This lapidar consists of a bronze statue, half body, starting just below the waist, around about twice life size. The statue stands on a plinth, which is about one and half metres high. This plinth and statue are part of a general structure, the background of which is a huge, stylised flag – the dimensions of the backdrop are (very roughly) 4 metres high, 3 metres wide and ¾ metre deep. All the stonework will have a base of concrete and is faced with slabs of white-ish marble.
The statue is of a young man, who, by his posture, is moving towards his right, his head facing in that direction and with a determined look on his face. In his right hand he is holding a pistol. This could well be a Berretta M1915 (which was used by Vasil Laçi in 1941). His left arm is stretched out behind him, all the fingers on his hand spread wide, a stance to provide better balance for his intended action (which is an ambush on foot).
A Berretta M1915?
The gun in his right hand is not facing the target but is as if he has just pulled the gun from out of his clothing and it’s in the process of swinging around so that it will eventually make a straight line from the tip of the barrel, through both his arms to the tips of the fingers of his left hand.
There’s also the impression of movement from the fact that the scarf that he has around his neck is loose and it is flowing over his left shoulder. The left side of his jacket, which is unbuttoned, is also flowing out behind him providing the impression he’s rushing towards his right and the clothes are slightly lagging behind his body’s movement.
This is a statue of a young man with relatively short hair and of someone who’s living in the city as there are no elements of traditional Albanian dress in his clothing.
On ‘flag’, above its head and to the statue’s right, is a plaque which has the words;
Me mirnjohje njësitit gueril të Korçës të rinjve komunistë Midhi Kostani, Kiço Greço, që dhanë jetën për lirinë e atdheut.
With gratitude to the guerrilla unit of Korça, the young communists Midhi Kostani and Kiço Greço, who gave their lives for the freedom of the homeland.
Not the original inscription
However, this does not look like the original inscription. Just above the marble plaque there are a number of holes as if this is where individual, metal letters would have been attached to the wall. This was the more usual method of attaching an inscription. So far there’s no way of knowing (destroyed records during the counter-revolution of the 1990s) what the original description might been.
This takes on a specific importance here as information from other sources indicates that this statue was created by Kristaq Rama, and that it is supposed to be that of Vasil Laçi, who attempted to assassinate Victor Emmanuel III, in Tirana, in 1941. No confirmed date for its creation but probably mid-1970s.
However, Vasil’s name is not one of the two that are inscribed on the plaque.
He did have a connection with Korçe – his brother lived there – which is possibly one of the reasons why he may have been placed in the city. There’s no other reason why he should be where he is because he came from area around Sarande, in the south of Albania, and he spent some time before the assassination attempt in Tirana.
(If this is, indeed, a statue of Vasil Laçi then it’s not a surprise that he has been ‘written out of history’. Albanian authorities, in some – but by no means all – towns and cities in Albania have been attempting to obliterate the Socialist past and a statue commemorating an assault on the life of the puppet monarch from Fascist Italy might not fit in with the brown nosing that takes place in Albania towards the capitalist European Union.)
This statue is in very condition, as is the stonework which is part of the lapidar and there is no obvious damage in the marble facing – which is a pleasant surprise.
In the main, pedestrianised street, Bulevardi Shen Gjergji, of Korca, next to the main city library.
Many of the martyrs’ cemeteries in Albania are situated on hills above the towns and villages and this is certainly the case with the Martyrs’ Cemetery, Korçë, where the highest point is a fair hike from the centre of the town below. However, it’s worth the effort as, on a clear day, you have a fine view of the town, the fertile valley below and the mountains to the west as well as a fine example of Socialist Realist Art.
At the very top of the steps, with the tombs of the fallen partisans fanned out on either side of him, is a large statue of a male Partisan. Throughout the country there are a number of Martyrs’ Cemeteries that include such a stand alone, bronze statue. These include Ersekë, with yet another single male Partisan; Librazhd, where the statue is of a male and female; Lushnje, with a very charming statue of a kneeling female Partisan with a young boy; and Pogradec, where there is a group of three, two males and one female.
The statue is about twice life-size and he stands with his feet slightly apart, on top of a concrete plinth. He is dressed in the uniform of a partisan and wears a cap with the star on the front. Around his neck is a tied bandana – so, as is often the case, declaring his status as a Communist. On the belt around his waist there are three ammunition pouches (of five bullets each) in sight. On his feet he is wearing shoes rather than boots but as added protection against the elements he is wearing long, thick socks into which the bottom of his trousers are tucked, the sock reaching just to below his knees.
Martyrs’ Cemetery, Korçë
His left arm is stretched up to its full extent above him and the fist is clenched. This, to me, is the authentic Communist salute. His right arm is bent at 90 degrees and his right hand is tightly gripping the top part of the barrel of his rifle. This is a bolt-action rifle and the butt is resting on the ground, just before his right foot. He is looking down on the town of Korçë and into the distance where, at this height, it’s possible to see the mountains of Skrapar.
At the end of 2011 the general area of the cemetery, including the stepped approach was in a sad state. This included the statue, showing signs of wear and noticeable marks on the surface of the bronze. As with many of the Albanian lapidars there has been quite considerable renovation in the last year or so and the result of this is that the statue has had a very recent coating of gold paint.
The sculpture is the work of Avni Bilbili, Piro Dollaku and Ilia Xhano and was created in 1969. That’s early in the construction of Albanian lapidars and the Cultural Revolution. It was very common for there to have been a plaster statue in place initially, with a bronze statue coming later. I have not, so far, seen any pictures which indicate that in Korçë.
The only information I have about Avni Bilbili is that he is the creator of a monument to Naim Freshëri in Rruga Nëntori 28, in Korçë, in 1956.
Piro Dollaku and Ilia Xhano were joint creators of the magnificent Partisan and Child in Borovë. This sculpture, now beside the main road going through the village, used to be part of the main lapidar for the Borovë Martyr’s Cemetery, on the hill across the road. This was substantially remodeled but their bas-relief is now at the entrance gates to the cemetery.
Behind him are two, low, one-storey, rectangular buildings. The space between them is directly behind the statue. These are locked and it’s not, as far as I know, possible to go inside. As was the norm in Martyrs’ Cemeteries these would have been the small, local museum, displaying artefacts and photos from the National Liberation War.
As you look at the front of the statue the building on the left has the slogan; Lavdi Deshmoreve te Atdheut, which translates as; Glory to the martyrs of the homeland. This was the situation in May 2015. On my previous visit at the end of 2011 there was a ‘t’ at the end of ‘deshmoreve’. Today it’s still possible to see the shadow of the missing letter on the wall. I’ve been told that the ‘t’ is a more archaic grammatical form (although this is the first time I’ve come across this in all the places I’ve visited over the years) so this could be an updating of the term and, if done consciously, would have been part of the recent renovation.
On the wall of the building to the right there are 122 marble plaques. Each plaque has a name and two dates, the year of birth and death. I assume these are the names of those whose tombs are in the cemetery, the number would seem to correspond to that.
Although it’s difficult to get a feel when in the cemetery itself, standing beside the statue which is exactly in the centre, the tombs fan out on either side, somewhat like wings, spreading backwards. However, as part of the renovation an information board has been placed at the bottom of the main approach steps and here there’s a picture taken from the air.
Korca Martyrs’ Cemetery – information
The tombs have also been renovated. New marble replacing many broken slabs and the letters of the names of the Partisans being picked out in gold paint. They now look quite smart and being accorded the dignity they deserve. One thing that’s different from most of the cemeteries I’ve been to is that there are no stars on the tombs. On my 2015 visit I thought this was a consequence of the renovation (this eradication of the stars and the re-writing of history being evident in a number of places, such as the Saranda Martyrs’ Cemetery) but on checking my 2011 photos I find that they were missing then, although at that time I wasn’t that conscious of the norms throughout the country and so wasn’t looking as closely as I have developed of late.
And the whole area of the cemetery itself is much cleaner than a few years ago. There’s a tarmacked road just below the final flight of steps and all above that road has been cleaned up and repaired. The walls have been painted and the steps renewed. Below the road the steps are as they have been for a number of years, overgrown and the concrete breaking up, although there are signs that work was started to improve the area (but not completed) at the very start of the long trek uphill.
Extirpation of idolatry
Many Martyrs’ Cemeteries in Albania are built on hills. It’s a place of honour and also a reference to the fact that much of the fighting between 1939 and 1944 took place in the hills and mountains of the country. The hill in Korçë is close to the town itself and isn’t the highest in the immediate vicinity. Just to the south-east of the cemetery you can see a large, white cross on the top of a higher mountain, close enough to the town to be seen from the streets below.
Korca Martyrs’ Cemetery and white cross
You will see many of these if you travel around the country, normally on high points that can be seen for miles around. This is very reminiscent of the policy of the Catholic Church in many parts of the world. When the Spanish invaded Latin America in the late 15th and early 16th centuries they followed what they called a policy of the ‘extirpation of idolatry’. This resulted in the physical destruction or assimilation of any religious location encountered throughout the continent.
In Peru, where a special rock, tree, spring or any other natural phenomenon could have religious significance, this meant that those natural locations would be destroyed. The later building of a church was seen as sticking a knife into the heart of the indigenous culture. In 1988, just before Karol Wojtyla, the then head of the Catholic Church, was due to visit the country a large, white cross was erected on the hillside above the Andean city of Cusco. It was on this hill that the massive Incan temple of Sacsayhuaman used to be located, before being destroyed by the Spanish. This was a modern version of the ‘extirpation’.
It seems that the Catholic Church is still at it in Albania.
The cemetery is at the top of a hill to the east of the city centre. Go north along Bulevardi Republika, passing the monument to the demonstration against the Italian Fascists on the right and then turn right along narrow, cobbled Rruga Sotir Mero. At the top of the street go up the steps which take you to a small road, go left and then take the steep steps going up on your right. This is where the information plaque can be found.
Korça dark beer bottle and half full glass in a bar in Saranda, southern Albania.
Korça E zeze beer, Leke 150 – in a bar in the centre of Saranda, 4.5%
There is a normal blond, more available, lager type of Korça beer that I prefer to most of the other beers on offer, but this dark beer is in a different league.
It reminds me very much of the home-brewed beers I made a number of years ago (the practice to which I have recently returned).
It’s a dark beer with a burnt caramel smell and taste, which is a pleasant relief if you are a bitter drinker and are fed up with the lager beers you get presented when out of the UK. It’s a light beer when compared to the likes of British stouts, not as opaque and allows the light to pass through so it looks like fresh and sparkling. Not being a stout it doesn’t have that creamy sensation that comes with drinking something like a pint of draught Guinness and therefore the after-taste doesn’t linger as long.
On the other hand, in comparison to British Brown Ales (if you can find them) it’s not as sweet and I think you could drink a few more of the Korça before the UK brown ales became too much of a challenge. (This point is based upon memory as I can’t remember the last time I even drank a bottle of brown.) And, importantly, as a bottled beer, it’s not too gassy and doesn’t make you feel bloated. (As I re-read that I realised that most out-of-Britain piss poor lagers are not as unpalatable as their cousins in the UK. I can only assume that in Britain CO² is cheap, that’s why we get a surplus of it.)
On the Richter scale it’s not a strong beer but it gives the sensation that it’s much more powerful than indicated on the bottle.
Not as readily available in bars as the lighter, lager version from the same brewery and you might have to look for it, but I think you’ll find the search worthwhile if you’re successful.
My favourite beer, so far, in my three visits to Albania BUT still coming a poor second to a good British Bitter – my only concession to British nationalism.