By Najada Pendavinji
Memorie.al / During 15 years in prison, wherever he had served his sentence in camps and prisons, from the Cement Factory in Elbasan, the Cement Factory in Fushë-Kruje, Spaç, etc., he had only seen the eldest son, who sometimes took him mother with her. He had never met the other six children. He had left the youngest two months old and when he returned home, he could not recognize them…! The tragic and unknown story of Mehdi Cenko from the village of Taç i Kolonje, who in 1964 tried to escape from Albania, but was caught and ended 15 years in the camps and prisons of the communist regime of Enver Hoxha and his successor, Ramiz Alia.
Mr. Mehdi, what is the origin of your family?
I was born in Agalli, Taç – Lart village, Kolonje district, in February 1929. My family was not rich, but not poor either. During the War, our elders did not participate either with the National Front or the Communist Party, they remained indifferent, but when we grew up, we got engaged, we got married, and by chance we took women in families affected by the communist regime, (as they were called in that time of the persecuted), seized and convicted. So from ’53, the war against us began. As such, we fought, we were limited to work, we were not called to meetings, we were not asked about anything, and we had various problems: we were followed, eavesdropped. We, in the neighborhood, were eight houses, but two were kulaks and the others were military, with Zogu, with the Italians. I had a cousin who has been convicted three times; he graduated from the Military Academy in Italy. When Italy capitulated, he came home, and then he was arrested.
When and why were you arrested?
I was arrested because I tried to escape from Albania, but they dictated to me and there was a big siege. When the new cooperative was created, the products were distributed in kind, but I could not afford them. I was lucky, both good and bad, to have 7 children in a short time. When I left to escape, my eldest was 10 years old, while my youngest was a newborn. I met with these cadres of the cooperative, especially Hakiu, it got to the point where I got bored of life and he sued me in court. Based on this, I tried to escape, but I was ambushed. They arrested me there, they brought me to the Rehova post office, and tied up like that, they brought me here to Erseke. It was December 19, 1964. You had to cross mountainous areas, it was cold, I had two coats, pants, I was prepared…but my bad luck I was ambushed.
How were you treated after your arrest?
When I came to the dungeon, at 5.00 in the morning, they stripped me, put me in a room 4 by 4 m., a piece of coffin there 60 cm. wide and 2 m long. The water passed under it, there was a window on the east side, 30 by 40 cm. There was the bodyguard. Food, they gave you 400 grams of bread, divided it into three, and gave you 10 grams of marmalade. This is how I lived it for myself. I got worse and worse, but I coped with the fact that I was a 32-year-old boy. I would take the pants like leather and throw them over my shoulder. From January 5, 1965, there was a storm. My skin was shedding like a snake… but where did I get all that human skin?! They also opened the counter and said: are you alive? They didn’t even let you lean against the wall, but I had learned a position where I sat with my head resting on my arms. It was one from Mesiçka and he said to me: “Why are you sitting on me like a goat on top of a rock”? “What did I do to you?” I said. What have you’?! When on January 11-12, 1965, a commission came from Tirana, from the General Prosecutor’s Office, accompanied by several officers and chiefs of the Interior Department.
Who were they; do you remember them by name?
Yes, I had Baudin Kazan as an investigator, I did not hear his name, and Nuri Çakëri was the head of the Branch then. He came and opened the door. I was in the first dungeon, as you enter the corridor, on the left. How come, I stood up, respect. But there they gave you a cigarette every two hours, that cigarette seemed to me as if I was getting some kind of duff, that even today if I wear it in that dungeon, there are my tears, because I am alone at home, a wife with 7 children, misfortune incalculable. Nuri Cakerri said: “Give him a cigarette”? – “We give it every two hours”, they answered. ” Give the, let him smoke a cigarette”, he said. When he went to the end of the corridor there, he saw a small room with packaging, where there was a table, a stove, I don’t know what else there was, even with a floor. When he came to a place, he said: “Take him from there because he will die there.” Even animals cannot live there.” God willing, they reacted! They removed those packages, brought them to where I was, and put me there, in that dungeon. There, I was saved from the cold, but it became a problem for me, did they throw it themselves, I don’t know, it was a mouse. It bothered me so much, it drove me crazy. They gave me a blanket at 21.00 and took it off at 5.00 in the morning and I was forced to kill rats all night. The one who took the blanket would come in the morning and say: You haven’t hunted. What should I say?
How long were you in that dungeon and when were you sentenced?
There I spent four and a half months as an investigator, in that dungeon. Terrible, I said: why did you make me my mother? However, I went to trial, I was sentenced to 15 years. My wife, eldest son, eldest daughter came to me. The Chief of Police was a Selim, Selim, and he told him: “Meet Mehdi.” He met me, but I couldn’t hold back the tears, it’s a big thing for children, but my wife gave me courage. He said to me: “Why are you crying?! Are you a man or a child?”. He was dressed in black. I said: Why are you wearing black, isn’t the little boy dead? “No,” he said, “I have children like apples, but you wouldn’t have done that.” I will ravage the earth like hunger and I will keep the children. You behaved well, I paid back the Party with work”, and I know some other words like these. I couldn’t hold back my tears, it’s very interesting, how dare you…?! It was Friday that day. On Sunday they would send me to Korça. The Chief of Police told him: “We will keep him tomorrow as well; he will go to Korça on Sunday.” On Sunday, he gathered all 7 children, including 8 himself. The guard officer came, opened the dungeon, and tied my hands behind my back. ‘Why did you take them all’, I said to him’? A sister from Lushnja had also come, and a cousin from Tirana, they also came indirectly, they could not come directly. I was sent to Korça, it was Sunday, March 15, 1965. I stayed there until July 1965.
What prison were you sent to next?
In July 1965, we went to the Cement Factory of Elbasan, when they detained us until the end of 1966. Then we went to Fushë-Kruje. We also finished that factory there, we returned for some repairs there. We stayed for 3-4 months. Since 1967, we spent several months without work. On April 25, 1968, we went to Spaç. There, when we went, the sun rose at 11.00 and set at 14.00-15.00. A rock, a hard place. We said: “We left the bones here, the account is over”! One day, two days, we were doing the briefing. There was a Pal Marka Deda, the director of the company there and he proposed that in the mine, they work like these…miners get money from the world. He found us like that Albanian who was told: Where do you want to wear? “Where there is money”. “Yes, it is hell there.” “Even we will die in hell”. U.S. too…! I had left 7 children. I was doing the rate of 250-300 percent. I received 100 ALL a day, which I sent to them at home at the end of each month, which made 2000 ALL, 1800-1700.
Were there times when you were penalized for not meeting the quota while working in the mine?
I got lucky in the second area, the pyrite area. A basement, it had gone about 12 meters, and the basement would start, but it would go another 2 m. still up. They climb up, put an iron in the furnace and hammer 37-35 kilos. On top of that they would work. But I didn’t go upstairs at all. They let me come up, I told them: I’m not coming up anymore. They got the signal, sat down. “Why didn’t you go upstairs”? – They told me. I said: ‘But where should I come there? Die by my own hands? I can’t do that job’. One out, one tied to me that officer. From 10.00, until 14.30-15.00 when people left work, so connected. And the brigade entered. There were a couple of others who opposed the work, we remained at the end. They took us out on the other side, away from the dungeons. They put us in the dungeon. The dungeon, on foot, he would throw the blanket over his head, there was also the water tap there. If you made too many claims, he would open the water tap. Yes, it’s a bit of a long story.
How do you remember the period you were there in Spaç
I worked with a Vlonjat, his name was Fadil. During his childhood, he had a friend who had washed in the sea and had saved him from the sea even in 1967, a camp commander ran away and this one, Beqir Beqiraj, came, his friend. He had been a border commander in Kakavija. Even he knew that Fadili was in prison, he was sentenced to 12 years for not reporting, that he had sex with an outclassed person. We worked at the production site, at the Cement Factory; there were about 7 of us. When he saw it, he jumped on his neck…! “Too bad, brother”, – he said to everyone. We were stunned. This, first captain, officer. The head of the Internal Affairs Branch, the surrendering commander, the operative, all those people were there. He didn’t even bat an eye at this one. “How are you Fadil? How’s it going?” He kissed him, oh, like a brother and he didn’t want to know from those superiors and his subordinates who were all looking at him in surprise. He maintained this friendship. I was friends with Fadil and when we went to Spaç, he saved me. When the guard officer who made the appeal entered, Fadili told him: “They took that friend of mine in the dungeon.” “Why did they take it?” “Just like that, like that…”! “Without taking that non-commissioned officer.” It was a Preng Rapi, mascara, more mascara from Pjetër Koka. “Go to the dungeon and ask him where he will work,” he ordered. God willing! He came, he asked me: “Where will you work”? They didn’t take me out of the underground, but I said to work at the level. He saved me; I got out of the dungeon. At the level I worked with Ahmet Mullai. I worked in the second area for four years, and I spent my change in the third area. Even a year, two…!
You were in Spaç during the May 1973 Revolt, how do you remember it?
In May 1973, there were two brothers: Pal and Gjok Zefi, they were from the North, but they lived in the village of Rrushkull in Durrës. Paul could not work. I do not know why. He had no power, he hated these people, I don’t know. They put him in a dungeon for a month. But at that time, the third floor of the building from the south was being built, we had done a part of it and there were shovels, levers, etc. When one day, this Paul came out, it was May 20, 1973. “I don’t go to the dungeon,” he said. Capters were gathered. “No! You will be put in the dungeon”. “I don’t go to the dungeon.” Grabbed a lever, there. An alarm was raised then, all the officers came. This one took that emulation board, these got into it…! But all the prisoners revolted. The prisoners were brought in to the officers and brought forward. That was the place…! His hats went to the bathrooms downstairs. They ran away without their hats. Then the revolt started: “We don’t want to work in the mine…”! “We were put in prison without a right…”! “We demand that our issue be resolved in the United Nations Organization”…, thus the request from the most diverse. Then the resistance started.
Who were the main ones there and how did the resistance continue?
There were 19 people in the resistance group. There was also this Pal Zefi, also a Hajri Pashaj, he was from Mallakastra, and his fellow villager was Feçor Shehu. Feçor Shehu was the deputy minister, but these prisoners were looking for Prime Minister Mehmet Shehu, he sent Feçor Shehu there. One day, two days, until May 23. At dinner, on the 22nd, the ultimatum was given. But how many “strings of wire” were there and they were surprised: what influence do those who make this resistance have? They also gathered the sampistas, in Tirana, Shkodër, Durrës, where they were. A “ZIS” car with pins and keys. Wednesday was that day, 23 and they gave orders that the one that will pass now. They also tied us two by two and took us out to the barn, to the canteen, wood field, we called them, and there they tied us two by two. 19 people sat, they resisted and did not give up. The sampists entered there. We were behind the silo. The windows and the entrance were in front; from the West we could only hear the noise “bam, bam” and the scream “oo… o…”! When we look, they took out one. They took out the son of Qemal Burimi, Luan, he was with one of the towns, Syrjana, and they took him out on a stretcher. One taken on a stretcher was thrown like that. 19 people beat him there. Prosecutor Aranit Çela came and said: “Let them all be shot”! (We were 1500 campers). “They should all be shot”! Then the order came: to shoot 4 people. Dervish Bejko was shot, he was from Pogradec, Skender Daja was also shot, and he was an 18-year-old man! Pal Zefi, the one who started the revolt, was also shot! Who else was among these…! Yes, even Hajri Pashaj. These four were shot. It started to become a dictatorship there after that revolt, so that you could even move your head that hell would wait for you that you had nowhere to go. The camp was then filled with many people who had had adventures, who were punished, either for fashion or for music, very young people, even if they could not grasp the work cycle. He even took it and tied it, for hours. He would take him and put him in the dungeon, but if he put you in the dungeon, you would have two lives to resist him.
How did the prison officers and non-commissioned officers treat you?
Non-commissioned officers generally did not behave well, but there were some rare exceptions, not that they held us in contempt, or favored us, but that they no longer stuck their necks out in vain. This is how I remember a non-commissioned officer who was in the second area where I worked with a friend from Vërlen, that two of us worked, one wagon and we worked on a demolition and we had taken out almost 15-20 wagons and there were no more, there were only in the space there, yes that got in there? They didn’t allow us outside of the prison, which is the truth. That non-commissioned officer came, took the carbide lamp and checked the ceiling. Even one fell and immediately a couple of skodas of material fell. It was God’s will that the collapse stopped because, had it continued, we blocked it there. I got involved with Ahmet, we took him, and we took him away. Mark was him. The only non-commissioned officer who made a good impression on the prisoners was very well behaved. What about the others then, Preng Rrapi, Pjetër Koka, what crazy people they were! Even when they woke up at 5:00 a.m., they would take a piece of wood, about 1 meter long, and insert it into the beds bam bam bam bam. “Get up”! – Like crazy. But after the revolt, tension rose. He made no concessions, both at work and in the shed. We went through it with a very tough regime, very very bad.
What other events do you remember from Spaçi?
At first when we mourned, there was a Mustafa Bajraktari. I remember when we went to Spaç. He used a geological mine, he even got out of prison. Gone, passed, and escaped! Then, big and small came out in readiness. They stuck him near Kukes. The 22-23 year old boy was lonely. They also brought him to us to terrify us, as a figure, there. And they had captured him: one soldier on foot, one in hand, four people and they fell where the wood would take him. It was poppy in the blood; we didn’t know who it was…Mustafa! They brought him there to frighten us more, so that we would not think of escaping. It was another Vlonjat then. He could not work. He was young, 18-19 years old. He could not work at the front. He told them: bring it to the surface. Young man, who brought him to the surface! He resisted this job. They put him in the dungeon for a month. It turned out that only Gurmazi seemed to him! They put him back to work. They brought him bound from there. When they brought him from where they put him in the camp, he ran to the siege. The camp had two enclosures; there was the first enclosure, then the second. He entered the first siege. “Stop! – said the guard. – Go back”! He shot that he was a good guard, how do I know?! He said: “Oh, aman, go back.” This Vlonian replied: “Shoot, shoot ahead”. Jumped to the second siege. When he jumped into the second siege, he was obliged, shot and killed him! It was not even known where the bones ended up. Even these four who were killed for the revolt were not known to them…”!
What was the situation of your family during this time that you were in prison?
Ehhh, my family, they were in such a crisis, so bad, they suffered so much, that it cannot be shown! As soon as I went to prison, the hatred towards them started: “enemy children”, “reactionary children”, among the most diverse. They sent him through the hardest jobs. The children were not given school. The older boy was learning, he was brilliant. Another girl I have in Pojan had a passion for singing, but they didn’t give her any right to study.
Did family members visit you in prison?
I had a sister in Lushnja. I also had some cousins in Tirana. And the woman from there sent them news, and said: Come on, let’s go. Although when I went to Spaç, when I went, I wrote a letter, I told them: Don’t you dare to come, because here is a place where they will take you out by helicopter, he doesn’t leave here either. Don’t steal. But they came. When they saw him there, they couldn’t hold back their tears. “Yes, I told you, lucky one! Why did you effort? Now, how lucky I am, I got that job”. Yes, every year my wife came.
Did any of the children come?
It came, the big boy came.
How many years did the sentence last?
What year was you released?
I got out on June 15, 1978.
How was the moment of release?
When we went up to the mine, when we started work, we looked at that part of the road outside the prison and dreamed: when will the day come when we cross that road! And when the time came, I don’t know… we were only told with a warning that, if they had told us spontaneously, our hearts would have stopped, that no one believed that he would come out of that place there, it was unbelievable… !
How did you get home?
When I came home, everything seemed different: as if it was a different village, as if it were a different house, as if it were a different child. Otherwise! As if everything had changed. At first, I went to my sister, in Lushnja, on the 15th. On the 16th, I came home, but when I went to my sister, it was as if the mourning of the world fell there. I disguised myself and ran away at night. I was escorted by my sister’s son-in-law, he was the school principal. “Medi, don’t break your head”, he told me. He gave me a lot of courage.
How did the children welcome your coming home after 15 years?
When I came here then, the children didn’t know me. We, as a neighborhood of the city are here, I took and passed in a short way there…! My two daughters had taken a basket of eggs and were coming to Erseka to sell them. I went there with a suitcase. When a villager recognized me: “How are you Medi? Did you meet the maids? “Where do I know the maids, I told him, and what were they?” I don’t know them, where do I know the maids”! “Your maids were, Merita with all Zhaneta” – he told me. When I went home then, that the house knew that I would be released at 15, that’s how I had informed them, not any joy, who knows, that no one would come, no one would congratulate you, that when people come it’s a pleasure, yes no one came to us. When I went home, I found the children. Those children were displaced. I met my wife. Then, as time went by, the children started approaching me because they didn’t know me. I left the two-month-old, the 3-year-old, the 2-year-old, the 1-year-old. I left Leni at the age of 10, but Leni had come to prison with her mother.
Did the Security Guards monitor you after you got out of prison?
When I came here, I was regularly monitored. We were forage and harvesting brigade, we had a sector up. They used to come and provoke. Once the almighty came, he left the machine gun there, he said to me: “Give me the scythe, I will mow you”. As if I didn’t know that the machine gun was empty there, (without cartridges), they wanted to see what I would do. “Never mind that I’m not tired,” I told him. “Leave it, because I miss you” – he insisted. I also gave him the scythe. The operative would come and say: You got out of prison yesterday. Be aware that they believe you, talk, show what they think…”! “If I have any chance”, I told him. One day, two days, three days…! It came to the tip of my nose. I say to the woman: ‘Shall we take the children and leave? We have trampled these. Let’s do attack, let’s get killed, let’s break the thorn, because they’ll put me back inside’.
The woman did not answer, did she agree?
What would the desolate woman say, where would she come with seven reeds, but I told her straight out of the blue that it was a terrible pursuit, I was bored of the life of those from the Security.
Why what did they ask you…?!
For example, he used to tell me: “If you don’t dig, you won’t find the worm, you have to pierce it.” So he wanted to make me an accomplice and I would spy on my fellow villagers. “I haven’t had any chance,” I told him. When after a while, the brigade meeting was held: It was a memory, this Dervish, the son of Orhan from Selenica, and they started from foreign and domestic politics, not this way, but this way…! The whole brigade was there. “We have enemies who are still fighting and want to flee as families,” he said. However, I was bitten, because I had expressed this to my wife. I said: ‘Who is this talking to’?! That’s when I got angry, but it was after Enver died, that is, after 1985. Then there was a drop of tension and I escaped without being arrested again. That system broke and we escaped, we are who we are.
Where did the children work?
They worked in the most difficult jobs. Even a silage pit because we were a fodder brigade, they didn’t put us there because they said “they will throw some poison at us”. In the most difficult jobs, they worked.
How did you expect the fall of the communist regime?
We have experienced that moment exactly like a human being born from the mother’s womb, and we cried out to Erseka. Gramoz Pashko was the first to denounce communism. The communists still did not believe. I’m sorry for the expression like the work of that donkey, which was eaten by the wolf and said: “I’m still in a dream”! They didn’t believe. He denounced Gramozi: “Make up your mind that communism was buried. He doesn’t wake up anymore.” We were so happy that we had nowhere to go. Memorie.al