By Dashnor Kaloçi
The fourth part
– “After the border dog caught me, the soldiers and officers began to kick me and hit me with the butts of their automatic weapons and, with a metal flashlight, broke all the teeth in my mouth”!-
Memorie.al / While the hands of the clock marked 01:30, on October 2, 1986, the calm of that cold autumn night there in the northernmost tip of Albania, in the area of Vermoshi, was broken by several bursts of automatic weapons, which were followed by a pistol, which lit up the whole country on that slope of Mali i Boja, and then, the barking of a dog and the calls and shouts of people…! They were the soldiers of the Bashkim border post who, together with the volunteer forces of that area, (or as they were otherwise known “the riflemen”), who came to reinforce, as well as other forces of the Army units, the Internal Affairs Branch of the Shkodra district and the Border Battalion covering that area, which, since nearly ten days, when an alert situation was given, were in their positions, blocking the border line that was only 400-500 meters away, waiting for captured alive or destroyed, two border violators, who were said to be coming from the depths, with the intention of escaping and going to Guci in Montenegro, (part of Yugoslavia at that time). Just a few seconds after that “Kalashnikov” battery, which was heard in the place called “Stanet e Shurdhi”, the soldier of the border unit who opened fire, together with a member of the volunteer forces, approached in the direction of the silhouette of a man, who was found moaning and covered in blood from the bullets that had pierced his body.
Continues from last issue
Mr. Gjelosh, did you know Sokol Vreshti in civilian life, or when you joined the army?
I did not know Sokol in civilian life and for the first time, we met when we joined the army, in January 1985, in the Vlora area, where due to family history, i.e. with people who fled to America, both we were assigned to a genius ward, (Rep. 3205), which dealt only with works.
In that work department, where we did not have the right to carry weapons, but only in engineering works, there were also many other soldiers from the Shkodra district, I remember that there were about 17 of us, but I was in close company, only with Sokol, since the first days, we got to talking and we created so much friendship that we even had the wallet together. So in short, we were like brothers.
When we discussed for the first time about the escape plan from Albania and who told each other?
We had the first talks about escaping from Albania almost a year ago, that is, sometime in October 1985, and it was Sokol who first suggested that to me, telling me that he had a brother in the USA , Nikoll Vreshtin, who had escaped from Vermoshi, since 1966, at the age of 17, and they, as a family, exchanged letters with him.
In the same way, I also had my uncle, Nik Gega, escaped to the USA, and based on this fact, we thought that if we crossed the border and went to Yugoslavia, they would give us political asylum and our people would come to us. , to take us, or they would guarantee us, from the USA.
What about another person, did you talk about this plan?
After we decided to escape, we agreed to tell that thing to one of our friends, Prek Nili, his name was a very good and very loyal boy, with whom we had known in the first three months of the army, (or quarantine as it was called then) and he completely agreed with us. Preka is from the village of Vukël in Malësë e Madhe and he, like our work, had a bad biography, as it was said at the time, since there were also people who fled to America.
After the first three months of the army, Preka was assigned to another work department, while Sokol and I were always together in the same department, but we kept in constant contact with Preka, meeting with him whenever we were given the opportunity. , that we went out with permission and freedom-exit.
Why did you postpone the escape plan so much, you talked with Sokol in September 1985 and implemented it a year later, in September 1986?
That time was found to be the most suitable, namely at the end of September 1986, because Sokoli, on September 20, was marrying her sister and she was sure that they would give her permission from the ward. At that time, Sokol and I were in Department 8799/5, in Vërmik, Vlora, where we did engineering works.
And you, how would you secure permission to go to your village?
In the plan that Sokol and I had made earlier, we had agreed that when he went home on leave, he would send me a telegram, as if my brother had died, and after that, the command would give me leave, of course. In order to make our plan as reliable as possible, a month before, I opened the word in the ward with my friends, that my brother was in a very serious condition and I was very upset. This thing worked best and the soldiers, but also some officers, ask me how the brother became.
So, a day or two after Sokol went on leave, on September 18, which was a Saturday, the commander of the department, Sotir Dema, called me and told me that; soldier Gega, your brother is sick and we, as a command, have decided to give you a few days leave. I continued my role, acting as if I was very upset, and that minute, together with the commissioner, Viktor Gjiknuri, after completing the permit with a signature and stamp, from Vërmiku, they sent me in their car to the train station in Vlora, where I had left to meet our friend, Preke Nilin.
After I met with Preka, we took a seat on the train and traveled to Tirana, and the next day, on September 20, we arrived in Shkodër, by train. All the way on the train, we talked to each other for a long time, since Preka withdrew from the plan we had made and this thing, so to speak, somehow spoiled our sense of humor.
But why did Preka withdraw, did he tell them the reason and what did you decide to do after that?
Preka withdrew for his own reasons, because he was scared and normal, since it was not an easy thing at that time, to take the road to the border, putting your head in danger, all the more so because you caused great problems for the family as well, which of course, it would end in exile, but it would also open up jobs for the whole tribe.
What did you decide to do, since Preka would not come with you to escape?
After Preka withdrew from the plan we had made, we promised each other that; whatever happened to us, i.e. me and Sokol, who had made up our minds that we would escape, we would not show in any way that Preka knew, or about all the conversations we had had with each other, that in the department in Vlora.
Preka would do the same thing, so if they arrested him, he would never show that he knew about us, that we were going to escape. With these words, we parted and hugged each other when we got off the train in Shkodër.
Where did you go after arriving in Shkodër?
After parting with Preka, he left for his village, Vukël, while I went to the village of Bajzë in Kopliku, to the house of Sokol, who was having his sister’s wedding that day. I arrived there in the late afternoon, when those from Sokol’s house were escorting the wedding guests, since the wedding was for lunch and people were fleeing to their homes.
I didn’t go near Sokol’s house, since I had been there before and they knew me well, but I stayed somewhere far away, since I didn’t want people to see us, so that everything that could happen later with us, don’t burden me, man. So I forced myself and sent a small child to inform Sokol and he did not delay, he came quickly. Sokol was happy when he saw me, but he was also upset when I told him about Preka, who withdrew from our plan, that the three of us would escape.
How did Sokol react, were there doubts and what did you two do next?
There was absolutely no doubt, neither Sokol nor I. Preka was a loyal boy and time proved that he remained so until the end, just as we stayed with him. The plan we had made with Sokol, since the ward, was that; I would not go to my house at all, therefore, in order not to burden them more, since it was well known that if we escaped, the Security would immediately go there and tell them that; you know and why didn’t you report it?
But I was forced to go to my house, because when I got off the train in Shkodër, I happened to meet a fellow villager, who begged me to go with him, as a car was waiting for him, which was going to until
Boga. So I forced myself and went home, as I was sure that he would notify my family and they would be worried, they could also call my ward in Vlora and the death telegram would appear, which was a fake.
When you went home, did the family know about the telegram that Sokol had sent you?
My family had no knowledge about the telegram that Sokol had sent me and they were surprised when they saw me, but I told them that; I only had two or three days off. Based on this, I stayed only two or three days in my house and on Wednesday afternoon, I left Boga and went to Bajza to meet Sokol, as we had planned. From there, we went to the center of Koplik, to the only bar that was there at that time, and there we ordered an alcoholic drink, even though we didn’t drink alcohol, but allegedly Sokoli, yes, he hired me, because he had married his sister, so, I didn’t catch the eye of people who could look at us.
After staying there for some time, we went out, after buying some gurabies, (or gears, as they were called at that time, which cost 5 lek a piece), and took the road towards my village, Bogë. We went there because, after the withdrawal of Preka, we also changed the route plan to go to Vermosh, to the border line.
How did you plan, which road would you take to get to the border?
The plan that the three of us had initially made, since we were in the department in Vlora, that is, together with Sokol and Preka, was that we would go through the national road of the car, to a certain place, and from then on, Preka would guide us, that he knew the place and the paths we would pass through. But that plan, as I told you, fell through, after the withdrawal of Preka, and Sokol and I changed the direction of movement, deciding to cross the mountains and forests, roadless, so that no one would see us and fall into contact with the villagers of those areas, or with soldiers of the border forces.
Where did you go after changing your travel plan?
That night, that is, Wednesday, September 23, 1986, we went near my village in Bogë, and we slept outside, somewhere in the forest, of course without meeting anyone. The next day, we got up early and continued our way through the mountains and forests, as far as possible from those roads, where we could encounter people or soldiers. But on Friday from lunch, when we were somewhere above the village of Vukël, we met face to face with a person, a man who was several years older than us, who asked us that; where we were from, where we were going, etc., as the highlanders are used to, when they meet strangers on the road.
We told him the truth, so; that we were from Bajza and Boga, but that we were going for service, to the military unit in Lëpushë, without even knowing if there was a military unit there. After we gave him a “Partizan” cigarette, from the packs we had with us, he told us that he would go down to the village a little below and he would come with us to show us the way to Lëpushë. We told him; well, we are waiting for you, but as soon as he got down the road to the village, which was about 20 minutes away by foot, we didn’t wait for him at all, but continued walking.
Why did you continue the way, he doubted you?
Yes, of course, he suspected us, from our appearance, since our military uniform was different from those of the border soldiers; we also had slightly longer hair than the border soldiers, as well as those we had with us, wrapped in newspaper. So, after a few minutes, that we separated from him, from below the village of Vukël, we heard machine gun shots, with long bursts. After that, we realized that he had pointed us to the border soldiers and we continued on our way, walking on a road without a road, through the woods.
One or two days later, shortly before going near the village of Lëpushë, we met face to face with a woman, who approached us and said; come on, get in the tent, because you are wet, as it was raining a little. Immediately, she started asking us; who you are, where you come from, where you are going, etc., etc., as happened with the inhabitants of those border areas. After she suspected that we were soldiers and were going on duty in that area, she asked for our passports and border permits, because otherwise, she wouldn’t let us move from there. We were surprised by her courage and told her to leave better, (even threatening her with a stick we were holding), as she tried to block our way!
But then, we realized that we were close to the Jana Border Post, and that’s why she had taken heart, trying to keep us there. So, we ran away in the direction of the woods and after a while, we heard gunshots in bursts, which did not stop. The volleys of guns and the barking of the border dogs, continued all the time and later, I have come to know that; that after the meeting with that man, above the village of Vukël, an alarm had been given in the entire border area, that is, from Koplik to Vermosh and in our direction, numerous forces of the Army had been mobilized in an extensive search operation, The Internal Affairs Branch of Shkodra, the Border Battalion, as well as numerous forces of volunteer detachments, led by riflemen, as they were called at that time, those who carried weapons, with the permission of the Branch.
Based on this situation we were in, from the day we met that man above the village of Vukël (Thursday, September 24, 1986), until the day they caught us (Saturday, October 3 at dawn), that is, when they killed Sokol and I was captured alive, we walked alone at night and during the day we stayed crouched, in the bushes, so that we wouldn’t be caught, since the crackling of guns, the barking of border dogs and the voices of soldiers, from time to time, were very close to us.
What did you live on all those days?
As I told you, we bought some gurabia, (gears) since we left Koplik and we rationed them, eating one piece only at dinner, which kept my spirit alive. Likewise, we would find any tree, like plums, and eat or take it with us, that’s how we spent all those days.
How do you remember the moment you were caught?
On Friday, October 2, we were close to the border line of Vermoshi, without knowing that we were there, but we realized that we saw the lights of Gucia, on the other side of the border in Montenegro, and we were happy, because we thought that the moment came for us to cross the border. As I said, we moved only at night and somewhere from 01:30 at night, that is, at dawn on October 3, we were somewhere on a mountain slope, which we later found out was only 400-500 meters from the border line.
While we were walking, 10 steps away from each other, we heard the calls of the border soldiers to stop and immediately, automatic weapons were fired at us. Instinctively, I lay down on the boat and got into a bush and didn’t move from there. From those shots, Sokol was injured with several bullet wounds on his body, which went through him further, since the soldiers who shot were very close to us.
It was night and nothing could be seen, but I could hear the dog barking incessantly, as well as voices shouting there at Sokol, where soldiers, officers and armed civilians had gathered. While they took Sokol and left in the direction of the post office, I continued to lie upside down, in the bush where I had entered, where about 20 minutes later, I heard the border dog, which jumped on my back and the border guards who came and tied me up.
What did they say to you the first time they caught you and where did they take you next?
First, without saying a word to me, they started kicking me and hitting me with machine guns, with how much power they had, then they asked me my name, how many of us there are, etc. After they wired me, they sent me to the Bashkim border post, where they kept me until the morning, beating me inhumanely. With a metal flashlight, he broke all the wisdom teeth in my mouth, so that I could barely speak when asked about anything.
When did you learn that Sokol had been killed?
About Sokol, who was killed, I understood that when we were shot, since I no longer heard his voice speaking to me, as it happened when we were in more or less similar situations, during those days, that is, when we heard the bullets whizzing very close to us . In the same way, I understood that the desert Sokol had been killed, since the soldiers and officers were no longer shooting and they were standing there, otherwise, they would have been standing in positions, shooting, as they did in the beginning.
The next morning, they told me; come see your friend, how well he is, and they took me out to the yard of the Border Post, where they had put the dead body of Sokol, bathed in blood. After that, they also brought me there, putting us in a “ZUK” car with a body, where they tied us both with wires and next to us, some soldiers and officers, who kicked us again.
Where did they send you?
From there, they took us to Shkodër, but, after they stopped us in Tamarë, Bajze and Koplik, where they had gathered the people before, holding rallies with speeches, where they insulted us, saying; “Enemies of the people”, “traitors and criminals”, etc. In addition, in those rallies, people from the people there came to “Zuku” (where we were both connected) and cursed and spat at us. After that, that is, after these unmasking rallies, we were sent to the Internal Branch of Shkodra, when I was separated, the investigation began and then the trial.
What were you asked about during the investigation, were you mistreated there and when did you appear in court?
The investigation continued for a few days, as I was caught in the act and I admitted everything, that is, that I wanted to escape, since I had no other way. In the interrogator, they didn’t hit me anymore, but I was under a lot of pressure, since they wanted to know who else knew about our escape plan, apart from Sokol, so they asked me about Prek Nilin, because, they had asked in Vlora, who else had come to Shkodër with permission those days. I never admitted that Prek Nili was related to us and that’s how he escaped prison.
Those same days, when I was at the investigator in Shkodër, they took me one day and took me to my department, in Vermik in Vlora, to unmask me, as it was said then, but in fact, to terrorize the other soldiers, so that if it occurred to them to take such an action, as I had done with Sokol. During that unmasking meeting, the officers had taught and forced some soldiers, who stood up and spoke against us, calling us “traitors and criminals”, etc. After that, I was returned to Shkodër, where I was brought to trial, which took place at the Shkodër Division, where I was sentenced to 16 years in prison, on the charge of “high treason against the motherland and evading mandatory military service”.
Where did you serve your sentence and when were you released from prison?
From the Internal Branch of Shkodra, I was sent to “Kaushin” in Tirana (Prison 313), and from there to Spaç, where I stayed until 1990, where, on the occasion of Perez De Cuellar’s visit to Albania, we were removed from there and they sent us to Shën-Vasi in Saranda, from where I was released at the beginning of 1991.
When were the remains of your friend Sokol Vreshti found and did you have a chance to meet any of those who participated in your capture and the killing of Sokol?
Sokol’s remains were found at the end of 1991 and his family sent me word, as I kept in regular contact with them, but unfortunately, I could not participate in that ceremony, as that day I was in Vlora, for to take some construction materials with a car, since my uncle Nik Gega (today he is 90 years old in the USA), who was in America, financed the construction and arrangement of the Boga Church.
As for those who took part in my capture or the killing of Sokol, I have not met anyone nor did I want to meet them, because what could I tell you…?! One of them, who later became the Chief of the Malësi Madhe Commissariat, sent me word with a person to go meet him, but I refused. I have closed that chapter, as I have nothing else to do.
Over the years, have you ever gone to the US, risked your life, had your best friend killed, and served jail time?
I didn’t go, because the many troubles did not leave us, which have not been shared with us even today.
Mr. Gjelos, thank you very much for the interview and for agreeing to talk about this event, one of the most serious in your life.
Thank you for dealing with these things and with this event, since no one has remembered about such a thing until today. Memorie.al