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The strange concrete shapes litter the landscape. They sprout up like mushrooms, their curved domes a grey reminder of a regime that ended within living memory. These are the bunkers of Albania, and they stand as monuments to an isolationist past rooted in paranoia and suspicion.

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While many of these fortifications now stand empty, they can still shed new light on a dark period in Albania’s history. And the method of their construction make it unlikely that even the ones that have been abandoned will collapse any time soon. After all, they were built to withstand artillery fire.

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These strange buildings provide a glimpse into the history of Albania and over time people have become aware of their cultural worth. So they’re turning these relics of the Cold War into something that celebrates the future while not forgetting the past. And that’s about as far removed from their original purpose as you can get.

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The bunkers were built during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, who ruled over the country from 1944 until his death in 1985. The creation of the bunkers began in the 1960s, as Hoxha’s regime moved more and more into the realms of isolationism. And these were to be the staging points for his so-called people’s war.

Image: Elian Stefa, Gyler Mydyti

Hoxha believed, in fact, that Albania was under constant threat of invasion. He was a hardline Stalinist and in the 1960s began to cut contact with other communist countries that he believed were too moderate. He was wholeheartedly opposed to Josip Tito’s regime in Yugoslavia, for example. As well as that, Albania remained officially at war with its neighbor Greece for the entirety of Hoxha’s near five decades in charge.

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Hoxha’s “bunkerization” of Albania was an attempt to defend it from all of these perceived external threats. Rather than creating a professional military, Hoxha decided to rely on the people of his country to defend their own land. It was a strategy that he had employed during Albania’s occupation by Italian and German forces during World War Two.

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There was a key difference to this more defensive strategy, however. Whereas the partisans during World War Two had struck out from the mountains, engaging in guerrilla incursions to fight back against the occupiers, that wouldn’t work here. Hoxha understood that the lowlands of the country were key to keeping Albania’s sovereignty intact.

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And so the bunkers were introduced. They were built in every conceivable part of Albania, moreover. Some were hewn into the rocks of the mountains. Others were built in graveyards and even in the grounds of hotels. More still were built on the streets of villages and towns. But it wasn’t soldiers who were expected to clamber into these positions and fight to the last bullet.

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It was decided instead that the Albanian population should be militarized. From an early age, every Albanian citizen was aware that if an invasion occurred, it was up to them to man their nearest bunker and battle the enemy. There were regular drills to ready the population for invasion, in fact, and each community was expected to clean and maintain its bunkers.

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The bunkers were arranged in such a way that they radiated out from central command posts. The smaller bunkers held two people, but they had a direct line of sight to the larger bunkers, allowing them to receive orders. These bigger structures were always manned and could communicate via radio.

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But in the end, the invasions never came. And even if they had, it’s unlikely that Hoxha’s strategy would have been of any use. There would have been no way to resupply the individual bunkers, and military experts have since suggested that a well-trained army would have been far more useful than civilians with guns. Speaking out against Hoxha, though, was a risky business.

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One such dissenter, General Beqir Balluku, gave a speech in 1974 condemning Hoxha’s belief in the bunkers and the people’s war. For speaking out, Balluku and his associates were charged with attempting to bring about a military coup. They were all subsequently executed.

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Following Hoxha’s death in 1985, the bunkerisation of Albania came to a halt. The structures that had never been used for their intended purpose were consequently abandoned. But the secrecy of the communist regime meant that mysteries still surrounded these remnants of Hoxha’s rule. As a result, new discoveries are still being made about some of the bunkers.

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For instance, in 2004 just 25 miles from the capital of Albania, Tirana, a huge stockpile of chemical weapons was discovered. There were 16 tons of mustard gas, along with other chemical weapons. What’s more, the bunker had been unguarded since the end of the communist era. It’s a prime example of just how little about Hoxha’s rule is known, even today.

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The governments that ruled the country in the wake of Hoxha’s regime didn’t just lack information about how the bunkers had been used, though. They also had no idea how many had actually been built. And as time has passed, some of these buildings have been used at temporary shelters or even been converted to house farm animals.

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Because of the nature of the bunkers, they’ve proven very difficult to get rid of, which can have tragic consequences. For example, five tourists died in 2008 when whirlpools caused by bunkers that had fallen into the sea dragged them under. The army then stepped in to try to remove other bunkers along the coastline, but it was by no means an easy task. They eventually had to use modified tanks to literally pull the bunkers out of the ground.

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Other bunkers, though, have had a very different fate. Perhaps the most famous of these is known as Bunk’art. It’s situated just outside of Tirana, in one of the largest bunker complexes. It was originally designed to house Hoxha and his cabinet in the event of a nuclear attack. Now it’s part museum, part art gallery.

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The bunker is made up of more than a hundred rooms, connected with long corridors. In its present form, it’s as much about preserving the memory of Albania’s communist era as it is about moving the country’s culture forward. Some of the rooms are kept in their original condition, for instance, and in Hoxha’s own living quarters his voice plays on a loop through an old phone.

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Alongside these remnants of Albania’s communist past, you’ll find rooms bedecked with contemporary art. And at the heart of the complex there’s an assembly hall. It was designed for government meetings, but now serves as a venue for jazz concerts. Even with this new cultural life, though, the huge bunker can still feel ominous at times.

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Other bunkers around the country have been turned into restaurants and cafes. There’s even a souvenir trade that sells tourists bunker-shaped ashtrays and pencil-holders. Albania’s legacy of communist rule might be built in concrete, but its people are reclaiming those markers of the past, both as a reminder of darker times and as a symbol that the country is moving forward.

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