From Bardhyl Berberi
Memorie.al / As soon as the car pulls up, the view of the blue lake appears on the Thana Pass as if on a movie screen, Robert Rado bursts into tears and sinks into a deep meditation with his eyes close to the car window. “I miss and worry about this lake”. It descends the Thana Pass and approaches the shore of the lake. The stirring of the waves and the cries of the seagulls bring him back to that autumn day when he and his friend, Besnik Zekthin, challenged the communist dictatorship. He looks at the place where they left that evening near the “1 Maji” flower garden, where today the motor pumps for cleaning the collector are placed. With longing eyes he looks around the place. Although at a broken age with completely bleached hair, images come to his memory, like a form of love, pain and nightmare. “My life is a painful inhuman ordeal, prisons, punishments, but freedom could not be kept in chains”. The rare story of Robert Rado, the man who challenged the communist dictatorship.
I met Robert Rado quite by chance a few days ago on the shore of the lake while going to the beach. A friend of Robert, Edmond Karanxha, wakes up worried and sees that Robert, who had entered the lake to swim, had been swimming for over two hours and was nowhere to be seen above the surface of the lake. Together with Edmond, we stayed, went to the pier and only after more than 20 minutes, a gray head appeared on the blue surface of the lake.
Edmond took a deep breath and said: here he is coming, he is. They sat in a bar on the shore and we were drinking coffee. We told him that he was bothering us because he had been swimming for more than two hours. “Yes, I swam across this lake in the fall, but not now.” Robert is a modest guy; he doesn’t want to talk about his stories in full details…!
– How is Robert doing?
It was September 22, 1986, and after we had spoken with Besnik Zekthi (brother of Besim Zekthi, the well-known dancer and choreographer), that they would escape from the Pogradec lake. Besnik was a swimmer, he was also a communist, but he did not like the communist regime. The date September 22, 1986, served as a date to say goodbye to loved ones, but without telling you that we were going to escape. I took my only son Creon (who was only four years old at the time), along with some grandchildren that I loved very much, and took them by bicycle to an ice cream shop, near the University campus in Tirana.
Then Creon asked me to ride him on a motorcycle, we even took a picture…! On September 23, 1986, early in the morning with Besnik, we boarded the train to go from Tirana to Pogradec. We arrived at noon in Pogradec. We made the beach and decided to leave right here, as soon as the evening fell. Around 20.00 in the evening, as soon as night fell, Besnik was the first to be released, he took off his clothes and placed them under a thick steel pipe, where water was taken from the lake for irrigation.
As soon as Besnik left after five minutes, I also entered the lake, but I jumped in all my clothes and on the shore I left only a sports bag with a small knife inside. I took my clothes off while swimming. We swam separated from each other. The border controlled the lake with two powerful searchlights. As soon as I looked at the searchlight, I dived into the water and found my way through them.
First I went deep, and then cut diagonally towards Tushemishti. I remember swimming for about 5 hours when I got to the other shore around 1:00 am. I was exhausted; I was freezing, having stood for five hours in the water, which was not like now in the summer, since the autumn rains had started that day
-Where did you go after crossing the border?
I saw a fire somewhere near a garden. I approached the fire to warm myself. It seems there was a guard guarding the apple orchard, who was scared of me when he saw me completely naked. I knew he was going to call the police and I stood there motionless, warming myself around the fire. Around 5 in the morning, a “Jeep” with two policemen and a civilian arrives, they pick me up and take me to Ohrid prison.
-How long did you stay in prison?
I was brought before the court and sentenced to one month in prison. I asked you in court, the status of a political prisoner who had been in the prison of the communist dictatorship.
– Why had you been in prison other times?
– Yes, and two more times for escape attempts, even the first attempt started when I was only 16 years old, when together with two friends, we made a raft to get on a foreign ship and hide in the steamer, until the ship went to Italy, but then they called it a piece of work and I only did one month in prison. Then I tried together with three friends to escape from Rakicka e Devolli, but one spied on us and we were arrested at the border, I was sentenced to 8 years in prison, which I served in Spaçi prison.
-The Yugoslav court of Ohrid gave them the status?
No, a month I have seen an unprecedented psychological terror in the investigator. They were convinced that the State Security had thrown us as agents and they did not believe that we had swum across the lake. So, on October 16, they took us in a boat and put us in the middle of the lake, together with a swimming expert and both with Besnik (whom I met in Ohrid prison, he had also surrendered to the police and was seeking the status of the political emigrant), they let us into the lake and told us to swim a distance of several hours. We covered the distance and they were convinced that we had swum across the lake.
-Then what happened to you?
We were transferred after a month to Belgrade. Even there, the psychological violence continued by various civil investigators who interrogated us. I asked you for a doctor because I had kidney pain, but they didn’t bring me a doctor. After a month in the refugee camp, we applied; Besnik and I applied to the USA.
First I stayed in Detroit, after a year I went to New Jersey and another year to Kenerike and then to Boston, where I am still today. In 1990, I worked as a waiter at the famous Vipa restaurant, owned by the Albanian Antonio Athanas.
– What about the family, did they find out about the escape?
Yes, after a year I found a Kosovar and told him from Durrës to post a letter with a photo inside to Skrapar, to the bride’s people. The letter reached them and that’s how they found out.
-How did you bring your family to America?
After the collapse of the communist system, the woman together with the son entered the Italian embassy in July 1990 and then I dragged them to Boston. It’s a terrible moment, the boy didn’t recognize me anymore, and he was like a stranger…! Then life continues with its dynamics. Kreoni, our only son, was the light of joy, he was educated, but with a great love for Albania.
In his personal belongings was an Albanian flag, which he took with him wherever he went. Although Creon left Albania when he was young (only 7 years old), he always remembered a word that had killed his soul, when his friends told him in the first grade: “This one’s dad has run away”.
-In America, after you joined the family, did everything change for the better?
At first it was like that, the boy brought me unprecedented joy, he grew up, was educated, was educated and worked for 5 years as a marine in the Navy in Virginia, but at the very end of this mission, exactly two years ago, on the 31 August 2011, my son Creon, I lost the best part of my life at the age of 27 in an accident (I am crying, there is a video of the funeral ceremony and the letter of condolence from the President of the USA, Barak Obama).
– Why are you so attached to Pogradec and its lake, you come two months every summer from America?!
In this lake I found my freedom missing in the dictatorship and in this lake, I want to die, swimming like this for hours…! The deeper I go, the closer I feel to my son, Creon, as if I am conversing with his soul, there among the waves of the lake…!
Now this story with all the details will soon appear in an autobiographical book by Robert Rad, even a famous American director has been attracted to this story, who wants to make it into a feature film. Memorie.al