February 1979 started with heavy snow, a biting wind, and the baying of the Alsatian kept by the guards to foil escape attempts. Superstitious prisoners claimed that the dog’s howling at night augured the death of a senior politician: this would be followed by a turn in our own luck. Others said it foretold a death inside the camp. Most ignored such old wives’ tales and knew that the dog was either sick or in heat. Nevertheless this howling struck terror to the heart, especially in that bitter weather.
During the winter I was especially careful to steer clear of the punishment cell, which meant talking to the guards as little as possible, keeping calm in the face of provocations, following the “cycle,” and staying in bed as long as I could when not at work. This was the best bet in winter for anyone hoping to get out of this hellhole alive. Fear of the punishment cell haunted your mind and body even in sleep. This fear would come and go, but gripped us most tightly whenever the temperature fell, sometimes as low as minus twenty degrees Celsius, or whenever Tirana took a harsher political line. At such times a single word or gesture could cost you a month in the cells. In the best possible case, that is if you did not fall ill but were merely tortured by the cold, after a month in the cell it took two months to recover your body weight. Nevertheless, a stint in the punishment cell in winter was sometimes unavoidable. Xhaferr Xhomo spent that icy February in the cell, after they planted a big nail underneath his mattress and then punished him for keeping forbidden articles. A nail of that size was a potential weapon. Everybody knew that he was in fact paying for a thoughtless remark dropped the previous summer. During those bitter February days we thought continually of Xhaferr and the others in the cells, not simply out of pity, but to remind ourselves of what might happen to us too. Dhimo, the camp messenger, who took these men their three meals, sometimes brought back reports on their health. “Still alive this morning,” he would say with a shifty look.
So passed my fifth winter in Spaç. There was no heating in the camp, apart from the sun, our blood-heat, and the breath from our bodies. I spent whatever free time I had on endless walks, often with a companion, keeping my feet warm and talking with friends who were not in my own brigade. Sometimes, in milder weather, I would brave the unheated games room to play chess.
Then came the 21st of February, 1979.
It was Thursday. Heavy snow had fallen a few days before, and a freezing wind blew. My brigade was on the night shift that week. We had returned from the gallery as usual at about seven-thirty in the morning.
After eating some bread soaked in tea, I left the canteen and walked in the yard with my hands thrust deep in my coat pockets and my head hunched under the collar. There was less than an hour until morning roll call. I was tired after a night without sleep, but my body seemed to recover its energies very quickly, perhaps because normal biorhythms no longer applied.
At nine o’clock, after roll call, I finally reached my bed with a limitless feeling of satisfaction. I knew that if I threw my overcoat and the cotton-lined overalls over the four thin blankets, I would be beautifully warm. I fell into an exhausted sleep, with the sole wish that two o’clock, when the night shift was woken to eat lunch, would never come.
But two o’clock came and Dhimo called out, “Wake up, third shift.” Our morning sleep generally left us dazed and with throbbing temples. People said this was a combination of lack of sleep and poisoning from the mine gases.
Still drowsy, I went to the food store, opened the sack, took out a little oil to pour into the bowl for beans, and went to line up with the brigade. I held the icy aluminum bowl between my body and my sleeve, to keep my fingers from freezing. When we had all assembled, the internal guard came to see if we were ready to enter the canteen.
That day, Nue the Dog was on duty. It was surprising to find Nue the Dog there, because he did not usually enter the camp as an internal guard. Dhimo, after a nod from Nue, ordered us into the canteen. We set off in a line toward the bread hatch and the soup hatch, took our rations, and sat down.
We were forcing our way through the usual half-cooked beans with a ladleful of macaroni when a prisoner entered the canteen and announced that, while we had been sleeping, the guards had taken away about twenty prisoners in the prison van and in several trucks. This was incredible, but another prisoner confirmed the news. At first I thought that this must be a transfer to the camp at Ballsh or Burrel Prison, but the prisoners had not taken any clothes or food, but had gone just as they were, which puzzled us all.
As the news gradually spread among the tables of our shift, a wave of fear swept over the canteen. Never in the history of Spaç had so many people been taken away, unless for a transfer. Was there some emergency in Tirana? But usually a state of alert was imposed at such times, when army generals were arrested or put on trial. Meetings with relatives were canceled. If it was very serious, they did not even send the prisoners to work, let alone move them in vans and trucks.
This general fear made every prisoner anxious for himself, because we did not know if the operation was complete. I finished eating, wiped the aluminum bowl with a last crust of bread, and carried the bowl up to my brigade’s room on the third floor. The yard was almost empty. Most prisoners were in their rooms, but some were sitting on the balconies of the two dormitories.
My roommates all had different theories about why those twenty had been taken. Gradually, some names were reported. Xhaferr Xhomo had gone straight from the punishment cell without fetching clothes or food. This was very upsetting. Xhaferr’s move almost completely ruled out a possible transfer to Ballsh, where people were generally sent for good behavior. Burrel Prison was the most likely destination, but nobody had ever been sent there without clothes and food.
Less than twenty minutes later, Dhimo appeared at the door of the room, frowning, his head slightly bowed. He scanned all the prisoners with a devious look. Interpreting his behavior was one way to understand what was happening. His sombre expression suggested bad news, and sympathy toward us. But his eyes also expressed security and satisfaction at not being in the soup himself. We waited to see whom he would pick out, because he obviously had news for someone in our room.
He said to me softly:
“Fatos, come with me for a moment. They want you.”
Something serious and unusual was happening. I followed him in silence, trying to appear as calm as possible. Many prisoners on the balconies on the three floors watched me enter the tunnel between the two blocks that led out on the field. As I descended the stairs, one step behind Dhimo, I met Ali Oseku, who was climbing in the opposite direction. He was always the last to arrive, because he was responsible for washing the dishes. He was one of the few friends left from my life outside prison. He came up to me to speak, and I said, “Oseku, I’m leaving.”
He was lost for words, but moved toward me, to bid me good-bye or embrace me. Instinctively I signaled to him to keep away: Ali was due to be released in two months, and I didn’t want to jeopardize his imminent freedom. At that moment I saw many prisoners leaning over the balcony railings, watching this scene. Our unperformed embrace seemed to linger on the stairway.
When I entered the tunnel between the two blocks, Dhimo turned away from me without a word and left me to continue on my own.
I climbed the stairs behind the blocks and came out on the volleyball field. Only the duty officer and Big Lazër were there, pacing to and fro. Big Lazër was in fact short, but very officious, and he gestured at me to climb up to the forbidden zone. This was unnecessary, because I already knew my way. I passed through the small gate in the dividing wall and entered the zone, where Nue the Dog appeared in front of me, and pointed me toward the visiting room. On our way there, I noticed a truck covered in a black tarpaulin standing behind the iron gate, outside the perimeter wire. A chair stood beneath its lowered tailboard.
I entered the visiting room, where Pjetër Leka was waiting for me. He was the burliest of the Spaç guards, and some people hated him more than any other, because of his brutal outbursts. But others said that deep down he was a psychopath with a soft center, because sometimes he had rescued prisoners from the punishment cells when they least expected it. One of his canine teeth had a metal crown, which made him even more frightening and repellent.
Nue and Pjetër searched me. Pjetër took off my coat and examined the pockets, while Nue shoved his hands in the pocket of my cotton jacket and then inside my overalls, to see if I had hidden anything in the lining. It struck me that I was quite warmly dressed to cope with the cold, if I ended up in a cell. I had long camp-issue underwear and overalls, and over my vest and camp-issue shirt was a woolen sweater, the cotton jacket, and finally the overcoat, which was in reasonable condition.
After a cursory search, they fastened my hands behind my back with German handcuffs. Nue took me by the arms and led me to the iron gate. The duty sentry opened the gate and soon I had one leg on the chair, and was climbing with the other knee onto the platform of the truck. A gentle shove landed me inside like a sack.
I was not the first person on the truck. At the front, there were two pairs of prisoners. Dhimitër Stefa was tied to a familiar spy, whose name I did not know; Muho Bala was tied to Xhemal, another notorious snoop. They were shackled to each other at the wrist, with their other hands free. Why this difference between them and me? This was a disturbing thought. Was I considered more dangerous? We could not talk, because of the spies. Dhimitër, Muho and I looked at one another straight in the eye, as if to ask what was going on. But we did not exchange a word.
From the truck, I saw Nue the Dog escort a prisoner called Gjon into the visiting room. They quickly searched him too, and piled him into the truck. They manacled the two of us wrist-to-wrist with a single chain, which they fastened with a padlock.
It worried me that we were chained in pairs to spies. Perhaps they thought that, if any of us tried to escape during the journey, the trusty we were tied to would not let us go.
When the five shackled pairs were ready, four policemen jumped into the truck and took their positions at the four corners of the platform. We set off.
The back of the truck above the tailboard was left open. I had arrived at Spaç in the prison van five years ago, but I had never seen the road I had traveled. Now, five years later, I could see beyond the bare crag with the mine, the scrub-covered mountain opposite, and the gorge with the stream below. The same landscape continued, with hills covered with low bushes, now blanketed by snow. The unpaved road clung to the side of the hills, with a precipitous drop to the stream.
These new sights stirred my curiosity, and for a moment allayed my fear. But this fear soon came flooding back, because a black Gaz staff car with a Tirana license plate appeared thirty yards behind us. This must be our escort. Sometimes the car vanished behind a bend, but it always reappeared again, carefully shadowing us at a thirty-yard distance. I stared at the two muddy ruts left by vehicles in the white road. Beside the driver of the Gaz sat a plain-clothes man, dressed in a suit and tie, a typical investigator. I watched anxiously the serpentine path of the black car and the expression on the face of the civilian, who occasionally puffed at his cigarette.
I had no idea where we were going. We spoke very little, because of the close watch of the policemen and the spies. Thoma muttered that perhaps they were taking us to Burrel. So we waited in suspense until we reached Zog’s bridge, where the road turned off for Burrel. The truck did not turn left, but continued south. This ruled out Burrel. During the thirty kilometers from Zog’s bridge to Fushë Kruja, we built up hope of being sent to the camp at Ballsh. But at Fushë Kruja the truck turned toward Tirana, only twenty minutes away. There we would find out what this business was about. My heart beat faster.
By the time we reached the capital, it was completely dark. At Zogu i Zi, the roundabout at the entrance to the city, the truck turned left onto the ring road. My fear was mixed with a curiosity to see, after five years, the native city, where I had spent most of my life. More than anything else, I was drawn to the lights in the rooms of apartment blocks beside the ring, where the family life that I missed so much, still went on. I wanted to enter those glowing boxes filled with people, so unlike the solitary cell that I knew awaited me. We covered at speed the short stretch of ring-road and entered the dark, sinister alley leading to the Tirana prison. The great iron gate swung open, and we passed through into the confines of the prison. Two more gates led into inner yards, until finally the truck stopped. When we climbed down, we found ourselves in a small square between two dividing walls, one separating us from the yard attached to the pen, the other from the building where the remand cells were. Each wall had an iron gate in the middle; if the gate on the left opened, we could hope to go to the pen, and might expect a transfer of some kind. If it was the gate on the right, we would end up in cells. I braced myself for the worst, but still hoped for the left-hand gate. The rattle of keys came from the right. I caught Dhimitër’s anxious eyes; more to quell my own fear than to tell him anything he didn’t already know, I said softly, “We’re under arrest.”
He moved his lips, but I could not make out what he said.
Only after they led us into the yard of the cells and closed the gate behind us did they finally remove the shackles from our wrists.
A heavy stench emanated from the inner corridor of cells behind the gate with its thick black iron bolts. It came from fetid human breath mixed with carbon gas, the smell of bodily dirt, tobacco, decayed rags, and the latrine.
Two men appeared, one in plain clothes and the other a uniformed soldier. The civilian ordered the guard to open the inner gate of the prison and lead us one by one to a small room on the ground floor, to go through the formalities. The gates opened with that piercing screech I had heard every day during my seven-month stay, five years before. The bitter emotion of that time came rushing back to me, as all ten of us stood ready to pass through the gate. Muho went in first, as he was the nearest. Then Thoma entered. When my turn came I passed through, trying to appear as unconcerned as possible while struggling to muster the inner strength to cope with whatever horror awaited me. A wave of energy welled up from a deep cavity somewhere between my stomach and my chest, spreading through my body and stifling the instinct to shiver that came from my fear.
I entered the little room. Waiting for me was the plain-clothes man who looked like an investigator. There was also the soldier in khaki, who was the duty officer for that twenty-four hour period, and a guard who appeared responsible for the internal wardens.
“Which one are you?” the plain-clothes man asked me.
“Fatos Lubonja,” I replied.
He looked at a sheet of paper in his hand. The guard ordered me to strip to my underwear, and closely examined every item of my clothing. He peered into my underwear to see if I had hidden anything inside, and ordered me to get dressed again. He kept behind my belt, a forbidden article. As I got dressed, I saw other prisoners’ possessions on the table: rusty cigarette-lighters from the mine, belts made from the inner fabric of hoses, pipes, aluminum coffee spoons, and cloth caps. They were laid out separately on pieces of white paper, turned over to prevent anyone reading the names of their owners. I guessed that these things must have belonged to the men taken from Spaç before us. So they too had passed through this room and had been searched, and were somewhere among the cells of this prison that we too had now entered.