I helped build Albania’s 170k Cold War-era bunkers – now I show them to tourists

“Bunkers are a reminder of our darkest period, so I feel we should use them productively,” says Zef Kodra.

The 78-year-old knows all about the tens of thousands of mushroom-like concrete structures scattered all over Albania: As well he might: he helped to build them.

Kodra was one of an army of labourers who toiled on the vast bunker programme, ordered by Albania’s paranoid Communist dictator Enver Hoxha from the late 60s. They worked nine hours a day and were paid what have been described as starvation wages to construct these defences against imagined enemy invaders.

Hundreds died in the process. Now Kodra wants everyone else to understand Hoxha’s concrete legacy. “We should tell the rest of the world about what they represent,” he says. “And we should finally get something in return for all that work.”

Nowadays he co-owns a B&B just outside Shkodër, a city in the north of this small Balkan country. As interest grows in Albania as a holiday destination, Kodra is showing international tourists some of the nearly 200 bunkers he had to build – the nearest one mere steps away from his business.

In Albania’s capital, Tirana, Elton Caushi is on a similar mission, leading visitors on tours of Hoxha’s bunkers and explaining the huge influence the former ruler had over generations of Albanians.

“A lot of people mourned when the dictator died,” he says. “But we never called him that – we referred to him as ‘Uncle Enver’. I was only nine, but I cried more that day than when my grandfather died. It felt like the end of the world.”

Records are scarce, and there are countless rumours, and anecdotes about what happened in the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania during Hoxha’s totalitarian reign from 1944 to his death in 1985.

Elton Caushi Bunker Albania Image via writer sqaiyum@gmail.com
Elton Caushi wants to use the bunkers
(Photo: samia qaiyum)

In the post-Second World War period, the tyrant found himself increasingly alone in his hardline stance on the Communist doctrine, cutting off all ties with alliances as they deviated from its principles or warmed to the West -the former Yugoslavia, the former USSR and China included.

He withdrew Albania from international politics and economic trade agreements, and ran one of history’s most brutal and paranoid regimes. War tunnels, military airfields and submarine stations were all built in case of enemy raids.

No military installation, however, was as ubiquitous as the bunker. There were a staggering 173,371 spread across Albania according to a conservative estimate. Others say the actual tally was even higher than the 221,143 Hoxha commanded. A commonly quoted figure is 500,000. There might even have been 750,000 of these grey concrete mushrooms in existence, according to some.

Hoxha instituted the notorious bunkerizimi, or bunkerisation programme in 1967. Operational until 1983, it resulted in the construction of 10- to 400-ton defensive structures made of concrete, iron and steel. They range from one-person pillboxes with gun slits to underground bomb shelters designed to protect him and his cronies in case of nuclear strikes.

The most common type is the Qender Zjarri (firing position) or QZ bunker. A small dome set into the ground, its hollowed inner space is just enough space for two people.

QZ bunkers sprung up in every corner of the country, often in groups of three, pockmarking Albania’s otherwise idyllic landscapes. Symbolising the paranoia that defined Hoxha’s regime, they were built on clifftops, on street corners, in farmland, at borders, along mountain passes, and on the shores of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. But not a single bunker was ever needed: Albania was never attacked.

Education spread that paranoia to individual citizens. “We were brainwashed in school,” says Caushi, now 47. “We thought Hoxha was god. And we were led to believe that his death would result in capitalists coming to slaughter us.

“My parents, on the other hand, were never Communists. And like many adults, they were relieved when he died, even discussing the possibility of Albania someday opening to the rest of the world.”

Hoxha’s bunkerisation came at great cost, with a reported €2.22bn price tag and estimated 100,000 victims, whose deaths are directly linked to the construction.

Bunker Albania Image via writer sqaiyum@gmail.com
Bunkers mark the landscape everywhere (Photo: samia qaiyum)

While older Albanians are almost oblivious to the bunkers’ presence, their younger counterparts are more curious about Communism’s unsightly architectural remains.

In fact, they are constantly experimenting with how to repurpose what is left (a 2005-15 campaign saw a large number of bunkers demolished to reuse their components as building materials).

On a beach in the port city of Durrës sits concrete bunker after concrete bunker. One is now a pizzeria that comes alive each summer. Another serves as a storage unit for sun loungers, graffitied with the words “Love from Afghanistan” – more than 3,000 Afghans were granted refuge in tourist resorts along the Adriatic coast after escaping the Taliban.

Yet another bunker has been transformed into a café that is currently undergoing renovation in anticipation of retired holidaymakers arriving from southern Europe. Each coat of paint masks traces of a painful past.

Elsewhere, idle bunkers are ingeniously being repurposed as tourist hostels or used to age wine, dehydrate cheese or safeguard livestock.

“I’m sensitive to their role because I’m in that generation, somewhere between Communism and post-Communism,” says Caushi. “Do we need 170,000 bunkers taking up valuable land? No. But I do want some to survive in order to remind us of the madness that happened…

“Hoxha would turn in his grave if he saw that we now use them as an attraction that draws the very people whom he claimed were enemies: Americans, Brits, Russians, Italians.”