The Polish author Margo Rejmer’s book, Mud Sweeter than Honey, is an account of Communist Albania (1944 – 1990) told through the voices of those who experienced it first-hand. The individual stories create a vivid, evolving picture of living under a totalitarian regime, led by the ruthless dictator Enver Hoxha. Hoxha gradually cut ties with Albania’s few Communist allies: first Yugoslavia, then the Soviet Union, then China, forcing the country to embark on a desperate struggle for self-sufficiency while it was sealed off from the rest of the world behind barbed-wire fences.
Rejmer spent several years living in Albania, collecting testimony about this often overlooked period in the country’s history. The resulting book won the 2018 Polityka Passport in literature, one of the most prestigious awards in Poland, for ‘giving a voice to those who have been denied their own’.
In the extract below, the novelist Fatos Lubonja describes the years he spent in prison following the expulsion of his father, Todi Lubonja, from the highest ranks of the Party. Todi was the director of Albanian Radio and Television until he was imprisoned in 1974 for his role in organising a national song contest, deemed excessively Western and cosmopolitan. The reprisals extended to his family, and their homes were searched. The discovery of Fatos’s secret diary, in which he criticised the regime, was enough to send him to prison for over a decade.
What is destiny? The river of events that flows through our lives?
Imagine this: life is a river made of two streams that link together. The first is fate, everything that happens because of God’s will or destiny, great powers that are stronger than you. We’re defenceless against them. You were born in Poland, I was born in Albania, at one point in time and not another, and none of it was down to us.
But there’s also the second stream, I’ll call it determination – all the events we can influence, that we shape using our own willpower. What we want to do, who we want to be. Everyone would like these two streams to form one current, for blind fate to respond to our predispositions and desires. I was born in wretched Albania, good God, why not in France? You were born in Poland, why not in Germany? That’s our fate, we can’t escape it, but we can stand up to it. We can refuse to let it rule our lives.
My name is Fatos Lubonja and I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer. I used my years of incarceration to think and read; I can’t say that time was lost. Even shovelling rocks down a mine is an experience that shapes you. That was my fate: seventeen years in prison; I had to accept them and make sense of them. The same goes for everybody, regardless of what happens to us: illness or prison, loss or disaster. In all circumstances we should give sense and meaning to our fate, face up to it, confront it. Not crack under the weight of life.
The First Circle: Ruins
In prison I went to work in three shifts; I pushed huge, heavy carts right past the guards who could have destroyed me at any moment. Every day, life was a fight for survival, because my job in the mine was to deepen the tunnels. I drilled holes in the walls, not too big, not too small. Then we filled them with dynamite and lit the fuse. The explosion shattered the world around it. We felt those shocks in our bodies. Then I had to clean the tunnel, remove the rocks and drill new holes. Shift after shift, day after day.
Every day takes something from you. You live in a state of heightened vigilance, conscious of danger. I was nearly killed on two occasions. Once, without really knowing why, I just walked out of the tunnel, and thirty seconds later there was a tremor, then a giant bang . . . There I was, alive, gazing at the rubble in front of me that could have been my grave. The second time, I made a mistake and a huge block of rock fell on my head. If it wasn’t for my helmet, I’d have died on the spot.
The Second Circle: Isolation
And there was also the torture. The most terrible moments, when they locked you up in solitary confinement. I spent four months there after my second sentence because I refused to work. I just felt that work would mean the end of me, the physical end. My body would be worn out. I could bear the first seven years. But after the second sentence, when I got a further sixteen, I knew the work would kill me. I knew I had to resist. It had nothing to do with anti-Communist ideology, it wasn’t a revolt against the system. It was the pure pragmatics of survival, I simply wanted to save myself. I wanted them to move me to another prison where I could read and write.
Sometimes life is like that: you have to take a decision and run a risk. But my resistance could have been an example for others, so I had to be punished. First month: solitary confinement. They let me out, but after a few days my name was back on the list of foremen, which meant I had to get up in the morning and go to work. I didn’t go. They came for me and said: ‘Go upstairs to the officer.’
I refused. So back I went into solitary confinement. I demanded to see the Mirditë district prosecutor. After all, there was nothing, nothing in any rulebook that said political prisoners had to work.
The Third Circle: Hunger
‘I’m declaring a hunger strike until the prosecutor comes here,’ I said.
I just wanted them to transfer me. I remember the hunger as pain, piercing pain. Day after day, a time of hunger. After thirteen days I was still conscious, I didn’t feel well, but I still had some strength left. On the fourteenth day the prosecutor arrived.
‘If you don’t go to work, you’ll die here,’ he said.
‘But I wasn’t given the death penalty . . . Why are you condemning me to death? Transfer me to another prison.’
The Fourth Circle: Cold
And so another month of solitary confinement, a starvation diet and extreme cold. Because you must know that it was winter, and in solitary confinement you only had the right to a cotton vest, a thin cotton coat, long underwear and trousers. That was all, in the middle of winter. Very little. And two blankets from nine at night until five in the morning. What didn’t we do to try to hide those blankets from the guards, to hide them somewhere in the cell! Unbelievable. The things a man will do to survive . . . We slept on wooden platforms and whenever the guards came into the cell, we had to lift the lids of these platforms and show there was nothing inside. Some guards checked carefully, others just glanced and you could conceal a blanket from them. Some prisoners had a cunning tactic: they hid the blanket in the corner right behind the door, and because the cells were tiny, when the guard opened the door he had no idea the blanket was behind it, not in the box. That kind of trick, just to have a blanket during the day.
During the third month of solitary confinement, they ordered me to undress. I refused.
‘There’s no law that requires prisoners to undress,’ I said.
With every fibre of my being I felt that I had to resist then. There are times in life, the most extreme, most heroic moments when you know you have to stay strong, at all costs. And then . . . there are moments when you’re very scared.
The guard hurled abuse and threatened me for an hour and a half. I looked at his face up close, at his rage. But I took a decision: I had to resist. I kept on refusing. And then the guard turned to another guard, who had just come in, and asked: ‘Have you brought the towel?’
In moments of extreme stress, the brain works differently, it becomes a ticking bomb, a camera recording everything, a machine whirring at full steam. The question spun round my head like a whirlpool: ‘Have you brought the towel? What towel? What does he mean by “towel”? ’
Three guards stood in front of me.
‘Now get undressed,’ said one.
After so many weeks in solitary confinement my body was like a matchstick that anyone could snap. I was in no state to fight them.
‘I won’t get undressed,’ I said.
At once they attacked me and twisted my arms. They tore off my jacket and vest. Then they realised I had another layer of material underneath, a special warm vest with a cotton lining that a friend had made for me.
‘Look at him, the crafty swine! What’s he got here?’
I threw myself at them to take it back, but they knocked me to the floor.
‘Criminals!’ I shouted.
And then I understood what the towel was for. They stuffed it into my mouth so I couldn’t scream.
The Fifth Circle: Pain
They handcuffed me and left me alone. Then a guard came and took me outside, beyond the prison. We were walking up the path towards the mine, when suddenly he told me to stop, took out a black cudgel and started beating me and shouting. A shout and a strike. My God. A shout for every blow. I was standing half-naked in handcuffs, taking the hits.
Then he led me further. I’m not going there. I’m not going to work, I was thinking. We entered the tunnel.
‘Are you going to work?’
And then he lost it, something snapped inside him and he started to hit me senselessly, until my whole body was black and blue. Finally he began hitting me over the head, again and again, with all his strength.
‘I’m dying,’ I thought. My brain was sounding an alarm: ‘He’s going to kill me.’
But I couldn’t be broken. Something inside me jammed.
My mind was racing urgently, trying to find a solution. Perhaps it was instinct, experience, a will to survive, or perhaps after so many years in prison I knew things unconsciously. I let out a strange, deep noise.
‘It’s you who’s going to die,’ I said, as though giving voice to something deep inside me.
I remembered the guard was called Pjeter, so he was probably from a Catholic family.
‘Pjeter, what do you think you’re doing?’
At those words, he was completely stunned. The hand holding the cudgel froze in mid-air. He hadn’t expected this. For as long as he was the executioner and I was the victim, everything was clear. But suddenly in a weird way I’d broken out of that scenario.
‘Why won’t you work?’ he yelled.
‘Because you’ve ended up in this organisation, Pjeter,’ I played on, thundering in a deep voice.
The guard decided I’d lost my mind, but he had no idea what to do about it. In the end he said, ‘We’re going back,’ and I was happy that he’d stopped beating me. Because of course the whole time I was in handcuffs, so I couldn’t even shield myself. Once we were closer to the prison, he asked me what the guards at the gate were called.
‘He’s got shoes,’ I said moronically, to leave him in no doubt that he’d knocked my screws loose.
I went back into solitary confinement, and after seven days they suggested I write a letter to my family. ‘This is my last chance,’ I thought. I scribbled a mathematical equation, in which the main unknowns were the names of my daughters. And the answer – two. An official who was in charge of prison statistics at the Interior Ministry arrived.
‘If you don’t go to work, you’ll die in the cell,’ he said. ‘We won’t make an exception for you. It’s bad enough that I had to come here to talk to you.’
I lost any illusion of hope I still had.
‘In that case I’m going to the fences.’
‘Going to the fences’ meant committing suicide. If you approached the barbed wire entanglements surrounding the prison the guards had the right to shoot you, because you were trying to escape. Two or three people in Spaç committed suicide that way. The official departed.
The Sixth Circle: Despair
I only recently read in my file that the prison governor wanted to transfer me to another camp after just two months in solitary confinement, but the ministry wouldn’t give its consent. I don’t know why, but after four months they finally permitted my transfer to Ballsh. On arrival I met a friend in the hall.
‘Oh God, it’s so good you’ve ended up here!’ he said. ‘It’s like heaven!’
I was twenty-seven years old. I’d spent four years in Spaç. And it was only because I was young that I was strong enough to stand up to it all.
I had always wanted to be an author. I wanted to write at all costs, but I knew that in Spaç I’d become a wreck, that the work would destroy my body and eventually kill me.
The fact that in Ballsh I could read and think completely changed my life. I knew that one day I’d write about everything that had happened in prison. I could distance myself from suffering. I could try to understand why I was there and what the people around me were feeling. I could try to understand the guards enough to stop hating them, to think about why they were so simple-minded and brutal. I gradually stopped being nothing but my own terror. I could try to find inner calm. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel hatred. I hated the system so much I can understand now why militants go into the street and blow themselves up in a crowd, I understand that level of loathing. Sometimes I dreamt I was a bomb that turned the prison into a heap of rubble. Sometimes I thought: ‘We should all commit collective suicide, it’s the only way to make ourselves heard.’ These were fantasies of despair, because in reality every one of us wanted to survive, everyone wanted to save themselves.
The Seventh Circle: Death
During the four months I was kept in isolation, I didn’t think about death. When a soldier goes to war, he doesn’t think about being killed, he assumes he’ll survive. When you board an aeroplane, you know that sometimes planes crash and all the passengers die, but you don’t think about it. You hold onto the thought that everything will be okay. In solitary confinement you have the fear of death, but above all you think about survival. When I decided to go on hunger strike, I lost my fear of death. I felt I could do anything, that I was stronger than anyone. But that thought didn’t last long. The fear came back.
There was a priest in my cell, later the Archbishop Frano Ilia, who was accused of spying for the Vatican. He was given the death penalty, but they offered to convert it to a life sentence if he confessed. He agreed. One day I asked him: ‘Frano, I don’t believe anything exists after death, but you’re a religious person, you believe in eternal life, why did you agree? You could have said, “No, it’s not true”, and you’d have gone straight to heaven.’
And he replied: ‘Even Jesus Christ went to Gethsemane before his crucifixion. Even Christ begged his Father to prevent his suffering.’
He wasn’t prepared to become a martyr, just as Jesus wasn’t prepared to suffer. The body wants to escape suffering at all costs. The body wants to live.
The Eighth Circle: Shadows
The people who tortured me have become shadows in my head. I met one of them on the street once, during a demonstration.
‘Fatos!’ he cried. ‘Do you recognise me? It’s me, Gjergj!’
Of course I recognised him, because he was the guard whose kicks were particularly brutal. A ruthless man. Now he was supporting us in the protests against the government of Sali Berisha.
One day I’d like to sit down opposite the people who tortured me and ask them: ‘Who were you then? Were you people?’ But I know they’re not capable of reflection. Only a few of them really understand what they did to others. The rest see themselves simply as tools in the hands of the system, and that’s why they don’t feel any responsibility for their actions.
I also met one of the three judges who sentenced me the second time, and who in 1979 sentenced three of my friends to death: Fadil Kokomani, Vangjel Lezho and Xhelal Koprencka. On my way into a cafe, I stopped to let an elderly man go ahead of me, but he stopped, looked me in the face and asked: ‘Do you recognise me, sir? Can we get a coffee?’
And then I realised who was there in front of me. We sat down at a table.
That man had determined my fate and that of my friends. Perhaps you’re wondering why I didn’t hit him in the face? I think I just wanted to understand him. But I couldn’t look at him. I just sat there and listened to his voice.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I signed those sentences condemning you . . . I signed them and I know it was wrong. But did I have a choice? I’d have ended up in prison, just like you. Do you remember when Vangjel Lezho asked for some spectacles to read out his defence, and I gave him my own?’
I looked him in the eyes, as I had many years ago. When you have charges hanging over you and you enter the court room, you immediately scrutinize the judges’ faces, you look for any trace of goodness, empathy, a modicum of humanity, you look for hope for yourself. It occurred to me then that he might not have been as bad a man as I’d thought.
‘Did you realise the accusations were fabricated?’ I asked. ‘Did you really believe it was all true?’
‘No . . . I mean, it was obvious . . . We knew the accusations were fabricated.’
They knew. So they could have said, ‘No, I won’t sign this death sentence.’ They could have said, ‘I love the Party, I love the laws it passes, but I will not consent to falsehood.’ But they didn’t say that. They signed it all.
Now when I think about it . . . How free were they? Is anyone’s consciousness truly free? They were like children whose lives lay in the hands of the adults, in the hands of the Party. They couldn’t grow up, they couldn’t be free. In some ways that excuses them . . . But in those days everyone took decisions. Everyone had a margin of freedom; everyone had a choice. Those who determined the lives of others could have behaved honourably.
While I was in prison, I sometimes wondered why my father didn’t do anything to help me – he was an influential Communist, after all. Why did no one in Hoxha’s entourage oppose the purges? Nobody ever stopped Hoxha from doing anything. Nobody ever stood up to him.
The Ninth Circle: The End
In my book, In the Seventeenth Year, I describe a prisoner in solitary confinement. His arms are twisted back and there’s a gag in his mouth, and he waits for the evening when he’ll be unchained and able to cover himself in a blanket and sleep until five in the morning.
That kind of suffering could last for several days, a week or two, during which time your only thought was: ‘God, when will this day be over, when will I finally fall asleep without handcuffs . . .’ When the punishment ended, you stayed in confinement for thirty days and you thought: ‘God, when will they finally move me to a normal cell . . .’ Then you were put in a normal cell and you thought nothing but: ‘God, when will they finally set me free?’
All of that was bearable. Hell has many circles.
The above is an extract from Mud Sweeter than Honey: Voices of Communist Albania (Błoto słotsze niż miód. Głosy komunistycznej Albanii) by Margo Rejmer, published by Wydawnictwo Czarne, Warsaw, 2018.
This translation was co-financed by the Sample Translations Poland Programme of the Polish Book Institute.
Photograph © Pasztilla aka Attila Terbócs