The third part
Memorie.al / publishes the unknown story of Tom Mërnaçaj, originally from Selca e Vermoshit and born in Tuz, Montenegro, where the family of his father, Gjek Mërnaçaj, had settled since 1948, after they had fled Albania for to escape the persecution of Enver Hoxha’s communist regime, which had declared their family a ‘reactionary family’. The rare testimony of 68-year-old Tom Mërnaçaj, starting with the history of his anti-communist family, the circumstances of the acquaintance with Avdul Banushi in the United States of America, his invitation and the reason why he agreed to come with a secret mission to communist Albania Enver Hoxha, the concrete tasks he would perform, the itinerary of his travels with Banushi in different European countries, the incident with the border police in the Port of Dubrovnik, where they were seized the propaganda material of the organization ‘Albanian Anti-Stalinist Resistance Front’, the trip to Greece and their stay in Igoumenitsa and Ioannina, in the luxury villas of Nikola Plasoti and Lufter Guveli, where Banushi was received with honors and was like a man of the house, the failure of the first mission to enter Albania, on November 28 ’74, return to the USA and the train incident in Skopje, where the Yugoslav police seized their bags with weapons, the second secret mission to come back to Albania, the physical conflict with Banushi, near the clone near Hani i Hotit, the arrest by the Albanian border guards and their sending to Shkodra and then to Tirana, the investigation process, imprisonment and then leaving Albania again, until the vicissitudes of big wandering in different European countries, to arrive back in the US, after that crazy adventure ?!
After Avdul Banushi and I had failed in an attempt to enter Albania illegally in November 1974, the “comrades up there” of the “Albanian Anti-Stalinist Resistance Front” organization decided that we should go back to Albania in April of 1975 and I accepted such a thing, thinking that I owed him a debt to repay him. After leaving the US by plane, we arrived in Greece, where we were supplied with weapons by Mr. Lefter Guveli, who was a close friend of Avdul Banushi. From Igoumenitsa where Lefter Guveli lived, we went to Athens where we took the train and went to Yugoslavia, from where we then traveled to Podgorica, where my family lived, my father, mother and brother. In the evening of April 6-7, 1975, after sleeping one night in my house, the next evening late, we crossed Tuz and set off towards the Albanian border, about two or three km. near him. There I told my father, Gjeka, to return home, as I more or less knew the place, since we were there near my uncle’s village, where I had spent my childhood. After my father returned, Avdul Banushi and I crossed the border and, under the sound of high voltage wires, sat down in the direction of Hani i Hotit. After walking about two or three kilometers, we reached the clone. When I saw the clone, four meters high, I forgot the pride I had set off for and fear entered my heart. It is understood that at that time I was twenty years old and apart from hatred for communism inherited from my family, I had no other reason to enter Albania. There I told Avdul to return as we had returned a year ago and to keep secret our “entry” and “exit” from Albania, until the Albanian border guards catch us and kill us. At that moment, Avdulit, revolted and aimed his pistol muzzle at me. When I saw the pistol aimed at me, for a moment I was shocked, but I collected myself and reacted by… “!
This is how 68-year-old Tom Mërnacaj, who lives in the United States of America, recounts, among other things, that distant event and his crazy adventure, who tells the story of his family and his 1975 adventure, when he was starts with Avdul Banushi, from the USA, to cross the border and enter Albania illegally, with a secret mission, following the task and occasional instructions they had received in the committee of the organization “Albanian Anti-Stalinist Resistance Front” in New York.
Who is Tom Mërnaçi, what is his family’s past and why did his father and uncle escape from Albania in 1948 and settle in Tuz, Montenegro? What were the reasons for his escape from Yugoslavia to the US and how did he meet Avdul Banushi? Why did Toma agree to work with Avdul, and what is the history of their travels from the United States to Greece, Italy, and Yugoslavia? What is the truth of their last trip in April 1975, when they left the US to enter Albania illegally with a secret mission? What was the itinerary they traversed during that trip, who were the people they met in Greece and where were they supplied with the weapons they would need with them when they entered Albania? What is Tom Mërnaçaj’s assessment of Avdul Banushi and why did he decide to speak publicly, giving his versions in this interview, which Memorie.al is publishing?
Continued from the previous issue
Mr. Mërnaçaj, were you with Avdul Banushi at the US military bases in Greece and were you supplied with weapons there?
I have never been with Avdul Banushi at those bases and I have no knowledge of those American servicemen he has met. As for the weapons, we took them to Lefter Guvel’s house and they were old weapons, some automatic weapons, the cartridge could barely fit. As for the connections that Avduli claimed to have had with the Americans, it is his job. In the only base that I was with Banushi, was the house of Mr. Plasoti, where we were received with a noble generosity, which I do not forget, as well as the house of Lefter Guvel, the man who was associated with anti-Albanian circles. I also wanted to add that we also visited the house of the Vlach shepherd, named Gaqi, where together with Avdul Banushi, we ate fresh cheese and fruit compote.
Where did you go after the failure of your mission?
After we could not enter Albania, we went to Skopje, where we got visas and during the train journey, the Yugoslav train police discovered our bag with all the dynamite ‘locks’ we had with us. After that, the train was stopped in Skopje and surrounded by the police, who started checking one by one all the passengers, looking at them in detail. At that time, the Cypriot riots had begun and the Greek-speakers were the most suspicious on the train. We, being with American passports, were able to escape and passed our trip to Trieste without any problems. Of course, without the dynamite bags, the police blocked us. Then we traveled from Trieste to Rome and from there by plane to New York.
What did they tell you when you arrived in New York?
When we returned to New York, we talked about our meetings and the bases where we had taken refuge in both Greece and Albania. We also went to the “Free Albania” Committee, where we talked about the “success” of our mission, giving people courage, that ‘Albania was not as impenetrable as it was said’. Of course I was instructed, not to prove anything else, that I would eat the bullet in the forehead.
The truth about that mission, did you talk to any of your friends?
Absolutely, since then, I have not only not talked about this event with anyone, but I have kept my mouth shut. It is the first time I am mentioning him in this interview with you, forced after the interview of Mr. Banushi.
But why did he leave again in April 1975, to come to Albania with Avdul Banushi with a secret mission?
After the failure of the first mission, I, as it were, owed him a debt to repay Avdul Banushi and decided to come with him back to Albania?
That was the only reason you decided to take the adventure to enter Albania again?
Not only that, but I also did it after the message that was “from the comrades up there”, of the organization “Resistance Front”.
On what itinerary did you travel to Albania, the second time with Avdul Banushi?
Around the end of March 1975, we traveled from the US to Greece, almost on the same route. Also, we went to Plasot in Igoumenitsa, where we were given the same reception. But the second time, something happened between him and Avdul Banushi, because we made the Igoumenitsa-Ioannina road several times.
What had happened between them?
I did not understand that well, but a quarrel had broken out between them. I only learned that in 1980, when I went to the house of Nikola Plasot for Christmas, where I also met Gaqi, the Vlach shepherd. As for Lefter, I have not met him since.
What had happened between Banush and Guvel?
The reason for their break-up was the failure of our mission in November 1974. At that time, Guveli had suspended our entry into Albania from that province, probably because at that time, Greece was normalizing relations with communist Albania. Enver Hoxha and they (the Greeks) did not want any border violations on their part. But let’s leave that and let’s go back to our April 1975 mission you asked me about.
But definitely, how did that mission continue?
From Igoumenitsa, we went to Athens, where we took the train to Yugoslavia, and finally arrived in Podgorica, where I had my family. Only my father was there, while my mother and brother had gone to my uncles, since it was Easter. After sleeping there that night, the next night, together with Avdul, we set off towards the border. There I told my father to stop and go back home, because more or less, I knew the place, because we were very close to my uncle’s village, where I had spent my childhood. The father returned, while Avduli and I, after crossing the border under the sound of high voltage wires, sat down in the direction of Hani i Hotit, and after two or three km, we reached the clone. We did not expect that there would be a clone, but even if there was, Mr. Banushi told me that it was not a problem for him. When I saw that imposing clone, four meters high, I forgot the pride that I had left the US and fear entered my heart. My fear is understandable, that at that time I was 22 years old and apart from the inherited hatred I had for communism, I had no other reason to enter Albania.
What did you do after the fear took you?
After that, I told Avdul Banushi to go back, as we had done a year ago, and to keep secret our “entry” and “exit” from Albania, rather than being caught and killed.
What did Avduli say to you after the suggestion you made?
In those moments, Avdul crossed the vein and immediately aimed the pistol at my head. I was shocked at first, but then I collected myself and reacted, hitting him with the automatic in his pistol and there started the fight between us, getting physically involved with each other. From the noise that was made, the Albanian border guards came and arrested us both, as Avduli tried to escape from you.
How do you explain your capture at the border?
For me even today, our capture remains an enigma, but just as Mr. Avdul Banushi has no right to point the finger at me, so I do not have the right to accuse him of betraying me and selling me to the clone, as I remembered then. Maybe our own quarrel became the cause of the capture, or the secret of our trip was not kept top secret.
You say you were alone with Avduli at the border?
So is the truth and my dad was not there at all with me in the clone. This is also the reason I pronounced myself to give this interview to you, in order to put in place the honor of my father and my mountainous family, respected, trusted and with patriotic history. All those Albanians who know us here in America know this. I have no problem with what Avdul Banushi says about me personally, and I would not have spoken if he had not unjustly mentioned the name of my father and brother, who remained anti-communists. But I agreed to say that I do not allow my family honor to be affected.
But then, after the border soldiers were captured, where did they take you, how many were you personally convicted and how could you leave Albania again?
After they caught us, they took us to Shkodra, and then to Tirana, where after holding me for 13 months as an investigator, I was sentenced to three years. This sentence came because I had never been to Albania and apart from violating the border; they had no charges against me. After three years, my departure from Albania has been a very dangerous step, both for me and for the man who helped me. Therefore, my salvation does not matter to anyone, because it is a matter that belongs only to me.
What did you do when you came back to the US?
When I left Albania, I saw how much I had seen the quarrel of the famous “Anti-Stalinist Resistance Front”, where not only was there no one to help me, but no one even asked us what had happened. With us. There I saw, that in case the organization “Resistance Front” had never existed, at least it was already dead. I remained at the mercy of fate for several years, seeking refuge throughout Europe, until I finally arrived in the US, where for some time; I hosted a local radio program. At the end of this interview, I wanted to say: why Mr. Banushi has not said these things before, after boasting about terrorism today, is a failed synchrony. It’s madness.
Mr. Mërnaçaj, thank you for agreeing to give this interview.
I also thank you for creating this opportunity for me to speak and convey my words./Memorie.al