When Crossing Borders Was A Death Sentence For Albanians – OpEd


Crossing borders has become safer for Albanians, but many still are haunted by the new, less visible, frontiers of a capitalist and racist Europe.

By Fabio Bego

From January 1 this year, Kosovo citizens were finally able to travel in the passport-free Schengen zone without going through bureaucratic procedures in foreign embassies. They were the last people in the Balkans to obtain this right and were preceded by Albanians who attained it in 2010. Analysis of Albanian illegal border crossings during the communist era and in its aftermath shows that the abolition of visas was the outcome of a long-term struggle against biased surveillance and profiling systems that still affect people’s lives.

Turning the frontier into a ‘death zone’

Illegal border crossings in Albania started after World War I when frontiers separating the country from the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes – later Yugoslavia – and Greece were fixed by the Great Powers. Those left on the Albanian side were separated from traditional mobility circuits and were exposed to famine and violence. Illegal border crossings became a necessity. After the end of World War II, the break in Albanian-Yugoslav relations in 1948 and civil war in Greece turned the borderlands into one of the most dangerous places in the Balkans. Borders and borderlands were strictly controlled by the Albanian army, initially as a means to prevent attacks from the outside. From the 1970s on, they mostly served to prevent Albanians from escaping.

The communist government created the Border Forces in 1945. An area known as “the border belt” (brezi kufitar), was instituted along the frontier to prevent the free circulation of non-local inhabitants. Soldiers moved on foot, motorbikes, and boats, according to the terrain. Their work was facilitated by tools and technologies such as the “soft belt” (brezi i bute) – a strip of rammed earth that preserved tracks – and the “electric-signalling obstacle”, also known as klon. The klon was a fence installed hundreds of metres before the frontier. It emitted a signal when someone touched or cut its wires. The space between the klon and the frontier was a death zone. Even if trespassers dodged the guards, they could eventually be captured by frontier dogs. The most effective means to stop illegal migration was the bullets of the AK 56 machine gun, the frontier soldiers’ standard weapon.

Authorities believed defence of the border started in the hinterland. The government adopted harsh laws to dissuade people from trying to escape. According to the penal code, any illegal crossing from inside out was an act of betrayal. The punishment ranged from ten years to death. Trespassers were referred to as “enemies”, “agents” or “bandits”.  The local population was mobilised to help the authorities. They were asked to report suspicious persons and form “voluntary forces” in order to chase those who tried to cross the borders. The Ministry of Interior monitored persons with “liberal” tendencies and “bad” biographies who were thought to be likely to escape.

The defence of the border was incentivized by the cult of the frontier, an essential communist-era nationalist myth. Borders were sanctified by the blood of soldiers who were killed in combat against foreign armies and political dissidents. Several monuments commemorating their sacrifice were built in the borderlands, and columns marking the boundaries of the state became a central element of the border mystique. They were called “the pyramids”. The border became a popular theme in art and culture. In November 1961, an art exhibition was inaugurated in Tirana to celebrate the heroism of frontier guards who were compared to national figures the size of Skanderbeg. Ironically, the author of some of the works, Zoi Shyti, crossed the borders himself illegally a few years later.

The ‘art of illegal border crossing’

The strict measures adopted for guarding the borders did not stop people from trying to cross them. The “art of border surveillance” (Jorgo Qirici, Ruajtja dhe mbrojtja e kufirit shqiptar, 2017) was countered by the art of border crossing. In September 1956, 56 people from the village of Germenji crossed into Greece and took with them a flock of 900 cattle and 40 burden animals loaded with material. Attempts to flee the country increased in the late-1960s, especially among the younger generations. People studied the terrain, sought the support of local populations and attempted to pass the klon with various tools, such as ladders. Some people used cars to pass through the checkpoints at high speed; others hid inside trucks and boats.

According to Jorgo Qirici, between 1966 and 1975, 526 persons tried to cross the borders. Only 166 were captured. One of those who escaped was Demir with whom I spoke in Tirana. Born and raised in the capital, his family came from Steblevë, a village on the border with North Macedonia. When he finished high school, Demir was denied the right to go to university to study architecture because his family were known to the regime as former supporters of king Zog, and the party gave priority access to higher education to students from working class families with “clean” biographies. Instead, the state sent Demir to work in an electric plant at Vau i Dejës. His disappointment convinced him to go to Yugoslavia and find his aunt who lived in Skopje. “All day and all night I thought about leaving,” he told me. The wedding of a relative gave Demir the chance to go to Stebleve and get closer to the border.

Ideas and plans of escaping often stemmed from conversations with friends. People talked about politics, anti-conformist music, films and other “subversive” topics. The fear of being snitched was big, but, according to Demir, people would have gone crazy if they’d kept everything inside. He confessed his intentions to a friend who gave Demir the names of his relatives in the town of Dibra, just across the border. Demir went to Steblevë at the end of September. On the 27th, he left the wedding, and followed his cousin who grazed sheep near the frontier. Demir could spot the “soft belt”. It was a rainy day. The sheep had gathered because it was cool. Demir waited for the right moment and crossed the frontier.

After spending the night near the border, Demir ate some apples and started marching towards Dibra, 25 kilometres away. He found the house of his friend’s relatives and told them that he wanted to go to Skopje. They offered him shelter for the night. Demir slept until the afternoon, unaware that those he trusted were in fact “digging his grave”. The next day, they took him to the Yugoslav police. Demir explained that he was politically persecuted and that he had come to Yugoslavia to stay with his aunt and to study. He was sent to a re-educational camp in Idrizova, near Skopje, where stayed for four months and was not allowed to contact his aunt.

One day, the police told him that his request to study had been accepted and that they would bring him to Belgrade. It was a vicious lie. Instead, they sent him to the frontier post of Qaf Thanë. “This was the end of my life,” Demir bitterly told me. The Albanian border guards brutally beat him. The torture continued in the prison of Tirana where the investigator, a sadist, Isa Halilaj, hit him with a metal stick. When he was brought to the tribunal, he was so emaciated that his mother could not recognize him. The court gave him ten years. He spent four years in a prison camp in southern Albania and six years in the infamous prison of Spaç where he worked in mines.

But prison and death sentences did not stop Albanians from planning to escape. Archival documents show that many people convicted for border crossing tried again when they had an opportunity. In the 1980s, the regime began crumbling. The economy was in decay. A report from 1981 states that the majority of the persons who had tried to escape were from the “poor” classes, indicating the structural failure of the socialist state.

Albanians lose patience as communism collapses in Europe

Petro was in his early twenties when he decided to escape. He could not stand living in a state that offered him little prospect of self-accomplishment, and where party sycophants told him how to cut his hair. Many people of his generation felt that they were wasting their lives in Albania. The pressure to leave was summarised in the expression “o burra te çlirohemi!” (“Men, let’s free ourselves!”) Petro went to the borderlands in October 1988 when a friend invited him to a wedding in Zagrad, in the region of Dibra. Inebriated by the drums and the plum raki, Petro observed the mountains that separated Albania from Yugoslavia.

The border was very close; why not go to the other side? Petro asked someone from the village to bring him to the border. The man said “Yes” but asked: “What are you going to do on the other side?” “I don’t know,” Petro said. “Maybe the Serbs will arrest me. But I can’t stay here. I just want to leave.” Petro returned to Zagrad in February 1989, determined to escape. He had brought with him a little pig as a gift for his friends in the village. But just the day before escaping, the terrifying noise of the machine gun filled the space between the mountains. Two people were killed and one was wounded. Controls were temporarily reinforced and Petro had to go back.

As communist Europe was collapsing, so was the patience of young Albanians who were more willing to risk their lives at the borders. Petro tried to escape several other times. In 1990, he heard that there was a breach in the frontier with Greece near Korçë. He went there but found a horrible situation: “People were getting killed every day. Frontier dogs were eating people.” He wisely decided not to take the risk. The days of the communist regime were almost over, but the army still used all its might to prevent people from crossing the borders. In March 1990, the commander of the border forces ordered soldiers to continue using machine guns and bombs to stop trespassers.

The communist regime fell in December 1990 and illegal border crossing was no longer considered treason. This change encouraged more people to take their chances and leave. In January 1991, Petro received a tip: the border could be crossed near Gjirokaster. He went there with two friends and the group kept growing as they met other people on the way to the border. Two people offered to bring them to the frontier, and Petro’s friend gave them his watch to complete the transaction. This is how the business of illegal migration started in Albania. When they arrived in the village of Jorgucat, the group counted around 100 persons, including many women and children. Some went ahead to check if it was safe to go on. The border was guarded, but the klon had been damaged. This section of the frontier had two belts of klon. Soon after they passed the firstbullets were fired over their heads. The group laid down. Two soldiers and one officer approached them. The officer grinded his teeth and threatened to kill them, but then asked for money. The group did not have any money so they gave them their rings and watches, and the officer let them pass.

After 36 hours of walking, what was left of the group entered Greek territory and reached the paved road. Petro was impressed by his first contact with a world that seemed to be more civilized than the one that he had left behind. The group was stopped by Greek soldiers. After the Albanian soldiers had stripped them of their belongings, the Greeks stripped them of their identities. All their documents were sequestered. They asked for their names. Those with Christian names were sent to the camp of Amyntaio; those with Muslim names went to the camp in Kozani. Greek authorities treated the Christian Albanians well but behaved very badly towards the Muslims.  Petro has good memories of the Greek people that helped him, but the violence of the Greek police towards Albanians who had committed crimes, was no different from the violence of Albanian border guards towards those who tried to escape. Petro also criticises the Greek government because they did not give him back his passport and did not grant him papers. For years, he was forced to cross the border illegally to visit his family in Albania and go back to Greece where he worked. In the early 1990s, illegal border crossing became routine for him and many other Albanians.

Borders are not just about territory

After December 1990, the experience of border crossing took on different meanings for Albanians. The rhetoric of the border between “socialism” and “capitalism” had just ended. But Albanians started to deal with more primitive and ubiquitous concepts of borders for which there were no clear territorial boundaries. The border was virtually everywhere they could be heard or seen. It was in their clothes, in their “rowdy” appearance, in their accents, in their ethics and customs, in their tired and prematurely aged faces, in their poverty, in their language, in the shame of their failed state and politicians, in their innermost being of undesired humans. The communist dictatorship judged people by their biographies. The capitalist states took a more radical approach: people were not simply judged according to their own or their family’s deeds, but according to the features of their nations, races and religious groups.

The doors of the world were finally open for Albanians because they had brought them down at the cost of their own lives. But, as the past precedes the future, guards with dogs and guns will continue to chase them everywhere they go.

  • About the author: Fabio Bego is a scholar of nationalism, socialism and colonial ideologies. 
  • Source: This article was published by BIRN. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

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