In June 2019, Dashurie Bishka travelled to the village of Shen Vasil in southern Albania accompanied by a group of police officers carrying an old topographical map and an exhumation order.
Bishka was there on behalf of her late husband, Josif, who had spent the last 20 years of his life searching for the remains of his father, Stavri Bishka.
Found guilty of “appropriation of wealth” under Albania’s former communist regime and sentenced to 25 years in prison, Stavri died in 1977 in the ‘Unit 305 Perparim’ forced labour camp in Shen Vasil.
His family never received his body and the place where he was buried remained a mystery for four decades, until Stavri’s relatives filed a complaint with the public prosecution.
They wanted his remains “to rest near the graves of our ancestors in the city of Berat”, said Stavri’s niece, Nertila Mija Bishka.
While the exact number is not known, Albania authorities estimate that some 6,000 Albanians died from torture or extrajudicial execution or were shot as they tried to cross the border between 1944 and 1991, when Albania was run by a paranoid, Stalinist dictatorship.
Since the fall of communism in the early 1990s, relatives of the disappeared have sought to track down their remains but have received little help from the state.
In 2018, Prime Minister Edi Rama made a fresh pledge to find the missing via an agreement with the International Commission on Missing Persons, ICMP.
But since then, according to data from the Online Archive of Victims of Communism, Kujto.al, only three exhumation orders have been issued for 107 identified burial sites. One was for Stavri Bishka, another was carried out privately, and the third was never executed.
Now, the Albanian government is changing its strategy again, turning the issue into an administrative question rather than criminal. But the ICMP said this will not be sufficient.
“There cannot be a democratic and free society built on illegal graves and the bodies of those who were never identified, while those who committed these crimes were never punished,” said Luigj Ndou, the ICMP’s head of relations with the governments of Albania and neighbouring Kosovo.
“We hope and believe that Albania has the potential to move this case forward,” he said. “After all, we are not doing this for the dead, but for the living. We are doing this to heal the wounds of the past.”
Between February 1 and May 1, Kujto conducted an online questionnaire, reaching family members of 175 people who disappeared under communist rule.
- Fifty-five per cent said they had conducted private searches for the remains of their loved ones.
- Some 71 per cent of those who conducted independent searches failed to find a grave; the rest succeeded.
- Half of all respondents said their relatives had been executed with or without trial; 23 per cent said they had died while serving a sentence in prison or internment; some 7 per cent reported the cause of death as torture during interrogation; 6 per cent said their relatives were executed while trying to cross the border.
- About 62 per cent said they had sought the help of the authorities, such as the Ministry of the Interior, the Records Authority, or the police. Sixty-one per cent had a negative opinion of the response from authorities.
Taip Hoxha of Gjirokastra, southern Albania, was among those who responded.
Now 77, Hoxha has spent three decades searching for the remains of his brother, Ahmet, who was shot on January 31, 1979 in Mirdita after trying to escape from the most notorious prison in communist Albania – Spac.
His search took Hoxha to the highest institutions of state, but the closest he came was an old map on which was written ‘at Kacinari’s road’, somewhere in Mirdita.
“I need the help of the state to do the excavation, otherwise how can I find the exact place?” he said.
Hoxha even met two members of the firing squad that executed his brother, finding their names on a facsimile of the execution order.
“I didn’t ask them for anything else, only the body,” he said. “Where is the grave? Such was the time back then, you just did your duty, just show us the body.”
But they refused.
At the other end of the country, in the northern city of Shkodra, Pjeter Deda, a slight 70-year-old with bright blue eyes, has a similar story.
“All the wealth I had, I spent on the search for my brother, Gjelosh,” he said.
Pjeter, Gjelosh, and their father were labelled “enemies of the state” by Albania’s infamous secret police, the Sigurimi, and convicted of agitation and propaganda.
They served part of the sentence together in Spac, but Gjelosh was placed under investigation again and transferred to another prison, Puka on March 22, 1978. They ever heard from him again.
After the fall of communism, Pjeter said he was told his brother had been executed, but he has yet to find his grave.
“I’ve left not one stone unturned,” he said.
‘Such were the laws of the time’
Albanian authorities have identified 107 suspected burial sites. Photo: Albanian Authority on Access to Information on the former State Security Service.
By 2018, when Albania turned to the ICMP, the country had adopted some 24 legislative acts concerning the disappeared; it was widely believed that the authorities had all the information they needed to find them.
“For us, it seemed like a piece of cake,” said Ndou. But the ICMP had not reckoned with Albanian red tape.
After the 2018 agreement, ICMP experts were engaged to help identify remains found during a private excavation of a mass grave on Mount Dajti, just east of the capital, Tirana, and a second site near a former prison camp in Ballsh in the south.
But it took much time and effort just to prise an exhumation order from the Tirana prosecutor’s office for the Dajti case at the insistence of the ICMP, which concluded that three victims it identified had been tortured prior to death. The Ballsh order was never executed.
“For now, the position of the prosecution is that these are outdated crimes and do not constitute criminal cases, because they have exceeded the statute of limitations,” said Ndou.
This, he said, “denies the right of family members not only to know, but also to find justice”.
Albania’s General Prosecutor’s Office denied obstructing the work of the ICMP, saying the issue was an administrative one.
“The prosecutor has signed the order for the exhumation in Ballsh, but it is not in his jurisdiction to implement this order,” said Kostaq Beluri, head of the Directorate of Institutional Coordination at the General Prosecutor’s Office, effectively pointing the finger at the police.
The interior ministry, which is in charge of policing, did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did Rama’s cabinet, the Council of Ministers.
Beluri said the law was clear. If a person was executed by order of a court, that’s not necessarily a crime, he said. “He was executed by court decision; such were the laws of the time.”
There is no official database of the disappeared in Albania under communism.
The figure used by authorities – roughly 6,000 – comes from research done in the mid-90s for the construction of a memorial pavilion within the National Museum.
Kastriot Dervishi, who worked as a researcher on the project, said the figure of 6,000 “should never be considered official or archival”.
The list contains many errors, he said, including duplication and even the inclusion of people who turned out to be alive.
Dervishi also estimated that some 2,000 may have been found in the first years after the dictatorship collapsed.
“Finding those who are left becomes more and more difficult,” he said.
In the city of Korca in southeastern Albania, Ylli Merdani, head of the local association of the persecuted, witnessed one attempt by the state to shed light on the issue in the early 1990s.
Citing archival records, Merdani – who spent 25 years as a political prisoner under communism – said 238 people were executed in Korca alone, including three women, but a special commission set up in 1992 managed to find the remains of only 40.
Eduart Mjeshova remembers the bittersweet moment when they found his uncle’s remains in a former military compound in Gjirokastra. Photo: Kujto Foundation.
“In some cases, there were three or four or even more together in a pit,” said Merdani. “Their hands were still tied with barbed wire, or two to three people tied together.”
“The recovered remains were buried with honour and their names engraved on a plaque in a plot of the city cemetery”.
Most of the bodies, however, are believed to have been recovered as the result of the private efforts of family members.
In the summer of 1996, men of the Mjeshova family from Berat used picks and shovels to dig in a former military compound in Gjirokastra, searching for the remains of Pelivan Mjeshova.
Mjeshova was executed when he tried to flee Albania.
His grandson, Eduart, remembers the bittersweet moment when they found his remains.
“The military coat he was wearing the night he was executed, after being caught running away, was still intact on his remains,” he said. “It was a great joy for us, because many other families have not found the remains.”
According to Ndou, at least hundreds more remain missing and Albania has an obligation to try and find them.
“Up to now, family members have reported just under 1,000 people to the Institute of the Formerly Persecuted, the Files Authority, and the ICMP online centre,” he said.
‘No one picks up the pickaxe’
In 2022, the Albanian government changed its strategy again, transferring responsibility for the issue from the interior ministry to the Authority on Access to Information on Sigurimi files – a state body created in 2015 to shed light on the country’s communist past.
Parliament voted to create a special structure within the Authority tasked with finding and identifying the remains of disappeared persons.
Gentiana Sula, head of the Authority, told Kujto.al that the institution is currently working with the state archive to build a database of possible burial sites. So far, 107 suspected burial sites have been identified.
“We have forwarded all of these to the local government, saying ‘It is your duty to preserve these and not alter them,’” said Sula, whose own grandfather, the wealthy Tirana merchant Sulejman Mara, remains missing.
“He was only 42 years old,” she said. “They returned only a wristwatch to the family and told them he died of a heart attack.”
Sula said that to really unblock the search, the government should grant the Authority the legal authority to coordinate with institutions.
Such a provision has already been drafted, but Beluri, from the General Prosecutor’s Office, said it contradicts the 2018 agreement with the ICMP and compromises the independence of the public prosecution.
“The draft decision submitted for consideration fundamentally violates the independence of the Prosecutor’s Office, as certain points define obligations for the Prosecutor’s Office that do not originate from the law,” he said.
The interior ministry also has objections, believing the responsibility for exhumations should be transferred from the police to local mayors.
Dervishi, the researcher, was sceptical the new approach will work.
“The problem today,” he said, “is that no one picks up the pickaxe to open the identified graves.”
Source : Balkans Insight