LABINOT MAL, Albania – Wrapped in straw on the earth of a stable, the once all-powerful dictator lies helpless on his back. His face strewn with bird droppings, he stares blankly at the sagging roof, a final humiliation for a leader whose all-seeing eyes have kept millions in terrified slavery for four decades.
Enver Hoxha, who died in 1985, was Europe’s most enduring and feared communist tyrant, creating a personality cult that flooded the impoverished Balkan country of Albania with grandiose statues, marble busts and giant portraits in his honor.
Now, 30 years after the ruthless system he left behind imploded, the cult has shrunk to a single bronze tribute, fallen from its stone pedestal in a remote mountain village and dumped in a stable – but still guarded day and night by an elderly Albanian woman. and her daughter.
“In his day he was a good man, but nobody wants him anymore,” said Sabire Plaku, 80. “I protected him with all my strength.”
Though now nearly deaf and partially blind, she still stumbles daily from her home in Labinot Mal in the mountains of central Albania to the nearby stable to keep the widely hated former dictator safe.
While not particularly fond of Hoxha’s policies – a toxic mix of Stalinist paranoia and repression, with North Korean-style isolation and economic woes – Ms Plaku still feels a duty to watch over what is almost certainly Albania’s last intact statue. belongs to a man who puts her remote and now neglected mountain village on the map.
It was here in Labinot Mal that Hoxha (pronounced Hoe-zha) first took charge of the Albanian Communist Party during World War II and presided over the founding of the National Liberation Army on July 10, 1943. Those guerrillas, aided by Britain and communist partisans from neighboring Yugoslavia, helped defeat the invading Italian fascists and then the Nazis.
After the war ended, Hoxha, a French-trained botanist, took control of Albania and began executing his war comrades. Labinot Mal became a place of pilgrimage, ensuring that it at least avoided the worst hardship the country had endured through its 41-year rule. The village got a clinic, electricity and a museum. It was also given a 10-meter high bronze statue of the ‘Supreme Comrade’.
Housed in a large villa built before the war as a summer residence and then seized by the Hoxha communists, the museum closed decades ago, along with the clinic and collective farm. Part of the roof has collapsed and the current government has shown no interest in saving it from destruction.
Agim Qoku, a local historian, said he was pleased that Albania was withdrawing from policies that, in Hoxha’s time, made the country the most oppressed and backward in Europe. But he still thinks the museum should be revived, not as a tribute to the dictator, but to the Albanian struggle against foreign fascists.
The stable where Hoxha lies on his back stands on the side of the defunct museum. It is the only part of the villa that has not been looted thanks to Mrs Plaku and her daughter.
Despite all the torments of Hoxha’s rule—when Albania broke with not just the West, but Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and eventually even China, all of whom came to view the Balkan dictator as too liberal—some villagers still remember his rule with nostalgia. . He did improve health care and schools in the country.
Albania is still one of the poorest countries in Europe and has been bleeding people since student protesters knocked down a 30-meter statue of Hoxha in the center of Tirana, the capital, in February 1991. It was an example quickly followed in cities across the country.
Over the next decade, Hoxha’s acolytes, including his widow, were executed and a capitalist free-for-all replaced dogmatic communism. And almost a quarter of the population emigrated, not because people craved the old order, but mainly because they could leave for the first time to find work. In the past, trying to leave Albania was a serious crime punishable by death.
Ruzhdi Balla, the 42-year-old owner of a small café – Labinot Mal’s only business – recalls how in 1991 authorities in the nearest town lifted a crane, escorted by police cars, to lift a statue of Hoxha from its pedestal. for the museum. Workers hoisted the statue into the air, then recoiled in terror when a great black snake appeared beneath his feet.
Since then, four of Mr Balla’s eight siblings have moved to Greece to find work, while two others have left the shrinking village, which now numbers only a few hundred people, to other parts of Albania.
Residents disagree on whether Hoxha got what he deserved when he was demolished, but there is widespread agreement that the removal of his statue was the last time government officials paid much attention to their village.
“Let’s put him back,” said the cafe owner’s 72-year-old older brother, Islam Balla. “TV crews will come to film us. Maybe then the world will remember that we still exist.”
Whatever his many mistakes, according to the older brother, the dictator at least cared about Labinot Mal, who went there in 1968 to unveil his bronze effigy. “It was a really spectacular day,” said the older Mr. Balla, remembering the festivities. “We haven’t seen anything like it since.”
The only visitors today, he added, are a few “fanatics” who come once a year to lay a wreath at the base of the statue’s fallen pedestal.
In preparation for the dictator’s visit in 1968, the government resurfaced the only road connecting the village to the outside world. Half a century later, the road has crumbled into a treacherous pit with potholes.
Mr. Qoku, a schoolteacher, said the area had always been a world apart, submitting to the Ottoman Empire long after the rest of Albania had succumbed, and resisting the Nazis with such zeal that the area received more fighters per day. head of population lost anywhere in the country.
But these weird habits, he said, have put Labinot Mal at odds with the zeitgeist today, which is dominated by Hoxha’s rejection and everything he stood for.
In Tirana, the only Hoxha sculpture still on display to the public is a battered marble bust, the nose of which has been shattered and the face disfigured. It stands at the back of the National Art Gallery, near an underground museum about the horrors of Hoxha’s secret police, the Sigurimi.
Construction work started this year in Tirana to transform a pharaonic tribute to Hoxha – a huge pyramid built in 1988 to house a memorial museum – into a complex of cafes, classrooms and studios. Damaged by graffiti and falling apart, the pyramid had previously been used as a horror film set, a temporary NATO base during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, and a nightclub.
Ms. Plaku, Hoxha’s elderly guardian in Labinot Mal, said she had no desire to see another leader like him. But she still feels responsible for the past.
Concerned that thieves want to steal the bronze statue and melt it for scrap, she complained that “only bad people want Hoxha today”. As her health deteriorated, she said her daughter, Fatush Balla, 66, would soon have to protect him on her own.
“I have done my duty,” Mrs Plaku told her daughter as they sat together at the edge of their garden, next to a plum tree. “Now it’s your turn to guard him.”
The daughter, who returned from Greece seven years ago to take care of her mother, has already taken over much of the work.
She visits the stable regularly to make sure no one has disturbed its straw cover and scares away curious visitors whom she suspects of malicious intent, and threatens to shoot anyone who enters the stable without her permission.
“We protected him for thirty years, but nobody gave us anything,” said the daughter. “I don’t really care about politics and just want a decent life for myself and my mother.”
Fatjona Mejdini reported.