Independence Day – 29th November 2021 – in Gjirokaster

Gjirokaster Martyrs' Cemetery - Liberation Day 2021

Gjirokaster Martyrs’ Cemetery – Liberation Day 2021

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Independence Day – 29th November – in Gjirokaster

Albania celebrates two ‘independence’ days. The first, on 28th November, is the anniversary of when Albania ‘gained’ its independence from the Ottomans with the signing of an agreement in Vlora in 1912. But this was sham independence (although it was still celebrated during the Socialist period and Enver Hoxha was very much involved in the design of the huge lapidar to commemorate the event which exists in that city) as nothing significantly changed for the vast majority of the population. The second was much more meaningful and that occurred on the 29th November 1944. That was the date when the last of the Nazi invaders of the country were either dead or had surrendered.

There’s very much a political divide when it comes to celebrating these respective dates.

The ‘right’, the reactionaries, will make a big deal out of the 28th as all countries need something to which they can attach their identity. For them the period between 1944 and 1990 was a disaster as the Party of Labour of Albania led the people in the construction of Socialism and that necessarily meant stamping down on private wealth and selfishness. They will, therefore, ‘ignore’ any commemoration of the 29th.

The ‘left’ will probably celebrate both days but the one on the 29th will be of more significance. Much of what was gained in the country following that date in 1944 has now been lost. Even the ‘left’ governments that have been in power since 1990 have merely presided over the restoration of capitalism and all governments have effectively given up any independence the country had, either the 1912 version or the true independence of 1944 – to not even the highest bidder. Anyone, be it the European Union (EU), the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO), the various brands of mysticism or companies from anywhere in the capitalist world can come in and do whatsoever they like. The only response from the political parties (and, it must be said, the population in general) is ‘please sir, can we have some more?’

But, sadly, neither of these dates seem to be of any importance to the vast majority of the population. Certainly when it comes to attending any formal celebration.

In Gjirokaster, in 2021, the 28th involved a wreath laying ceremony at the lapidar to the Cajupis. These were independence fighters against the Ottomans in the 19th century. Even this innocuous lapidar was submitted to vandal attacks at some time after the victory of the counter-revolution in 1990 but a few years ago it was cleaned up and access to it made much easier so this is why the town now has a rallying point for pre-Socialist celebrations.

On the other hand the commemoration of the 29th takes place in the Martyrs’ Cemetery, which is on the edge of the new town, close to the north-south main road. This was the place where the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of the town took place on 18th September 2019.

In 2021 the commemoration was no more than a wreath laying ceremony – so not significantly different from the event the previous day. There were formal wreaths from the local municipality and a number of political parties on the ‘left’ – but nothing from the so-called ‘Democratic Party’, a bunch of fascist inclined individuals who regret that the Nazis lost the battle for Tirana. There were also a couple of individual offerings.

In the past, during the Socialist period, such events would have been crowded and highly organised. The tradition was that members of the Young Pioneers would be standing next to the (empty) tombs and would be charged with laying a single flower on each of them at one point in the ceremony. (Even though these monuments to those who died in the fight against fascism are called ‘cemeteries’ no bodies are interred there, the vast majority of those who died having done so high in the mountains throughout Albania, their remains being lost to nature.)

However, now at such events the individuals who receive a token of respect are only those who still have family members close by and who respect the sacrifice they made. This meant that only a handful of tombs received a floral tribute.

Amongst the ‘tombs’ are two of the young female Partisan fighters, Bule Naipi and Persefoni Kokedhima, who were murdered by the Nazis in a public execution on July 17th 1944, a few short months before the liberation of the town. These young women were 22 and 21 respectively. However, their sacrifice wasn’t remembered in any significant way with only a single flower being laid on Bule’s tomb.

And the ‘commemoration’ was over in less than 15 minutes – about the same time of the event the previous day.

One interesting thing that happened, when most people had left, was that a wreath laid by the local police was removed from the collection of wreaths at the centre of the lapidar and moved so that it stood alone. I assume some sort of political comment but don”t know exactly what.

I assume that such commemorations will take place in other Martyrs’ Cemeteries throughout the country but that could well be dependent upon which political faction controls the local municipality.

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Nexhmije and Enver together in Kombinat

Enver and Nexhmije - Kombinat

Enver and Nexhmije – Kombinat

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Nexhmije and Enver together in Kombinat

Every time I’m in Tirana I try and make a visit to the cemetery on the western outskirts of the city where the remains of Enver Hoxha are buried. The area is known as Kombinat – Factory, after the huge Stalin textile factory that used to be exist in the zone. The main entrance used to be through the arch (which is really all that still exists of the factory) on the western side of the big square in front of the Bashkia. In the middle of this square there used to be a statue of Comrade Stalin, standing on a tall plinth. That particular statue was removed and placed behind the National Art Gallery in Tirana. (The Gallery is inaccessible at the moment, whilst the building undergoes refurbishment, so what will happen to those statues when the building reopens is not known.)

When Shoku Enver died in 1984 he was initially interred next to the statue of Mother Albania in the National Martyrs’ Cemetery in the hills above Tirana. As the reaction gained more force he was removed and placed in the city’s municipal cemetery. His place beside the symbol of a free and independent nation being taken by a mixture of fascists, renegades, collaborators and ‘country-sellers’.

The grave is not too difficult to find and directions of how to get to Kombinat, the cemetery and then the grave were posted some years ago.

Normally there are a few flowers, either real or artificial, and sometimes a more complex wreath depending upon the time of the year, an anniversary of his birth and death, for example, and on my visit in the early part of December 2021 there was a wreath which had been laid there on the 29th November, the date of final defeat of the Nazis in 1944. That date signalled the real independence of Albania and the beginning of the construction of Socialism.

The Albanian version of the experiment ended in 1990 when the counter-revolution gained the upper hand and Enver’s statue, that stood in Skenderberg Square in Tirana, was pulled down.

The large, red, marble statue that bore his name and dates was later used as the main memorial to the handful of British soldiers who died in Albania during the Second World War. This cemetery is in Tirana Park, conveniently close to the memorial garden to the dead of the German invaders.

The independence that so many had fought for (and for which many brave men and women) gave their lives – celebrated by revolutionaries on 29th November – is now a thing of the past. The present leaders, of whatever political colour, make Oliver look like a revolutionary, begging at the feet of the capitalist powers for whatever stale crumbs they no longer need from their table. This was clearly shown in late December 2021 when the US ambassador to Albania, together with a representative from the European Union gave their verdict on the country’s efforts to combat ‘corruption and maladministration’ in order to be invited into the capitalist club – but only as minor, insignificant and ‘non-speaking’ members.

However, there has been one significant change at the cemetery since my last visit. Nexhmije, Enver’s wife and comrade in arms, one of the first members of the Albanian Communist Party (later to be re-named as the Party of Labour of Albania), and Partisan fighter during the National Anti-Fascist Liberation War, died on the 26th February 2020 and she now lies next to Enver. The cemetery was full when Enver was moved there so someone must have been moved to allow for Nexhmije to lie alongside the great Albanian leader.

So if you visit in the future you will need to take two flowers.

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Consequence of the declaration of Albania as an ‘atheist state’ in 1967

Anti-Orthodox Church

Anti-Orthodox Church

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Consequence of the declaration of Albania as an ‘atheist state’ in 1967

A photograph of a painting in the Gjirokaster Castle Museum gave rise to some thoughts about religion.

The painting (above) was created in 1975 by M Jorgji. Unfortunately, to date, I have no more information on the artist. Neither do I know whether the painting still exists and if it does where it might be – I’ve only seen a photograph of it.

In 1967 the Peoples’ Socialist Republic of Albania declared itself an ‘atheist state’ and what followed was an anti-religion campaign – and this painting is all part of that propaganda war.

So before going any further it will be important to put the images and message in this painting in context.

The words on the red banner at the top state, in Albanian;

Gjithe Partia dhe vendi duhet te ngrihen ne kembe, te djegin mezjarr e t’i kepusin koken cilido qe merr neper kembe kighin e shenjte te Partise per mbrojten e te detyrave te grave dhe vajzave

this translates, into English, as;

The whole Party and the country must rise to their feet, burn fiercely and behead anyone who tramples on the sacred law of the Party for the protection of the rights of women and girls

Although the banner doesn’t state specifically this is particularly directed against the Orthodox Church – although it could just as well as have been directed against the Catholics or the Muslims, the other two religions/versions of the mystical ‘faiths’ that existed in Albania at the time.

We know it’s the Orthodox Church on trial as, slightly separated and alone, in the centre of the painting is an old, partially bald, bearded priest dressed in a black cassock. He’s lacking his hat which such priests are normally seen wearing whilst in public – all religions have their crazy dress quirks. His lack of a hat indicates a lack of status in the community in which he sits and who all look at him in destain.

Because this attack on the ‘church’ is directed against the Orthodox Church we can assume that we are probably in the south of the country – the Catholics were more dominant in the north, centred around Shkodra (and were more friendly to the Nazi invaders in the 1940s). As I’ve seen this image in Gjirokaster it’s possible that the event is depicted as taking place there or at least in the southern part of the country, although kapart from the stone arch (typical of Gjirokaster) I can’t see any direct references to the city.

Although there are not only women surrounding the disgraced priest they are dominant in the image, which fits in with the slogan on the banner. The abusive priest is being faced by the women he (or his homologues) have abused in the past. In 21st century parlance this priest is facing his ‘#MeToo’ moment.

So how are we supposed to react to this image. Do we side with the ‘vulnerable’, dejected old man who sits head-bowed, alone and separate from the rest of the people? Or do we side with the mass of women who obviously have a grievance with what he has done in the past? Obviously, the message on the banner and the overwhelming presence of women and girls suggest that the priest is not the victim but the perpetrator who has, finally, been brought to book.

And that shouldn’t be a surprise. For centuries, no millennia, those who hold religious office have used the so-called uniqueness and privilege of their position to abuse those who are powerless for their own selfish and puerile ends under the guise of exceptionality. It was happening all over the world in all those ancient societies which weren’t even aware that other cultures, doing the same, even existed.

Theocratic societies followed the same path of the abuse of power wherever they sprouted – and they sprouted everywhere. And everywhere they existed girls and young women would have been their principal (but not only) target.

In European societies we only have to look at the activities of the various brands of Christianity and their abuse of power with the likes of their witch-hunts and Inquisitions. The two main streams of the so-called ‘Christian’ faith – the Catholics and Protestants – ‘threw stones’ at each other but, in reality, they were both as vile as each other.

We don’t have to look too deeply to see that this situation has been going on, continuously, for centuries. The abuse scandals which single out those in the religious community, of whatever colour, appear on an even daily basis. And those are not just historical abuses that had been hidden by the various hierarchies but are continuing to this day. With Islam as we are presented with their abuses on a daily basis, whether it be in countries where they are the dominant religion (e.g., Afghanistan) or in western European countries where ‘Christianity’ might be dominant (so-called ‘honour’ killings).

Many religions argue the ‘bad apple’ gambit – it’s not the faith itself, it’s bad practitioners of that faith. But that doesn’t accept that all religions are a power structure that seeks to maintain the status quo. For all the cosmetic changes that might have been made in recent years that structure has not, is not now and will not, in the future, change substantially. That’s the same for all the Abrahamic faiths but it’s not so different in those more ‘esoteric’ religions of the east. It’s all about power.

Whereas capitalist societies are quite harpy to live with even the ‘bad apples’ – after all, capitalism is all about abuse of the poor by the wealthy and powerful – the socialist society that the Albanian Party of Labour sought to create between 1944 and 1990 decided that such stupidity, ignorance and backward thinking needed to be, had to be, challenged. Hence the atheism campaigns and the likes of this painting.

Ultimately that particular campaign wasn’t a success. Why is something that needs to be studied in order to learn the lessons for the future.

In present day (2020s) Albania there are more religious buildings being constructed than you can shake a stick at. Whether there’s the population to ‘justify’ such a vast number of places is debatable. I’ve yet to see, anywhere in Albania of whatever variety of metaphysical thinking, that the masses are flocking to the various ceremonies that take place on a daily/weekly basis.

Yes, you’ll go into a catholic church and see someone praying for some higher being to come up with a miracle and to provide the wherewithal to pay the bills that the present capitalist society in Albania fails to produce. But do they really believe? Or is it just being used as a crutch for the weak?

Historically religion has been crucial for colonialist and imperialist expansion. In Central and South America it was said that ‘When the Europeans came we had the land and they had the cross. Now we have the cross and they have the land’. The Catholic Church followed an explicit policy of the ‘extirpation of idolatry’ in South America which meant the forced conversion (or death) of the ‘heathens’ and the physical destruction and annihilation/suppression of anything that was sacred to the indigenous peoples. As had been done with Roman structures in Europe the religious centres/locations in a country such as Peru had churches constructed on them (a clear show of who was in control and who held the power) or they were destroyed – such as particular rock formations or fountains, for example, which were the sacred places of a non-monotheist culture such as that of the Inca.

And this wasn’t just something that occurred in the early days of colonialism in Peru. Prior to the visit of the fascist pope Karol Woytyla, in 1985, a large cross was constructed in the area of Sacsayhuaman in the hills above Cusco. Here was a modern day example of ‘extirpation’ with the sinking of a Christian symbol into the heart of a pre-Columbian site.

But it wasn’t just the Catholics who carried out this cultural vandalism and destruction of anything that was considered ‘uncivilised’ in the pre-colonial world. Although known about for centuries the forced assimilation of indigenous children through their ‘education’ in religious schools – which sought to inculcate European values into the conquered peoples – also included the murder and secret burial of countless indigenous babies and children. This genocidal approach to the original population of the colonial countries is now being unearthed (literally) in countries as diverse as Ireland, Canada and Australia.

So really, when we consider the anti-clerical campaign in Albania from 1967 to 1990 the question we should be asking is not ‘why did it happen?’ but ‘why didn’t it happen elsewhere?’

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