Memorie.al publishes the unknown story with the rare testimonies of the former Commander of the Albanian Air Force and member of the People’s Assembly, Colonel Edip Ohri, regarding the fierce debates held in the Defense Council in the early 1970s in between Enver Hoxha and Mehmet Shehu, regarding the contradictions they had and the high leadership of that time for many of the defense problems, relations with the Chinese and the place where some of the greatest military works were to be built, such as Gjadri airport , etj…
“Prime Minister Mehmet Shehu was categorically against the option of building a military airport in the Gjadri Valley and he insisted that it be done in Hekal of Mallakastra. After many debates, in 1971 this issue was submitted for approval to the High Council of Defense, which in addition to Enver Hoxha, also included Mehmet Shehu, Hysni Kapo, Adil Çarçani and Hito Çako. In addition to the Director of Genoa, Mendu Backa and the Chief Engineer, Lavdosh Dule, in the capacity of the Commander-in-Chief of the Albanian Air Force, I was also called to that meeting. After the opening of the meeting by Enver Hoxha, the first to speak was Mendu Backa, who said that according to the consultation that was done with the Chinese side, the Ministry of Defense was of the opinion that the airport be built in Gjader, as only he met all required conditions and parameters. At the moment when Mendu Backa had not yet finished his speech, Mehmet Shehu stood up and said: ‘I do not agree. They demand a lot, it is the most fertile land of Lezha ‘. Meanwhile, Enver intervened, telling Mehmet to sit down, but he continued to defend his idea and did not withdraw from himself ‘. The conversation became so tense that Enver was forced to stand up several times and in a very high tone addressed Mehmet, saying: ‘Mehmet, sit down if I tell you. “These are specialists, they know better.”
This is how the retired colonel and former member of the People’s Assembly and Commander-in-Chief of the Albanian Aviation, Edip Ohri, recalled in an interview given to us years ago, the fierce debates that took place between Enver and Mehmet Shehu in 1972, on the site where one of the most modern military airports of that time would be built.
But how did the need for the construction of that airport arise and who were the four senior Albanian soldiers who went to gain experience in North Korea regarding the tunneling of the Albanian army? Why did the Prime Minister Mehmet Shehu insist to the Chinese and Albanian specialists that the airport be built in the Mallakastra Hekal and what were the reasons that the Chinese rejected not only the Hekal, but also the Shtoj Field, Pish-Poron, Kukës, Gjirokastra, Cërrik and Kazan Neck in Ersekë? What were the heated debates that took place between Enver and Mehmet in the Defense Council and how was the construction of the airport in the Gjader Valley decided?
Related to this, full of events and other previously unknown facts, such as: secret talks between senior Albanian and Chinese military on the bringing of heavy weapons from China, the meeting in Beijing in December 1972 in between the high delegation led by Beqir Balluku and the Chinese delegation led by Prime Minister Chu En Lai, the Chinese side’s rejection of the Albanian side’s request which by decision of the Politburo demanded 18 military plants, the Chinese Prime Minister’s harsh criticism against militaristic policy that Enver Hoxha was following and his suggestions that Albania should sign a pact with Belgrade and Bucharest, for the formation of a Defense Bloc against the Soviet Union, the recording of Chu En Lai’s speech by two masked Interior Ministry radios composed of the Albanian delegation and his urgent sending to Enver Hoxha in Tirana, as well as other events which until the beginning of the ’90s were closed in the files of classified as highly secretive and of special importance, we know the testimonies of Edip Ohrid, one of the senior Albanian military who has been a participant in all those meetings.
Also, following this long interview which will be published in several consecutive issues of Memorie.al, we will get acquainted with his arrest on October 16, 1980, when investigators, contrary to all the rules of that time, Ohrid was also asked about Mehmet Shehu, the man who was still in the post of Prime Minister of Albania.
Mr. Ohrid, how and why was it decided that in addition to some military airports that Albania had at that time, such as Kuçova, Vlora and Rinasi, Gjadri was also built?
In 1968-’69, after the withdrawal of Albania “de jure” from the Warsaw Pact, depending on the political and military conjunctures that are happening in the region, the idea of tunneling the Albanian army was born. For this at that time, a team of the Ministry of Defense consisting of Mendu Backa, Alfred Moisiu, Lavdosh Dule and another person whose name I cannot remember, was sent to North Korea to gain experience.
Why was it decided to gain experience from North Korea and not from China, with which Albania had very good relations?
“The decision to gain experience from North Korea was made because in the long war with the Americans, it had successfully used the tunneling of the army, which it had over-modernized.”
After the return from Korea of the Albanian team of the Ministry of Defense, what decisions were taken?
Among the many measures taken at that time for the tunneling and modernization of the Albanian army, it was decided to build a military airport and the naval tunnels, for which an agreement had been reached with the Chinese some time ago. So according to that agreement signed between our Ministry of Defense and the Chinese one, that aerodrome would be designed and built entirely with the financing of the Chinese side, who after the construction, would bring the planes with all the necessary logistical base. While the Albanian side would be available, only labor and cement. In this context, to build the tunnels of Aviation and Navy, at that time help was sought from China, which immediately brought a group of specialists of 10-15 people. That group was led by a very talented specialist named Sung, who was involved in building aviation tunnels not only in China but also in several other African countries aided by China.
Who hosted the Chinese specialists and what was initially discussed with them?
By order of the Minister of Defense, Beqir Balluku, for the reception and escort of the Chinese specialists, the engineer Lavdosh Dule was assigned from the Directorate of Xhenja and I, as the Commander-in-Chief of Aviation. I told the Chinese specialists that according to the order given to me by Prime Minister Mehmet Shehu, we would go to Hekal in Mallakastra, where Mehmeti was thinking of building the airport.
Did Mehmeti himself determine Hekal as the place where the airport would be built, or did he consult with other soldiers?
A year ago, Mehmeti called me with Babaçe Faik and Niko Hoxha and suggested us that place. “After that, the three of us went to Hekal, both by car and by plane, and when we returned we told him that the airport could not be built there.”
Even though you had told him that the airport was not built in Hekal, Mehmet insisted on building it again?
He was full of thoughts about Hekal and Mendu Backa and Lavdosh Dulen approved of that, so I was forced to go there together with the Chinese specialists, who issued a visa to that country saying that it could not be done.
But then where was it decided to build the airport?
After the Chinese refusal to Hekal, Mehmet Shehu told us to go to Pish-Poro in Vlora, which the Chinese refused because there was a swamp and zero quota, but above all the tunnels were very far from the airport. After that Mehmeti told us to go to Fushë e Shtoit in Shkodër, because we almost had the airport there. The Chinese did not want the Shto field as well, as it was very close to the border with Montenegro and from Tarabosh Mountain (Yugoslav part) the whole field looked in the palm of your hand and could be easily shot with artillery. But problems arose here, as some said that the airport could be built there and Mehmeti called me and Mendu Backa several times. We both told him that it was not done and the matter went to the Defense Council, where Mehmeti told Enver: “I gave them Pish-Poron and Shtoit Field, but they do not want it”. After that I intervened, saying that in Fushë-Shtoj the landing of planes was done only from one side, because the border was very close. After that, Enver said, “Mehmet, we do not want a one-legged airfield.” “After that, the problem was closed.”
How was the aerodrome then decided?
After that we were told to find other places and I accompanied the Chinese specialists almost all over Albania, doing regonations in Kukës, Gjirokastër, Ersekë, etc., but all these places were rejected by the Chinese side, because they were very close, border and can be hit easily. So, we were forced to go and saw Gjadri and Cërrik, but since Cërrik was very close to the Domosdova field where the Metallurgical Plant was planned to be located and for some other reasons of a military nature, the most probable version for the construction of that giant airport was built free of charge by the Chinese, only the Gjadri Valley remained. But this opinion was not the Prime Minister Mehmet Shehu who was categorically against this version and he insisted that the military airport be built only in Hekal of Mallakastra. After many debates, this issue was submitted for approval to the High Council of Defense, where besides Enver Hoxha, Mehmet Shehu, Hysni Kapo, Adil Çarçani and Hito Çako were also members.
Why was not the Minister of Defense, Beqir Balluku?
“If I am not mistaken, he was absent because he was ill. In that meeting that took place in one of the halls of the Central Committee, in addition to the Director of Genoa, Mendu Backa and the Chief Engineer, Lavdosh Dule, in the capacity of Commander-in-Chief of the Albanian Aviation, After the opening of the meeting by Enver Hoxha, who said: “We have gathered to decide on the construction of the airport”, the first to speak was Mendu Backa, who said that according to the consultation that was done with the party The Chinese Ministry of Defense was of the opinion that the airport should be built in Gjader, as it alone met all the required conditions and parameters. At the moment when Mendu Backa had not yet finished his speech, Mehmet Shehu stood up and said: “I do not agree. “They demand a lot, it is the most fertile land of Lezha”. Meanwhile, Enver intervened, telling Mehmet to sit down, but he continued to defend his idea and did not withdraw from himself “. The conversation became so tense that Enver was forced to stand up several times and in a very high tone addressed Mehmet, saying: “Mehmet, sit down and tell me. These are specialists, they know better”.
What did Mehmeti say next?
“Mehmeti did not speak anymore and the meeting was closed after Enver invited the attendees to approve Gjader’s version. When we left Mehmeti did not even give us a hand. Only formalities were done there, as Enver had information and other sources.”
What about Hysniu, Adili and Hito Çako, what was their position during the meeting?
“They did not speak, but when we had the word, they approved by playing with their heads.”