By Ylber Merdani
Memorie.al / “Something was about to happen, but exactly what, no one could know. All of us had begun to have a bad premonition, a certain anxiety, which seemed to have begun to hover over all of us inmates of the Spaci prison. It seemed to us that the shadow of death was passing us by, more and more often, it elbowed each of us and left. This feeling began to be felt probably two weeks before the Spaci Revolt broke out. Two weeks before the beginning of the revolt, a large flock of ravens, dirty black, was seen passing over our heads. They flew over our camp with a loud whistling sound, as happens when bullets rub against the air, and made for the hills across the stream opposite our camp.
On that hill, for a long time there was written in stone, a big slogan: “People – Party – Enver”. Black crows, which until that day we had never seen appear, perched on each stone of the great banner. The banner became all black, like the ravens themselves. Their croaking started to be heard every day. At first, no one paid any special attention to the arrival of the ravens, nor their cawing, nor their location on the flagstones.
The one who found the presence of crows unusual was our dog, the prisoners’, which we called “Tarti”. From the first moment, when he felt their presence, he raised his head and began to croak with a strange voice, which instilled fear. It seemed as if it was a warning of the deaths that were about to happen in our camp. Initially, we didn’t even want to believe the rumors of “Tart”, but deep down, the bad premonition that something was going to happen, had started to take place in our souls. It was happening like this, maybe because the people of the camp command were becoming more and more, into real tyrants, towards us, maybe because the anger of the prisoners was getting even bigger.
Between the men of the prison command and the prisoners, the gap had grown too deep. A great sea of anger stood between us. All this made you believe in the premonition that, soon, something would happen. Already, even the presence of ravens that flew over our heads every day and stopped on the hill where the banner was, had begun to give meaning to our premonition. Even “Tart’s” complaints were nothing more than his testimony, as if to show us that he had joined our concern.
Morning of May 21, 1973
“It was the morning of May 21, 1973, when all of us began to believe that on that day, what had been predicted for days and weeks would happen. Initially, even the morning of May 21, there was nothing special for anyone. Everything was coming as a usual routine, without anything new in essence, just as it had been the day before, the week before, the month before…! The crows had just flown over our heads, to stand by the slogan: “People – Party – Enver”. Our dog, “Tarti”, had taken a place on the terrace and was barking at the crows that came around. Sub-officer Mark Tuci was passing through the square of the camp, heading to the isolation rooms, just as the police sub-officers did every morning, to take the blankets that had been given to them in the evening to sleep in.
The other prisoners had woken up at 6:20 a.m. and had to be found lined up on the floor of the shower and bathroom building (where “Tarti” was also), because it was at this time that they left for work. . Each brigade had to be at the head of it, the brigadier and the work guard (a non-commissioned officer). At the head of the line-up was the investment brigade, behind it, the armored brigade was placed, and after them, the other brigades were lined up according to areas, starting from area no. 1, and so on. When everything was ready, the police came, where each of them took over with a signature, the number of prisoners for each brigade. (They had to return at the end of the shift, alive or dead). But it didn’t happen that day.
The usual flow of the day was suddenly interrupted. When Mark Tuci had opened the isolation rooms, Pal Zefi, who had been sentenced to one month of isolation because he did not want to go to work, was seen sneaking out of one of them. Everyone started to look there, to understand what was happening. Zephy, quickly crossed a part of the yard, grabbed an iron that he found lying there, and at the same moment, ran to the nearest shed, put his shoulders behind its boards, so that he was protected by the wings, and then called: “Let no one approach”! The way he held the iron in his hand and the position he had taken gave the impression that he really had no intention of letting anyone get close to him.
He was young, only 33 years old. If someone dared to do the opposite, then the iron found in his hands would end up on the aggressor’s head. Zefi was sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment for agitation and propaganda. He was from Rrushkulli in Durrës, but originally from the Highlands of Shkodra. Death, it seemed, was swirling around the premises of the camp. The crows that had appeared in the Spaçi prison for about two weeks passed over us, while “Tarti” let out his strange noise again, to make you shudder. For the leaders of the prison command, everything was already clear. Arresting Zefi would not be easy. Unpredictable actions could happen and the situation could get out of control.
The attempt to arrest Pal Zefi
“Non-commissioned officer Tuci did not want to retreat, it was his duty to capture this prisoner and force him to enter the isolation rooms again, but Zefi continued with his warning: “No one should come near”! Tuci was left in almost complete confusion, he was not sure if he should approach Pal Zefi or not. The prisoners looked sometimes from the non-commissioned officer, sometimes from their colleague. The anxiety was great. Zefi continued to tighten the iron in his hand. If he resisted, it would be a great victory for any prisoner, but the opposite, his unconditional surrender, would be an equally great loss for them.
The man in command of the prison still remained silent. For him, everything was becoming even clearer; if he dared to approach, then he might even be left dead, struck by the iron rod. Paul’s anger was great, unpredictable, terrifying. The iron in his hands had turned into a deadly weapon for anyone who would act against his will. They were waiting for everything to happen. At that moment, they noticed that the non-commissioned officer gave up his determination to force Zefi to return to the isolation room. Tuci, had decided to seek the help of the command. Alone, it would be impossible for him to take any steps that would prove successful. The gazes of the other prisoners were becoming harsher. It was no wonder that they jumped on the attack, they even looked like they were jumping…!
It was at this time, when Tuci decided to ask for the help of the command, Pal Zefi, left the barrack where he had taken up residence and climbed onto the terrace of the building, where there were also other prisoners who were about to leave for work. Among the prisoners, he felt better. Surprisingly, everyone saw how even “Tarti” went to Pal Zefi, looking at him strangely, as if to say: “I understand, nothing has to end like that”. “Tarti”, this strange dog, escorted the prisoners to work every morning. He would leave with the prisoners of the first shift, take them to the mine, or rather to the place called “the turn” and return to the camp with those who had completed the third shift.
Then, he would take the second shift to work and bring those who had finished the first shift to the camp. Surprisingly, that dog was always attentive. Even now that something was happening; he seemed to be trying to understand something more. “Tarti”, was a very intelligent creature; whenever prisoners from the districts were brought to the camp, he approached them and behaved in a friendly manner with them, as if he had known them for a long time, when it happened that people from the Prosecutor’s Office or from the Ministry of the Interior entered the camp, then the roar of to him, it was a real spark, as he had been doing for two weeks, since the first day, when he saw a black flock of ravens flying over the camp. However, no matter what happened, “Tarti” had chosen his own position; he would remain as always with the prisoners.
The situation had become even worse. Non-commissioned officer Tuci had just notified the guard officer of the ward, Fejzi Liçon. He was working as an Operative Worker of the State Security. Even the latter, who was apparently shocked by the news he had just learned, informed, without any delay, Officer Sulejman Manoku, the head of the Criminal Decisions Enforcement Branch. (Everything about the actions of the command would be learned later). The leaders of the camp were surprised; how was it possible that a prisoner did not obey any order?! The command came out with a firm decision: “Pal Zefi should have returned to the isolation room, a moment ago.” The opposite should not have happened. From the moment Pal Zefi came out of the isolation room until now, when the command’s clear order was given, more than an hour had passed.
Pal Zefi continued to stand on the terrace, among the prisoners. Even the prisoners expected to face other actions. Suddenly, everyone saw that the State Security man, Fejzi Liço, accompanied by Mark Tuci and two other people, after being close to Pal Zefi, but not so close that the iron reached the head of any of them, demanded the rebellious prisoners, to return to the isolation room. Meanwhile, as if to show that they were friendly with the prisoner, despite the fact that he had broken the rules, they tried to take another step forward, but the iron that Zefi was holding in his hand rose up.
If it happened that the employees of the command took the fatal step, then one of them would find certain death. The officers and non-commissioned officers were stunned. They realized that they could not do anything. They looked from the prisoners. Even their eyes had darkened even more, their looks had become even colder and more frightening. Everyone seemed to say: “Get out of here, Pal Zefi, he is innocent, he can’t go back to the isolation room, he doesn’t want to work and for that, no one can force him.” Pal Zefi was feeling the support of fellow sufferers.
War of nerves…!
However, even the men of command could not retreat. Their retreat would seem like a defeat, a sign of fear; it would be considered a defeat and a victory for the prisoners. The prisoners had to be given no reason to believe that they were stronger, that they could win, that they could have their wishes fulfilled even once. This could not happen. Meanwhile, in the prison square, they saw other camp employees who were coming to the aid of Fejzi Liço. The latter cast a triumphant look on the prisoners. Now, it could be said that the people of the command were enough to launch an attack for the arrest of Pal Zefi.
After asking him once more to surrender, they decided to go ahead. Medi Noku, head of the Technical Office (a prisoner) also came to the aid of the command staff. During these seconds, the iron in Pal Zefi’s hands had made an arc, going up and after that, just like a flash, it had landed quickly on Nok’s head, but the latter, who had noticed that every to happen to him, he turned his back, already wanting to leave, but the iron rod had landed on Noku’s back, who at that moment found himself lying on the ground.
Tarti, the prisoner’s dog…!
After that, the other employees of the Command also started efforts to arrest Pal Zefi, but they were not able to succeed. The other prisoners were also jumping to Paul’s aid. Even the dog “Tarti” had understood what he had to do. He attacked the policemen from the legs, screamed loudly and tried to stop their momentum. “Tarti”, was turning into a scary creature. It was not known who would win, the command or the prisoners?! The psychological war was strong. There came a moment when the people of the command arrested Zefi. There was a moment, when the whole crowd felt the terrible loss, but suddenly, it gathered itself. After this moment, it would become a hurricane.
Someone had called: “Let him go”! It was a cry, coming from the depths of terror, suffering and despair. “Let it go”! Only the release of Pal Zefi would be for the prisoners, a “lit light” in their souls, a true enlightenment for them. The fight had started. The prisoners shot with whatever they could, fist and bricks. Other prisoners had begun to shout: “Here is death, here is freedom”! This call was enough for the 6 men in command to release Pal Zefi. They began to ask the crowd to make way for them and to leave there, a moment earlier, even if possible, to become invisible, as if they had never been there before. The crowd understood: a bloodless victory was better. The men of command were leaving, as foxes do when they realize that the hunter is nearby.
They were leaving “with their tails between their saddles”, without even worrying that the hats with the red communist star were left under the feet of the prisoners. But what would happen after that?! Pal Zefi was freed from the clutches of the non-commissioned officers and was again there among his friends. He was brave, he was 33 years old. He looked gratefully at those who had tussled with the non-commissioned officers. They were many: Dashnor Kazazi, Syrja Lame, Jorgo Papa, Pavllo Popa, Pandi Sterjo, Hasan Ribo, Muharrem Dyli, Rezhep Lazri, Sulo Veshi, Fadil Dushku, Theofilo Gjika…! Even the dog, “Tarti” would remain such an unforgettable friend! “We will win”! – said Pal Zefi. Perhaps it was his words that brought the prisoners together. They had already decided to see the revolt that had broken out to the end. After this event, the leaders of the camp were forced to inform the Department of Internal Affairs, and then the relevant ministry.
They were all gone
Outside the Spaci prison, you couldn’t see anyone but prisoners and guards, who didn’t know what to do. It was said that all the people of the command had gathered in one of their offices and were debating between panic and fear, how they could get out of this situation, in which they saw themselves badly stuck…! The commissar of the department, Shahin Skura and Sulejman Manoku, tried to talk with the prisoners, so that the latter would follow the rules and laws, but none of the convicts obeyed. The prisoners were represented by Syrja Lame and Njazi Bylykbashi. (Both were sentenced after the revolt). The leaders of the command had left helpless again. Now none of them were seen in the square. A great fire was kindled in the souls of the prisoners.
They had been waiting for this moment. For almost two weeks they had been haunted by a premonition that something was about to happen in their camp. The warning had originally come from the flock of dirty black ravens that flew over the camp and sat on the flagstones, where it was written: “People – Party – Enver”, but also from “Tarti”, which occasionally crowed, it became more restless with each passing day. The situation continued to be alarming. A solution was still not found. Intervention by force, on the part of the command, was seen as impossible. Time passed. The people of the command were also waiting for the arrival of the operative group of the Internal Affairs Branch of Rreshen. They arrived around 4:00 p.m.
They gathered again in one of the command offices and began to consider the situation. An hour passed and no one had been able to come out with a decision. Another hour passed and silence again. The prisoners were anxious. What would happen? They weren’t sure if the command was starting to feel powerless or if some other surprise was brewing on their end. The prisoners kept shouting slogans like: “We love free Albania”! “Long live freedom”!, “Long live free Europe”!, “We are innocent”! etc. I, together with Ulsi Pashollari, started sticking such slogans on the walls with marmalade, where we demanded the establishment of an American commission, for the verification of the files with the crimes of the communist dictatorship of the current regime.
However, around 18.00, police and people from the State Security began to implement the “Trojan Horse” plan. They sent news to the prisoners that someone was looking for them and after they managed to separate them, taking them out to the back of the kitchen, they arrested them, because that place was out of sight of the other prisoners. With the same plan, they also arrested Pal Zefi. The prisoners saw his arrest in the last moments. At that very moment, the powerful voice of Dervish Bejko was heard. “Don’t arrest him, you scoundrel”! The other prisoners also jumped into the fight, but Zefi had already escaped from their hands. Immediately after his arrest, he was urgently taken to the Internal Affairs Branch of Rrëshen. They had used the same scheme with Syrja Lamen.
It was already the moment when they were trying to arrest Pavllo Popa, but in the meantime, the crowd of prisoners had realized what was happening to their people. Instinctively, they started to gather and stay together, next to each other. A part of the prisoners took place on the terrace of the shower and the rest in the yard of the camp. Convict Popa was telling the officers that he was ready to come on his own, without being tied up, but while he was walking accompanied by non-commissioned officers, the crowd moved like a monster. The calls were loud and powerful. Their movements had only one meaning: “Don’t go brother, come back here to us, if you go with them, you will never come back”. Popa took two steps forward and then stood in the middle of the road, like a stone that cannot roll any further, and said: “I’m going to my friends.”
The duel was silent. They could not use violence or force, because they were afraid that the crowd could turn into a monster. “Okay, – they told him, – go, but know that we will take you, you can’t go anywhere else.” Popa was released. It was another victory for the prisoners. Now, they should have been the ones to go on the offensive. It was the moment when the courage of the command was declining, the crowd was winning. At that moment, they found out that one of the investigators and the prosecutor was in the infirmary. This made them want to take them hostage and after that, be the ones to dictate their conditions, but they were able to spot what was being woven by the prisoners. The camp’s internal guards managed to get them out of the infirmary, using another exit. Even among the ranks of investigators and prosecutors, panic had entered.
Every one of them, even though he had to be brave, felt the fear of death, due to some sudden attack, from the rebellious people. According to them, the “beast” had become dangerous. The number of prisoners, who were turning into protagonists, was getting bigger and bigger. Those who raised slogans against popular power were becoming more and more numerous. Suddenly the next fight had started. Many people bled. Finally, the men of command had left again. After that, everything seemed to calm down. They wanted to create the impression that the one that was guilty, Pal Zefi, was arrested, and we have nothing with the others. Everyone must obey the rules and laws in force and no measures will be taken. But, it had only been a false silence…!
Facing the guards
The crowd was becoming overwhelming. The prisoners were left face to face, only with the internal guards of the prison. The people of the command continued to be gripped by panic. There came a moment when the prisoners wanted to attack the guards with everything they could. If this were to happen, of course the real carnage would take place, on the side of the prisoners. But even the leaders of the command probably did not want such a tragedy. It was not known what could happen after that, if in these premises, from the bodies of the prisoners, a river of blood would be shed. They were of different ages, from different provinces; many of them had been put in prison, just because they had great influence in the provinces and areas where they lived.
The crowd of prisoners advanced. The two opposing forces faced each other. The prisoners took a step forward; the guards took a step back. They stood for a moment, measured each other’s strength with their eyes, understood who was ahead, and then took another step, the guards, again retreated. This happened, until the armed men withdrew from the inner areas and went out into the restricted area. Only the prisoners could not go there. Exiting the restricted area meant certain death. If that happened, the soldiers would be forced to shoot. It was hoped that the crowd would also stop because they could not face death, but unfortunately, this was not the case. The crowd of prisoners had all decided to go to certain death. It was at this very moment, when another order was given, that the soldiers should go outside the siege area.
Now, everything was in the hands of the prisoners. The command had no opportunity to establish the previous rule. As if the duel they had won with the prison guards was not enough, when the prisoners, seeing that everything was left in their hands, they headed out of the isolation rooms and took their fellow prisoners out of there. It was a victory that was being enjoyed by all. The crowd had turned into a veritable frenzy. It was not known what would happen next; perhaps the prisoners would try to take over the restricted area as well. The fear, that it could happen like this, forced the soldiers to shoot with automatic volleys from all directions, on the heads of the prisoners, but this time, no one was feeling the fear.
To them, what was happening at that moment, that barrage of bullets, was just an explosion of fireworks. Many of the prisoners started shouting slogans such as: “The army is with us”, “The people are with us and against you”, “Comrade Soldiers, hand over your weapons”! In all the premises of the prison, find the prisoners in groups. Skender Daja, Dervish Bejko and Bashkim Fishta, started giving speeches, reciting poems with content against the popular power and calling for uprising, etc. There was only one fear; the prisoners might blow up the camp. They had already turned into a real terror.
The first night of the revolt
The first day of the revolt had come to an end and night had begun to fall. There was no doubt that for the leaders of the camp command, it was going to be a night of hell. Their whole strategy was to postpone this fearful night, without any provocation to the prisoners, since otherwise the evil could spread very quickly, and no one would be able to predict who would be the end of it. They could get out of prison and spread throughout Albania. When the morning had not yet dawned, the leaders of the command had received the notification from the guards, that on the third floor of their building, the prisoners had raised the flag with the two proud eagles, but without the red star!
On the meringue of Neim Pasha’s quilt, Matjani Mersin Vlashi painted the eagle. Ndrec Choku found a stick and used it instead of the flagpole. We baptized Ndreca, with the new name, “Ndrec Flamuri”. However, as the flag was raised over the building, the soldiers opened fire, but thankfully, no one was killed. Of course, to shoot at the bodies of the prisoners in those moments would mean entering into a dead-end adventure. The whole camp was in the hands of the prisoners. Their despair and hatred resembled an endless sea. In the morning of that day, the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs also arrived at Spaçi camp. After getting to know the situation, he took it upon himself to address the prisoners and ask us to return to order and law enforcement. The deputy minister spoke relatively long, trying to show us the strength of the state, the punishment that would fall on all those who had undertaken to break the law, and the death that would be received by anyone who had dared to go against the popular power. His only purpose was to spread panic among the prisoners, so that the latter would understand that the revenge against them would be great and merciless. Only unconditional surrender could save their lives.
After the long speech of the deputy minister, Feçor Shehu, it was expected that the prisoners would announce their surrender, but surprisingly, none of the prisoners obeyed such calls, even though everyone knew that some of them would be punished with death. The dirty black ravens continued to pass over their camp, to then stop on the opposite hill, where a large banner was written in stone. Contrary to what the deputy minister hoped, the prisoners, instead of answering, sent a prisoner to bring him an envelope, where the convicts had listed all their demands. The action of the prisoners was a disregard for the force shown by the state, through a deputy minister.
The man sent by the government could never accept this; it would be an unparalleled humiliation before the “enemy of the class”. The courier of the prisoners was turned back. However, on behalf of the convicts, Paulin Vata, Hajri Pashaj and Nuri Stepa, not only ignored this call, but opposed it, with the following demands: No one should be declared guilty, no one should work in the mine, except in construction etc., to have an amnesty, because since the time of the break with the Soviet Union, there had not been any, for our case to be examined, and for us to be released, because we were convicted without guilt, etc. The publication of their demands warmed the hearts of all the convicts.
Yes, they had the courage to tell the people of the government to their face, everything they felt, as if they had never been afraid to openly show their hatred towards the popular power and the leadership of the Party. They had always been free people. The days of the Spaçi revolt were also experienced as a day of great celebration. Someone shouted: “Long live free Albania”, “We are with free Europe”, “Down with communism”, etc. None of them wanted to avoid this big fight, which would surely never be forgotten.
When the evening began to fall, the news was learned that the entire camp had been occupied by three sieges of soldiers. To show how many they were in number, throughout the night, they lit fires along the hills, even where the slogan: “People – Party – Enver” was written in stone, and black ravens sat down. Constantly around the camp, the sounds of cars, tank manoeuvres, and movement of weapons, loading and firing of guns could be heard. According to the news that arrived from time to time, the Military Corps of Burrel had all arrived there; the sampists from Tirana had also arrived, equipped with weapons and wooden sticks. It was also said that the rulers of that time had decided to use chemicals as well.
After that, all the prisoners would find themselves in a state of fainting, while the army would make their immediate arrest. In case of need, not even lead would be spared. The water supply was also cut off. At the moment, we could only use the water left in the shower trays. Confrontation would be a real horror. And that’s what happened to those who objected; they beat them with shovel tails and brought them there on stretchers, such as: Dashnor Kazazi, Gëzim Medolli, Pal Zefi, Skënder Daja, Dervish Bejko, Demir Pojani, etc.
They were many and all armed…! Someone came with the list of arrests; about 100 names of prisoners were read. Other names would have been read, if Feçor Shehu did not raise his hand to say: “boll”. In the list, there were elderly people who had served 20-30 years in prison, but it was known that these people had been influential in their provinces, such as: Sami Dangëllia, Hodo Sokoli, etc., so the punishment for them, would be ruthless. In order not to hear the groans of the people being tortured, the policemen sang: “We are marching forward, with Enver victorious.”
Four of them were sentenced by firing squad: Skender Daja, Pal Zefi, Dervish Bejko and Hajri Pashaj. None of them asked for mercy, while 8 others were sentenced to 25 years in prison. These sentences were given within the day. While in the following days, the camp would be placed under investigation. Inside the camp, seven interrogation centers were opened, where all, without exception, all prisoners would be questioned. For 6 months in a row, it was completely forbidden to send or receive letters and packages from families, meetings with relatives and everything else were forbidden.
No one knew what was happening to the prisoners. Some of them were taken to Tirana prison, another part to that of Rreshen, some were released, while there were many who were re-convicted. However, everyone remembered the words of Skender Daja, to whom even when they said: “Defendant, ask for forgiveness and we will forgive you”, he answered: “Even if I had ten lives, I would do the same thing ten times to do I would fight, to be free”. Memorie.al