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May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
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The border town of Kukes lies 125 miles north of the Albanian capital, Tirana—a six-hour drive over a bad road through the mountains. I set out for Kukes on a cold rainy morning from the Hotel Europa Rogner. My ride was a rented Nissan Patrol driven by a 21-year-old Albanian driver named Tani and a 33-year-old translator-fixer named Genc, who said he'd attended Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism four years before. (Later on we gave him the nickname "Fountain of Misinformation.") Sandwiched with me in the back were two freelance photographers I'd met in the VIP lounge on La Vikinga: Lahcene, an Algerian-born Frenchman who spoke no English, and Brian, a ponytailed native of Toronto who had been scratching out a living in Israel. Both had arrived in Albania with a couple hundred dollars in their pockets and no guarantees of work, and they were grateful for the free ride up to the border, where everything was happening.

We drove through the crowded center of Tirana, past wild juxtapositions—Mercedes-Benzes and donkey carts, peasants from the mountain Geg tribe wearing traditional conical white hats, women with designer sunglasses and DKNY handbags—and were soon driving north through the Albanian countryside.

I had spent the previous two days rushing around the capital trying to arrange transit to the northern frontier. Tirana was a long day's journey from Kosovo, but reminders of the war in progress had been everywhere. A huge white banner strung in front of the neoclassical opera house in Skenderbeg Square celebrated "NATO in Kosovo." At the packed bar of the Rogner Hotel, where most of the press was staying, a television set tuned to the government station showed stirring footage of KLA guerrillas marching to the front, with martial music in the background. Following it was a program showing the 1989 trial and execution of Nicolae Ceausescu, played in its entirety, evidently intended as a cautionary tale of what might happen to the Serb tyrant. War talk dominated at the town's three or four decent Italian restaurants, its outdoor cafés off the square, and at Bar John Belushi, named after the late Saturday Night Live comedian, whose father had been an Albanian immigrant.

The highway outside Tirana soon narrowed into a ribbon of tarmac clogged with fume-belching trucks and buses. Most of the ugly concrete architecture seemed either half-finished or half-collapsed. And everywhere lay junked automobiles—huge piles of rusted-out carcasses that lined the road and filled yards and vacant lots. But a new touch had been added: A small white satellite dish protruded from nearly every window of every apartment building, clinging to the exterior like barnacles on a ship bottom. The dishes cost about 30,000 leks—200 American dollars, Genc said—and nearly every Albanian now aspired to owning one.

They were almost as ubiquitous as Enver Hoxha's bunkers: gray domes of poured concrete set on wide circular bases. Each had loops of rusted iron and a slot for a sniper. Solitary mounds poked up here and there among the dilapidated shops and houses on the roadside. Whole legions of them swept in symmetrical rows across hilltops or lay in clumps in the fields. Many had begun to crumble, stank of urine, and were scarred with anti-Communist or pro-KLA graffiti. Children climbed on some. A few had even been turned into bars and tea shops. For the most part, the Albanians seemed to take no notice of them. They were a permanent part of the landscape, like giant, bombproof mushrooms.

The Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled from 1945 until his death in 1985, had built hundreds of thousands of these bunkers—perhaps almost a million—as a defense against invasion from his imagined enemies. Hoxha was such a true believer that he broke with the Soviet Union, and then China, accusing each of straying from the practice of pure communism. Growing increasingly reclusive and paranoid, he sealed Albania's borders, outlawed religion, collectivized farms, banned private property, and maintained total control of his people through a network of spies, secret police, and ubiquitous checkpoints.

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