatic summer. Above their heads are five raised, clenched fists – only two possibly belonging to this group of three. Here the artist is indicating that although he has only depicted 23 demonstrators there were many more out of view.

Next, as we move further from the front line, we see the ‘Down will Fascism’ banner, mentioned before. In front of that, his head obscuring a small section of that banner, is another male. His attitude is different from those we’ve seen so far. His body is front on to the viewer and his head is turned slightly towards the front of the demonstration – but although there is determination on his face he is not shouting and neither is he making any threatening gesture. His right hand is gripping the lapel of his jacket and his left arm is hanging loose, the hand outside the limits of the tableau.

The next is a head and shoulders image of a round-faced male. He is even more impassive than the previous striker. He’s looking out at the viewer and doesn’t show that he is involved in what is going on around him. I’m not really sure what he is doing here as he shows no anger or any emotion at all.

I’ve tried to work out why these two are even in the picture. Every other person depicted is interacting either with the Fascists or each other, these two, on the other hand, seem no more than bystanders, not involved with the events unfolding. As there was so limited a space for the bas-relief I can’t work out why time, effort and space has been spent on images that add nothing to the story. I’ll accept that in such demonstrations not everyone is fully engaged but such distance is transitory. On a work of art such as this one their inactivity is recorded, literally, in stone.

The next figure is the opposite. This is the figure that looks behind him, away from the point of conflict with Fascists, but plays the crucial role of encouraging others to get closer, to come and join the action, as well as giving the impression that there are many more that were involved in the demonstration but which it is impossible to depict on such a finite space. (This is a fairly common trope of Albanian lapidars and monuments and, for example, can be seen on such diverse monuments as the Arch of Drashovice and in the Peze Martyrs’ Cemetery.) He is dressed in the normal clothing of a worker of the period. As we only see him from the waist up he is wearing a shirt and jacket. His shoulder faces the front of the demonstration, his torso faces the viewer, the right side of his head is in profile and his left arm is in the air above his head and his hand is wide open in a beckoning motion and his open, fluttering jacket provides an element of animation.

Tobacco Factory Strike Bas-Relief - centre

Tobacco Factory Strike Bas-Relief – centre

In the crescent that’s formed by his arm and head there are three other males, only their heads, but we are starting to get back to active participants in the action. The one that is closest to, and immediately behind, the striker encouraging others to join is looking towards the front but there’s no real animation in his look. Next to him we have another youngish man, in profile, who has his mouth open shouting slogans. Both these are bareheaded. The third of this small group is again in profile, again with his mouth open but what is different is that he is wearing a peaked cap. I wouldn’t have thought that such caps were normal wear for working class males at the time so perhaps here we have someone who has some official role in the factory, showing that it was an all-factory strike.

Above the heads of this group are three, clenched right fists, possibly from these men but also giving the impression that others are out of sight. Also here there’s a right hand raised in a mock-Fascist salute, the hand raised high and flat, pointed in the direction of the Italian soldiers.

The next in line is the torso of a woman, with her long hair taken up in braids, and wearing a shawl over her shoulders. Her left arm is bent and raised to the level of her head and her fist is clenched. She also has her mouth open in a shout.

Following the line, from right to left, of her raised fist are the heads of two women. They also have their hair taken up in braids, this presumably being a style common for working class women of the time. They are both in profile and are looking towards the front of the demonstration.

Above their heads is the forward edge of the banner demanding higher wages. It gets a bit crowded here. There’s the head of a male workers in front of the banner and below him there’s a larger figure of another male. He’s wearing a flat cap and is in profile, looking towards the back of the march, possibly talking to another male. He has his left arm raised, with the fist clenched and it’s possible to make out the muscles on his forearm.

To the right of the banner are further clenched fists raised in anger, two of a right hand and one of a left, there being no real consensus which arm should be raised in a Communist salute. Below the fists there’s the profile of another male striker and below him the torso of another male who is shown wearing a work apron, the first person so far depicted dressed in actual work gear.

Coming to the end of the sculpture now we have a line of three, from top to bottom, a female worker (again with her hair braided) and then the youngest of the whole frieze, a teenage boy and girl. The boy is full face and is just looking whilst the young girl has her mouth open shouting with the others. To enhance the impression that she is younger than the other women her long hair is worn in a pony tail with a ribbon tied at the end.

Tobacco Factory Strike Bas-Relief - right

Tobacco Factory Strike Bas-Relief – right

The final strikers are two males, both in profile. The higher one has his mouth open and his left arm raised as high as possible above his head, the fist clenched. His whole manner speaks of his anger at the situation. The last male is looking ahead and his left hand is grasping something flung over his shoulder.

The final image is one that declares that this is all going on in Durrës and that is the top of a crenellated tower. This is La Torra, a tower which was constructed as part of the city walls when the city was occupied by the Venetians during the 15th century. The tobacco factory used to sit just across the road from the southern part of the wall and the tower was only about fifty metres away. (The tower has now been converted into a bar, everything that can possibly be privatised going into private hands.) The crest for the Bashkia (local government) of Durrës also has the three crenellations of the tower as its central image.

The remainder of the bas-relief is text. In Albanian:

12 korrik 1940

Greva e punetoreve te ‘Stamles’ nje nga aksionet me te medha te qendreses antifashiste te klases punetore te Durrësit

This translates as:

July 12, 1940

The strike of the ‘STAMLES’ workers, one of the greatest acts of working class, antifascist resistance in Durrës

I was unable to find any date or indication of the name of the sculptor on this concrete bas-relief.

Tobacco Factory Martyrs Plaque

Tobacco Factory Martyrs Plaque

There was one more plaque on the wall under the sculpture. This was a war memorial, to those Partisans who were once workers at the tobacco factory. This reads:

Lavdi te perjeteshme deshmoreve te luftes nacionalçlirimtare, ish punetore te fabrikes se cigareve

In English:

Eternal glory to the Martyrs of the National Liberation War, former workers of the cigarette factory

In then lists 19 names, the top one of which is Maliq Muça, who had been declared Hero i Popullit (a Hero of the People). It’s not surprising that a factory where Communists had been working, even before the Italian invasion of April 1939, would also provide volunteers and fighters for the Partisan army.

Maliq was a Communist and he joined the Peze Çeta (the first guerrilla group to be established in the country, even before the declaration of a War of National Liberation at the Peze Conference of September 1942) so was a seasoned Partisan fighter. He was involved in confrontations with the invading Fascists, first the Italian and then the German, in many parts of the country. On 1st June 1944 his company of about 80 partisans was surrounded in the hamlet of Germaj, near Kavaja (to the south of Durrës). Overnight a combined force of German and Ballist (Nationalist collaborators) were able to call in reinforcements and thereby greatly outnumbered the Partisans. The Albanians refused to surrender and it was with a last grenade that a seriously injured Maliq was able to kill an officer and four other soldiers. He was also killed in the explosion.

Maliq Muco - 1922-44

Maliq Muco – 1922-44

I have no idea of the fate of this plaque, assuming it was destroyed at the same time as the bas-relief.

And now the sculpture has gone! Forever? As far as I’ve been able to understand, yes. It’s in one piece and it would take a lot of care and knowledge of such removal for it to have been done without causing irreparable damage. Even if the expertise was available the economic (and more importantly) political will wouldn’t have been, even though Durrës is nominally a Social-Democrat Bashkia. A possible place for it would have been the city’s Archaeological Museum (that was undergoing a major renovation at the time of the demolition of the factory) but that continues to concentrate on Ancient Roman artefacts, allowing no space for anything cultural from the Socialist period.

Durrës still has an art gallery (located in the main square by the town hall) where it is possible to see, when there’s no special exhibition taking place, examples of Socialist Realist paintings and sculptures but the museum that used to exist above the War Memorial was taken over by a British based Non-government Organisation as a library – in a city where there would have been libraries in every district, until looted when the country went mad in the early 1990s. So there was no obvious home for the sculpture once the building was no more.

Albanian College - Durres

Albanian College – Durres

So what has replaced the derelict factory? A monstrosity. This is the Albanian College Durrës, a huge building with neoclassical pretensions and totally out of place in this part of town. This is a theme that’s being repeated throughout the country. Private educational institutes claiming their credentials with the construction of enormous buildings – quantity surpassing quality.

Durrres War Memorial

Durres War Memorial

Durrës War Memorial

The overwhelming number of Socialist Realist monuments in Albania are constructed from either concrete or bronze. However, there are occasional variations from this norm and there are a few mosaics (though not on the massive scale of ‘The Albanians’ on the National History Museum in Tirana) including those in Llogara National Park and at the Durrës War Memorial.

This change of medium offers greater opportunities to the artists. Concrete and bronze are ideal for giving an impression of solidity, steadfastness and dignity. Mosaic offers the opportunity of presenting movement, human expression and a dynamic not easily depicted in the more ‘solid’ art forms. Also, importantly, mosaics provide an infinite variety of colour, the limit being imposed by the imagination of the artists involved.

What is depicted at the Durrës War Memorial is the entry of the National Liberation Army into the city on 14th November 1944, just three days before the official liberation of the country on the 17th.

Liberation of Durres - 14 November 1944

Liberation of Durrës – 14 November 1944

The Artists

As was not uncommon in the production of the monuments throughout the country the mosaic in Durrës was a collaborative work of three artists. We know their initials as they are represented in stone in the bottom left hand corner of the work – together with the date of completion, 1976. The problem is that finding out some of the most basic information about these exceptional works of art is sometimes equivalent to getting blood from a stone.

Artists initials and date

Artists initials and date

One of them is Nikolet Vasia (the NV). He came from Durrës, worked during the Socialist period in the city’s Archaeological Museum and was known to have worked in mosaics. Unfortunately, as with a number of other ‘artists’ from the period his level of commitment to Socialism was limited, to say the least, and given the opportunity after the chaos of the 1990s gave the weak excuse of ‘only obeying orders’ and until his death in 2011 just produced individualistic and banal pieces of work. He didn’t even seem to have any pride in this wonderful mosaic.

(The small municipal art gallery, in the same square as the Town Hall, bears his name and is worth a visit for those with an interest in Socialist Realism as the permanent exhibition consists of paintings, drawings and sculptures from the period. The gallery is only one room and temporary exhibitions will take all the space so things are very hit and miss. However, it is one of the few locations outside of the National Art Gallery in Tirana that still displays art from 1944-1990.)

The other artist is Gavril Priftuli. He was born in the province of Korçe but moved to Durrës when very young. He also worked in the Archaeological Museum – it seems that in the city this was the way that artists earned their living, doing something for the community. However, when things changed he moved quickly and opened the first private gallery in Durrës in 1993.

Nikolet Vasia and Gavril Priftuli worked together on some of the works in the Skanderbeg Museum in Kruja.

F SH I have still to identify.

The architect for the complex was Kristo Sitiris (1870-1853). Building began in 1947 and was, therefore, one of the first in the country. It is also unique in that it is the only Martyrs’ Cemetery in Albania to use the niches rather than tombs. Those commemorated were both those who died in combat and also those who died in Nazi concentration camps outside of the country.

As the mosaic dates from 1976 this means that it was a decision of the Albanian Cultural Revolution to embellish the site with the magnificent mosaic.

The Mosaic

The official name of the art work is ‘The Liberation of Durrës’ and measures 5.3 x 3.2 metres. It depicts a group of eight Communist Partisans entering the city on 14th November 1944.

We know it’s Durrës because in the top right hand corner we can see part of the crenellated Venetian city wall. This looks very much like that part of the wall known as the Torra which is down by the road that runs alongside the coast. (This tower, which has always offered the opportunity to see the inside of the walls has now been converted into a bar and cafe – whether it moves or not, whether it has any historic value or not, privatise it seems to be the mantra.)

We know they are Communists as all of them sport the red star on that caps. That’s slightly different from the other monuments described here so far. Normally there’s a mix of Communist and non-Communist soldiers, as was the make up of the National Liberation Army (NLA) after the Conference of Peze in August 1942. They are all armed (we have to assume that the woman at the back is so although no weapon is visible). The lead male has, in addition to his rifle, which is raised above his head in his right hand, a British mills bomb (grenade) attached to his belt. He also has a red scarf around his neck. (One of the advantages of colour is that here we can see what colour the stars and the neckerchiefs are whereas we just have to assume on the concrete and bronze statues.)

Behind the lead male is another man, moustachioed, with the barrel of his rifle peeking up over his left shoulder. He holds the flag that was to become the national banner of the country between 1944 and 1990, the double-headed black eagle with a gold star over the two heads, all on a bright red background. To his left is a female partisan, a rifle over her right shoulder, a bandolier over the same shoulder and a pistol, in its holster, attached to a lanyard around her neck. This would normally denote an officer in capitalist armies and I think (although perhaps not the best of ideas to emulate from the enemy) this was also the case in the NLA – it takes time to ditch the old as you attempt to build the new. If that’s the case it’s worth while mentioning that women held senior positions in the Partisan Army, where promotion depended upon merit and not class background.

Behind her is another male who looks like he’s carrying a heavy machine gun on his right shoulder. All these Partisans are in uniform, although there are various colours. Two of the other males in this group have whitish uniforms, on has a moustache. The other one has his light machine gun in his right hand and it’s pointing up in the air. I doubt whether he would have been firing but it’s the image we now see often when different armies or groups of soldiers enter a location in victory.

There’s another unusual, and almost impossible to depict in concrete or bronze, aspect with this male and that is it looks like he has a bandage around his forehead, with a bloody spot over his left eye. In war many die, even more are wounded.

Behind these two there’s the seventh of the group, of whom we only see the head. This is of a female partisan with long black hair. And she’s smiling. In fact all the Partisans are smiling, as are all of the civilians. Again this is something it’s possible to depict in a mosaic which, in a sense, makes the image more ‘human’. Emotions can be depicted with the varying use of colour.

The last of the Partisans is at the right hand edge of the mosaic. Over his left shoulder he has his rifle, the barrel pointing down and he has his right fist clenched in the revolutionary salute (something we saw a lot of on the Peze War Memorial) and his mouth is open as if he is shouting or calling out. His uniform is cream coloured and his bandana is of a deep red, similar to the colour of the flag.

So the scene is of Partisans who are happy that the fighting is all but over and the people of Durrës are happy that they are no longer occupied by foreign Fascist forces. We have to remember that it was in Durrës, among other Albanian port cities, that the Italian forces landed in April 1939. At that time the self-proclaimed ‘King’ Zog ran away to Britain and a small group of patriots, led by Kujo Ulqinaku (whose statue is close to the seafront) attempted to delay the invasion for as long as possible and lost his life in the process.

The lead male has his left hand on the shoulder of a young boy. What is interesting here is the colour of his eyes. When discussing other monuments I have mentioned how the all-Albania aspect of the liberation struggle is shown through the traditional clothing of those depicted. During my travels around Albania I have been surprised by the number of people, both male and female, who have such astonishing grey-blue eyes, a much greater incidence I have seen in any other country I might have visited. For a country with such a small population this is obviously a not inconsiderable genetic trait.

Albanian boy with grey-blue eyes

Albanian boy with grey-blue eyes

This young boy doesn’t look as if he has arrived with the Partisans, his dress is more civilian than military, but in his right hand, his arm hanging down, he carries a rifle – presumably taking the load off one of the victorious soldiers but also a reference that under Socialism, for success to be achieved, the fighters of the past have to pass the same consciousness of struggle on to future generations. The failure of Socialist societies in doing that having led to the disintegration of the glorious revolutionary successes of the 20th century.

The only civilian on the right hand of the picture is an older man, moustachioed, who is giving, and receiving, a double-handed hand shake with one of the soldiers.

On the left of the mosaic we have a collection of Durrës citizens.

From the extreme left we have a couple of musicians. The one in the front is in traditional Albanian dress, wearing a somewhat battered fez and sports a moustache. He is banging a lodra – a double-headed drum – with a thin drum stick, one skin of the drum facing us. Behind him is a younger man playing a surlja (an early type of clarinet) with the bell pointed up to the sky. The music creating a festive atmosphere to the proceedings.

The remaining people represented are what could well be a family. There’s an older man, balding, waving his cap in the air and next to the lead male partisan an older woman wearing the traditional headscarf and clothing. Then there’s a younger couple and three children, a teenager and (possibly) a younger sister (also dressed in traditional clothes) and a bare footed very young boy – the last two running towards the parade. In her hands the younger woman holds a bunch of flowers.

Here we have the sort of people, working class and peasantry, that would have to try to make something long-lasting of the victory gained by the Partisans. The gaining of liberty and the taking of State Power is only the beginning. It’s only then that the real struggle, the real challenge, the real problems have to be faced and overcome.

There’s a lot going on in this mosaic, a lot of movement and a lot of questions being asked. This is the principal monument in a Martyrs’ Cemetery so there’s an obvious connection between the living and the dead. Those who fell in the war are martyrs but it’s up to those still alive (and those yet to come) to decide if what they died for had meaning or not.

The construction of the mosaic

It’s well worth have a really close look at this mosaic. As yet I haven’t had the same opportunity to study the other mosaic monuments but from a cursory glance they seem to be made from multiple pieces of ceramic. The Durrës mosaic seems to be based more on the natural stone, with here and there pieces of terracotta, than classic ceramic tiles. These stones, which look at times like pieces of marble and pebbles from the beach, have been chosen for their size, colour and shape. The task of putting this together was immense but that of actually finding the right stones in the first place must have been greater. I’m sure the individual pieces had been chipped away to fit and this process can best be seen with the construction of the bunch of flowers.

Stone flowers

Stone flowers

In general the mosaic is in a good condition. The only sign of damage on my last visit in November 2014 was in the top left hand corner of the People’s Flag, where a handful of stones have fallen and there’s been a somewhat ham-fisted attempt to prevent the situation getting any worse.

In the small amount I’ve been able to read about Nikolet Vasia there has been no mention of this monumental (in more ways than one) piece of art. Why not when it’s a masterpiece is a mystery to me. At least it hasn’t undergone any State sponsored vandalism as has the mosaic in Skanderbeg Square in Tirana.

The Cemetery

Unlike most Martyrs’ Cemeteries throughout the country there are no graves here, rather the bodies have been placed in niches in the wall of the curved colonnade, up the stairs from the mosaic. There’s a small platform which looks out over the gardens and would be the place where official commemorative events would take place.

Above the colonnade is a stylised flag tied to rifle with bayonet attached. In large letters are the two words Lavdi Dëshmorëve – Glory to the Martyrs. The letters and the decoration are made of metal.

In the centre of the colonnade, with a background of yellow, stone slabs, is bust of an unnamed female partisan on a rectangular plinth. To her left is a marble plaque with gold lettering:

Lavdi të përjetëshme dëshmorëve tanë të rënë në fushën e nderit për çlirimin e atdheut tonë të dashur.

Eternal glory to our martyrs who fell on the field of honour for the liberation of our beloved motherland.

On the right of the bust, against a whitewashed background is a marble plaque with the letters:

Të rënë në kampin e përqendrimit ‘Mathauzen’

To those murdered in the Mathausen concentration camp

Followed by a list of names. The first is Kozma Nushi – Hero I Popullit (People’s Hero), a cadre of the Albanian Communist Party and one of the organizers of the National Anti-Fascist Front in 1942. All these anti-fascist fighters would have been captured and then transported to the concentration camp of Mathausen, in Austria, never to return.

Mathausen camp was for political prisoners, a slave camp, with the philosophy of extermination through labour. It existed from 1938 till the end of the war.

At the camp nowadays there’s a statue by Odhise Paskali (the Albanian sculptor), Monument to the Victorious Partisan (1968), which depicts a defeated Nazi soldier on the ground with a partisan about to disarm him of his luger pistol. A copy of this is in the Armament Museum in Gjirokastra Castle.

Monument to the Victorious Partisan

Monument to the Victorious Partisan

At the beginning of the left hand side of the colonnade, also against a white background is similar marble plaque with the words:

Të rënë në kampin e përqendrimit ‘Zemun’

To those murdered in the Zemun concentration camp

and then a list of names. These partisans would have been transported to another concentration camp. Zemun was originally a concentration and extermination camp in Croatia, on the outskirts of Belgrade. After 1942 it became a camp for captured partisans and members of resistance units from different parts of Europe.

The niches in the wall are faced in marble, the name of the deceased and (often) a picture of them some short time before their deaths as well as the year of birth and death. The Communists are indicated by a star on their caps in the photo.

Museum of the History of the Liberation War

The rooms above the colonnade used to house the local museum. This was either looted or just destroyed during the counter-revolution of 1990. Whatever its fate there’s no longer a museum to the anti-fascist war in the city. During its heyday veterans used to give presentations to young school children in the museum’s lecture hall.

The sign at the top of the stairs on the left hand side of the building indicating that this is now the location of ‘The British Children’s Library of Durrës’ but I never saw any children in the vicinity. The sign also looks like it had seen better days, fading as is the island at the western edge of Europe.

This library was originally ‘Dedicated to the memory of Diana, Princess of Wales’.

The placing of such symbols of imperialism in once Communist museums, cemeteries and public spaces is similar to the idea of the ‘extirpation of idolatry’ perpetrated by the Catholic Church during the invasion of South America.

The Gardens

When I first visited the site in 2011 the plants were allowed to droop over the edge of the platform and they were starting to obscure part of the mosaic. This has now been cut back and the gardens themselves now seem to be regularly maintained and are a pleasant oasis of calm, away from the noise of the traffic along one of the main streets of the city.

GPS:

N 41.31886804

E 19.44440503

DMS:

41° 19′ 7.9249” N

19° 26′ 39.8581” E

Altitude: 13.9m

How to get there:

This is simplicity itself. If you arrive in Durrës by either bus or (now the sadly neglected and infrequent) train you just come out to the main road and continue in the direction of travel you had been following before setting foot in the city, going roughly west. It’s about 800m from the bus/train station.