Sarandë’s Martyrs’ Cemetery

Saranda Martyrs' Cemetery

Saranda Martyrs’ Cemetery

A number of Martyrs’ Cemeteries have a single female partisan as the principal statue, Fier and Lushnje are two that immediately come to mind. This was also chosen as the case in Sarandë’s Martyrs’ Cemetery.

This has recently been repainted so there is, as on other occasions, some doubt of the original intention of the artists (here there are two attributed). In some ways it does turn the statue into a bit of a comic caricature but at least it shows an attitude of care for the monument, however badly executed. Whatever the pros and cons of such ‘restoration’ I prefer this to the total neglect that other lapidars throughout Albania have undergone.

The single female is standing in victorious celebration. Her arms are held high over her head as she waves the banner of victory. In her right hand she grips hold of her rifle by the firing mechanism. From this part of her weapon, until just before the end of the barrel, the sleeve for the pole of the national flag has been pulled over the barrel and she keeps it in place by her hand. A few inches of the top of the barrel can be seen just above the top left hand edge of the banner.

Painted rifle

Painted rifle

Here is where there is some problem with (re)painting of the lapidars. It might be more acceptable if the work was done by professional artists or restorers rather than enthusiastic amateurs. Here the stock of the rifle has been painted brown – but so has the metal firing mechanism, the trigger guard and the trigger itself, and, unfortunately not with the greatest of care. It’s difficult to see if the protruding end of the barrel has been painted brown, or even red, but it’s certainly not the colour that a real rifle would have been. Here, I suppose, is a call that if the monuments are to be painted there is a commitment to accuracy.

The banner is the flag of the Communist led National Liberation Front and which became the national flag of Albania after Liberation (and the beginning of true independence for the country) on the 29th November, 1944.

This is a red flag with a black, double-headed eagle in the centre. Over the two heads there was a gold star. The eagle on a red background had been the symbol of independence in Albania since the time of Skenderbeu in the 15th century. With the success of the Socialist revolution the star was added, this being the emblem of the Communists in the war against fascism.

This flag is shown as if it is being blown in the wind and the partisan is holding the bottom left hand corner of the flag with her left hand. Where the flag billows in the wind is where the statue is first attached to the column in front of which it stands.

Vandalised flag

Vandalised flag

As is not unusual in those lapidars which have been ‘restored’ there has been a little bit of political censorship, a re-writing of history. If you look carefully you will see the outline of a star over the heads of the eagles but in the ‘restoration’ this has been filled in and in the repainting has just been coloured red and not picked out in gold as it should be if there was a respect for history. Not the first nor the last time we encounter such conscious political vandalism in present-day, ‘democratic’ Albania.

Now to the Partisan herself. She is standing in full partisan uniform. On her head she wears a cap which has been another victim of vandalism. When originally unveiled there would certainly have been the outline (of just plain plaster and almost certainly not painted) of a star at the front of the cap. There is very little sign of that here so I assume to avoid the possible thorny question of why re-write history it was just plastered over. To have been true to the original that star should have been picked out in red when the restoration/cleaning work was done.

Her very long hair (totally impractical for a Partisan) is braided on either side of her head and the braids join together to form one even longer braid just behind her neck. She wears of tight vest over which she has a jacket with strangely wide, loose sleeves which, if real, would roll down her arms to her shoulders. The bottom of her jacket billows out behind her, mirroring that of the flag, and is the second point of contact between the statue and the column behind.

Around her waist she has five ammunition pouches, each containing five bullets. Her trousers are tucked in at the bottom to long socks that come to just below her knees and on her feet she wears a simple pair of sandals. (There’s a study in itself of the footwear depicted on Albanian Socialist lapidars.)

She stands on a block which has been painted brown on the top and black on the sides. Why not an irregular surface to represent the hills and mountains of Albania, where most of the fighting took place, is due, I believe, to the date that this lapidar was created.

Artists initials and date

Artists initials and date

On the left hand side of the column can be found the letters LL LZH and AL HH together with the number 88 or 89 (I think 89). This I assume to be the letters of the names of the sculptor/architect of the monument but, so far, have been unable to identify them. That being the case this must have been one of the very last, if not the last, lapidars to have been created in the Socialist era. There had been in existence a much more basic lapidar for many years but towards the end of the 1980s, with other towns improving their monuments (such as Lushnje) Sarandë, presumably, thought to do the same.

However, the later lapidars started to take a different approach to how the issues of the past were represented. In a sense they became less confrontational, more appeasing as the strength of Albania’s Cultural Revolution waned, especially after the death of Enver Hoxha in April 1985. This meant, among other things, the symbolism that had been established in the 1970s (such as irregular surfaces to reference the mountains) began to be ignored and, more importantly, as a political consideration when it came to the role of an artist in a Socialist society, the names (initials) of the artists started to appear on their work.

The column behind the Partisan flares out slightly at the base then narrows when behind her to gradually widen as it gets to its summit, about the same distance above the flag as it is below it. Towards the top of the column there’s an arrangement of six red stars, of slightly different sizes, which could represent the constellation of Ursa Major, The Plough (although one star short). On the very summit there’s a large red star, a typical crowning glory on lapidars (although also the target for vandalism in many cases) and there as a symbol of Communism.

The Plough?

The Plough?

To the right of the main lapidar is a white, concrete, fluted column which widens out half way up to provide the support for a large concrete bowl. It’s also worth noting the presence of the palm trees, often in Albanian cemeteries and for the same reasons as they were placed in Librazhd Martyrs’ Cemetery.

There is a flight of steps on either side of the statue and the tombs are on 3 or 4 different levels, on rows beneath. The space for the tombs fans out on both sides of the statue causing it to be much wider by the entrance lower down the hill than it is a the top. On one level there are nine marble slabs upon which are inscribed the names of almost 150 Partisans who would have died in the area (or who were originally from the area and died elsewhere in the country) who don’t have an individual tomb. The cemetery is reasonably well-kept and the tombs tended to on a semi-regular basis.

Commemorating 150 Partisans

Commemorating 150 Partisans

The location at its inception would have been marvellous, outside and above the old town of Sarandë, looking down onto the Ionian Sea, with the island of Corfu in the distance (and the site of the notorious ‘Corfu Incident’) with citrus and olive groves all around.

Now the cemetery has been overtaken by the unplanned expansion of the town’s tourist infrastructure with apartment blocks or hotels (many incomplete) appearing on every conceivable plot of land, completely changing the atmosphere of the town – and not for the better.

At the very bottom, by the original entrance gates, is a one storey building which would have housed the local Liberation War museum – now abandoned and empty.

As with many of the Albanian lapidars what we see today has not always been the case. By 1971 there existed a tall, two-part monolith with a large panel at 90º to the column at the bottom. Although it’s not clear it looks as if on this panel the names of some of the Saranda Partisans were listed. This stood at the top of a long flight of steps. I assume it was in the same location but it would seem to indicate if that was indeed the case there was some major remodelling of the cemetery when the statue was added in 1988/9.

Martyrs' Cemetery, Saranda, 1971

Martyrs’ Cemetery, Saranda, 1971

Location:

It’s a little bit difficult to find as the area is now full of new hotels and apartment blocks. As you go up the steep road that takes you in the direction of Gjirokaster the cemetery is on the right, just after the junction with Rruga Skenderbeu (on the left). Once you know what you are looking for it stands out quite clearly amongst the tower blocks when you look over from the ferry port.

Lat/Long:

N 39.86958199

E 20.017721

DMS:

39° 52′ 10.4916” N

20° 1′ 3.7956” E

Altitude:

55.7m

Saranda War Memorial, Albania

Saranda War Memorial

Saranda War Memorial

Through its monuments and memorials you can tell a lot about a country, its history, its heroes, its respect for itself, the class relationships, the political balance of power, even the state of the economy.

And there are many examples to prove this hypothesis.

I remember reading a letter written by Vladimir Illyich Lenin asking, in no uncertain terms, why Tsarist memorials and street names still existed in Petrograd (as Leningrad was then known, and not the Germanic St Petersburg as it is now called) less than a year after the October revolution – see Lenin Collected Works, Vol. 44, p105.

I have also seen pictures of the statue of Carlos III being transported to storage on a horse and cart. Carlos Bourbon stood in the Plaza del Sol in the centre of Madrid but was taken down during the time of the short-lived Republic in the 1930s. He was reinstated by the Fascist Franco and still stands there to this day in the time of the so-called ‘democratic monarchy’.

The Plaze del Sol is the traditional meeting place for working class and left-wing Madrileños and the square has witnessed many demonstrations and sits-ins as the people protest the ever worsening economic situation in which an increasing proportion of the Spanish population are having to live. But this is not a problem for the present Bourbon family and Carlos sits on his horse looking down his not insubstantial nose at the hoi polio below with contempt. The situation of the Spanish people will not improve until he is again taken away in another horse-drawn cart, in pieces, to be melted down and the present day Bourbons are taken in a similar cart for an appointment with Madam Guillotine.

One of the images that went around the world after the United States led invasion of Iraq was the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in the centre of Baghdad. The Stars and Stripes flag that was originally covering Saddam’s face was quickly replaced by an Iraqi one (it wouldn’t do to give the impression that he was toppled by a foreign invasion force and not a ‘popular’ revolt) and the edited version is the only one that gets shown now. Imperialism has always re-written history.

In Britain the long-term sycophancy and obsequiousness of the British population is shown by the plethora of statues to different members of the monarchy and representatives of the ruling class that have oppressed and exploited the population over the centuries. To themselves and their struggles the working class have little to look to.

One of the finest is the monument to the ‘Heroes of the Engine Room’. This is on the Liverpool waterfront, just a few metres north of the Liver Building at the Pierhead. This was originally designed to commemorate the men who kept the lights working on the Titanic as it was sinking, having been sealed in to the engine room and with no possible chance of escape. It is still known locally as the ‘Titanic’ Monument, the name being changed to recognise that just over two years after the sinking of the Titanic hundreds of men died in the slaughter of the ‘Great War’ in similar circumstances. Britain is littered with statues and monuments to the incompetent and criminal generals who ‘master-minded’ that particular capitalist and imperialist enterprise but you’ll have to look far and wide to find any others to the ordinary workers turned warriors.

Monument to the Heroes of the Engine Room Liverpool

Monument to the Heroes of the Engine Room Liverpool

And following that conflict, again in Liverpool, there wasn’t enough money to pay for a permanent memorial to those who had died in the ‘war to end all wars’. They didn’t return to Britain to ‘homes fit for heroes’ and neither to a memorial to their dead comrades. Throughout the 1920s on Armistice Day (11th November) a rickety wooden construction was wheeled out on to St George’s Plateau in Lime Street, decked in red paper poppies for the short memorial ceremony. When there was a bit of money, collected in the main from ordinary working people, the city was provided with (to my mind) one of the finest – if not the finest – war memorial/cenotaph to found anywhere in Britain.

Liverpool Cenotaph Mourning Panel

Liverpool Cenotaph Mourning Panel

And that brings me to Albania.

During my visits to the country I have attempted to search out the monuments and memorials that were constructed in the period of socialism. Most have been neglected, many have been vandalised, some have been destroyed but many are still in existence and in their different ways tell the story of not only the past but the present in Albania. I will be illustrating and telling the story of those monuments in the future.

So the first one is the small, well maintained but almost hidden and not easy to find (if you don’t know where it is) war memorial in Saranda.

There were certainly memorials in the centre of the town but if they still exist I’ve yet to find them. The language problem (i.e., my inability to speak Albanian) means there are few people to ask and some that might know don’t necessarily pass on their knowledge. The construction that seeks to turn the place into a major tourist destination might have played a role, outright vandalism and reactionary elements would also have played their part.

When it comes to the war memorials I have difficulty in understanding why so many in Albania have been treated in the way they have. I believe the First World War to have been a disaster for the European working class but that doesn’t mean I advocate destruction of the war memorials that are in all but very few cities, towns and villages throughout the British Isles. I’d rather they had died fighting for themselves (as did the workers and peasants in what became known as the Soviet Union) but the lack of any anti-war, Communist leadership and the betrayal by the young Labour Party didn’t make any real and meaningful opposition to the war a viable proposition at the time.

So why have the Albanians allowed their history to be treated in such a shameful manner? More than 30,000 of their people died in the occupations by the Italian and German Fascists. The country’s economy was in pieces, thousands of homes had been destroyed and the isolation imposed upon the country by the victorious imperialist powers because they wanted their own independence meant that they had to build using mostly their own efforts – only the severely damaged Soviet Union coming to their aid.

I might find the answer on day, but I don’t have it yet.

But back to the Saranda memorial.

There are only two main routes out of Saranda (apart from the sea route to Corfu), the road to Butrint (the archaeological site dating back to the Greeks) and the Greek border or the road that leads to the rest of the country. It is by the side of this latter road you’ll find the memorial. The road rises steeply after leaving the coast heading up in the general direction of Lëkursi Castle. Once you get to the brow of the hill, with a view of the valley below and the mountains that you have to go over on the route to Gjirokastra to the north, the memorial is slightly above street level on the right, next to an ordinary house.

It’s a strange place for it to be and I’ve no idea if that is its original location or whether it’s been moved there in the last few years. The pillar looks as if it has been made of relatively modern materials, although the plaque with the names and the red star would be the originals.

This is the sort of modest war memorial can be seen all over the country, although some are difficult to find.

The inscription reads: Glory to the martyrs who fell in the liberation of Saranda on 9th October 1944.

‘Lavdi Deshmoreve’ (Glory to the martyrs) was the slogan that was ubiquitous during the time of Socialism, even being set in huge characters on top of the Palace of Culture (now the Opera House) in Skenderbeg Square in Tirana.

 

Impressions of Saranda, Southern Albania

View of Saranda from fast ferry

View of Saranda from fast ferry

At one time a quiet port in the south of the country, the Albanian town of Saranda gets the Benidorm treatment.

Saranda is one of the few towns where you can arrive from another country by easy, quick and readily available public transport, i.e., the fast ferry from Corfu, Greece. When I first made that journey I was looking forward to seeing a small town from the sea but the closer you get to your destination you see that ‘progress’ has already made its mark on the town.

Like the rest of the world the town is in the mad dash for the tourist dollar/pound/euro/leke, you name it they want it. This has meant that over recent years there has been a rapid increase in construction and this has been done in a seemingly unplanned manner. Or if there is planning there are few attempts to maintain what would have been the charm of the small Mediterranean sea port.

From the sea you are aware of the buildings slowly creeping up the high hills that confine the town along a narrow stretch of coast. One of the problems is that many of these are incomplete, with little sign that the buildings will ever be completed. Many of them appearing on the slopes are obviously after a space where no one is able to build in close proximity to spoil the view across the Ionian Sea towards Corfu. This includes constructions that sit on or close to the summit of the hills, something which other Mediterranean countries are starting to make illegal as it spoils the look of the countryside.

Although there doesn’t seem to be the same reaction to illegal/unplanned/spontaneous construction in Saranda as in Ksamil the blot on the landscape is even greater. This is even more evident along the road which heads south from the town towards Butrint and the Greek border. But this explosion in construction is also taking place in the centre of the traditional town.

Here the new construction has had the effect of basically ‘hiding’ the old town from any visitors, perhaps not on purpose but certainly as a consequence of the mad rush to turn the town into a popular tourist destination. And this small area that remains untouched (but for how long I don’t know) is only a 2 or 3 minute walk from the town’s main square.

Obviously developed in a time before the level of car ownership that now exists the area is a relatively quiet and pleasant oasis, although some drivers will try to get up any road, however narrow and however low their driving ability. But it does offer an insight to what the town would have been like 20 to 30 years ago. The houses seemed to be relatively self-contained in that many have gardens and if you pass by at the right time of year you will be welcomed by the smells from the orange blossom, the smell of ripening figs or just the scent from jasmine and a whole variety of herbs, so different from the almost sterile area alongside the seafront promenade.

And remarkably free of litter. The random dumping of rubbish is a real problem throughout Albania but I got the impression in these few streets that there was an element of pride in the neighbourhood, unfortunately lacking so often, and you’re not ploughing through piles of litter.

And an ‘introduction’ to the post-Communist resurgence of superstition.

Most writers of the guide book entries for Saranda seem to like the seafront, but I’m not so inspired. Bars and restaurants are being built over the beach (which is already very narrow) and denying any public access. There’s also an extremely adventurous (and I would have thought a bit pie in the sky) plan to develop this seafront/promenade area, with even an Olympic size swimming pool. Not, I think, in my life time.

Now a few ‘secrets’ not mentioned in any of the guide books, so a bit of a ‘Left Side of the Road’ exclusive!

If you’re into street markets there’s a daily market hidden away behind the buildings, a stones throw from the central archaeological square. With the sea at your back go up Rruga Vangjeli Pandi, the one beside the synagogue/basilica and effectively the ‘bus station’. Cross over Onhezmi and pass the taxi rank. About 50 metres on the left there’s a dead end road which seems to just go to a car park. Go up this a short way and then look for an alley way to the left, behind the new buildings on Rruga Onhezmi. This is the start the general market that’s open every morning, closing down at around 13.00/14.00. I’m not into such markets but for general bits and pieces is probably your best bet, although I’m sure you have to bargain (again something that’s not for me).

Also, if you are in Saranda when there’s a ‘r’ in the month and like mussels you can buy them from street sellers who congregate on Rruga Onhexmi, just above Central Park. The mussels have been cooked and shelled and are sold stuffed into what were once water/soft drinks bottles. I know this sounds dangerous, shellfish can really hit you for six if you get a bad one but this is where the restaurants get their mussels and the reputation seems quite high. They are good and come from the floating shellfish racks you see in the lake that’s on the left side of the road as you head towards Ksamil or Butrint. This lake is kept surprisingly clean when you compare it with other water sources throughout Albania not least, I’m sure, due to the value of the cultivated mussels.

Although I consider these mussels to be OK you have to make up your own mind about the risks. That’s my disclaimer.

The fresh food market is along Rruga Ionian, the street that runs parallel and closest to the coast. This starts to close down around 13.00/14.00. There are also a fresh fish stalls in the street. At the end of this street, by the huge tree in the centre of the intersection, is the bus stop for the bus to Butrint.

I hope that I don’t give the impression that Saranda is a place to avoid. It’s pleasant enough but not special for me and I don’t have the same approach to the place as other writers who might be more into holiday resorts, with their bars and street restaurants. It doesn’t, perhaps, help that my visits there have always been in the off-season, and that presents a different face to visitors.

Despite that Saranda is a pivotal place for visiting Ksamil, Butrint, Syri i Kalter (the Blue Eye), the Dema Monument, the small war memorial, and, at a stretch for a day trip, Himara and Gjirokastra.

The port is also the departure and arrival point for the fast hydrofoil ferry between Albania and Corfu.