Walls, Borders (and their crossing)
Walls....It seems like everyone these days either has one or wants to build one. The other day we were in Macedonia, walking the high ramparts of a thousand year old fortress, built when Tsar Samuel made Ohrid the capital of his Bulgarian empire. These walls were built on the foundations of even older walls as the city, originally called Lihnidos (city of light), was on the Via Egnatia, the main Roman road connecting Constantinople (Istanbul) with Rome. Even though the old city walls had 18 towers and four gates, only one original gate remains after an earthquake destroyed much of the structure in the 6th century. Yet you still get a sense of its former power and strength over which tourists now wander and wonder.
Yesterday we crossed the border between Macedonia and Albania in a small mini bus. We are always relieved when we hear that heavy thud of the immigration stamp as it comes down onto our passports marking exit and entry dates. Then we're through and entering a country which has only just come out of the communist regime of dictator Enver Hoxha.
All along the country road winding towards Tirana we see abandoned concrete bunkers on spectacular view points. They look like circular space ships or daleks with rusted wire antennae. Some are now in the middle of farm orchards, some have huge cafes, hotels or service stations built next to them on these prime sites overlooking the expanse of river valley that winds between the mountains. This is a country in transformation. The small farm holdings are verdant with crops and vegetables, cherries and apricots decorate trees. Seemingly a pastoral idyll.
This idea was soon qualified after we arrived in Tirana to walk the streets and stumble upon BUNK'ART2, a grey dalek next to the former Ministery of the Interior. I had read about the tourist sites of Tirana and that BUNK'Art was not to be missed. I thought it was going to be graffiti in former bunkers. How wrong I was.
This was an underground bunker built by the dictator Enver Hoxha as a nuclear fall out shelter complete with decontamination units, a huge complex big enough to house the government ministry. It has has now been turned into a museum of the Albanian police forces, explaining how they formed at the beginning of the 1900s, their involvement in the two World Wars and how they afterwards consolidated to become the Sigurimi, the secret police who became the eyes and ears of the dictator, the judges and executioners of people who spoke out against Hoxha's regime.
It was a sobering encounter. Room after room contained lists of those killed, methods of law enforcement and control, examples of interrogation and surveillance devices. Corridoor after corridor of power and paranoia. During his forty years of dictatorship, Hoxha had over 750,00 bunkers built all over the countryside. This central one had entrances through the interior walls of the government building and had to have new entrances to the street made when it was turned into a museum.
Most disturbing for me was the room which held rolls of barbed wire and a model of a dog about to attack a figure shrouded in a long coat. This was one of the actual coats used to train police dogs to attack, showing all the tear marks. I thought of the infamous 'dogline' in Tasmania, a demarcation border stretched across the Tasman Peninsular at Eaglehawk Neck where dogs were chained in lines to prevent the prisoners of Van Diemans Land from escape. On that same peninsular, the "Black Line" of military and civilians who formed a human cordon to drive Aboriginal people into the southern most part of Tasmania in a six week campaign of government sanctioned genocide.
Following this tour of the bunker we went to see the infamous Tirana pyramid which was designed as a museum to celebrate Hoxha by his architect daughter and son-in-law. After Albania's communist regime ended in 1991, the museum was repurposed as a conference centre but has since fallen into disrepair and was due for demolition. Controversy erupted, with protests from historians and architects forcing the demolition order to be rescinded. The latest plans are to turn it into an art and cultural youth hub. The youth were already in evidence sliding down its side, camping out under the trees in the park, graffitiing the walls. Yet to be transformed.
What summed up this Albanian experience for me, was a visit to the National Gallery of Art, with its permanent collection of socialist didactic paintings. In the contemporary exhibition space was a retrospective of Albanian artist Edi Hila, - Painter of Transformation, showing the painting which had him 'reeducated' and sent to a poultry farm, his illicit drawings from that time, and finally his disturbing works about his country in this time of transformation.
One of the most powerful images was a series of three abstract paintings commemorating the Albanian ship Kateri i Radës full of refugees fleeing the country in March 1997. It collided with an Italian navy vessel in the Strait of Otranto which was part of an Italian military campaign to turn back the refugee boats. The Albanian boat sunk, killing at least 57 people, men, women and children.
I think about the men and families on boats trying to get to Australia, of MV Tampa which kickstarted the Howard government's refugee policy, of the Labour government's subsequent "island solution" of interring refugees in prisons on offshore islands like Manus and Nauru. I think of the men still incarcerated in Villawood after more than 6 years. I think about walls and borders, of the utter hubris of governments who preach fear and racism to their civilians.
Each time I think of walls I remember the poem by Australian poet Michael Dransfield (deceased), these last lines from his poem after a birthday