Keep the last likeness of a hated dictator? It is a thankless job.

LABINOT MAL, Albania – Swaddled in straw on the dirt floor of a stable, the once-omnipotent dictator lies helpless on his back. His fac...


LABINOT MAL, Albania – Swaddled in straw on the dirt floor of a stable, the once-omnipotent dictator lies helpless on his back. His face strewn with bird droppings, he stares at the sagging roof, a final indignity for a leader whose all-seeing eyes have held millions in terrifying grip for four decades.

Enver Hoxha, who died in 1985, was Europe’s most enduring and feared Communist tyrant, creating a cult of personality that left the impoverished Balkan nation of Albania inundated with awe-inspiring statues, marble busts and portraits giants in his honor.

Today, 30 years after the brutal system imploded it left behind, the cult has boiled down to a single bronze tribute, toppled from its stone pedestal in a remote mountain village and thrown into a stable – but always supervised day and night by an elderly person. 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 might.”

Although now almost deaf and partially blind, she still hobbles daily from her home in Labinot Mal in the mountains of central Albania to the nearby stable to make sure the widely hated former dictator is safe.

While not particularly enamored with Hoxha’s policies – a toxic mix of Stalinist paranoia and repression, along with North Korean-style isolation and economic misery – Plaku still feels a duty to watch over what is almost certainly Albania’s last intact statue of a man who put his isolated 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, on July 10, 1943, of the Army. national liberation. This guerrilla force, aided by Britain and Communist supporters from neighboring Yugoslavia, helped defeat the Italian fascist invaders, and then the Nazis.

After the war ended, Hoxha, a botanist trained in France, took control of Albania and began to execute his comrades in the war. Labinot Mal has become a place of pilgrimage, which has enabled him to avoid at least the worst of the hardships inflicted on the country by his reign of 41 years. The village has a clinic, electricity and a museum. He also got a 10 foot tall bronze statue of the “Supreme Companion”.

The museum, housed in a large villa built before the war as a summer residence and then confiscated by the communists of Hoxha, closed decades ago, as well as the clinic and the collective farm. Part of its roof has collapsed and the current government has shown no interest in saving it from ruin.

Agim Qoku, a local historian, said he welcomed Albania’s withdrawal from policies that in Hoxha’s day made the country the most oppressed and backward in Europe. But he still thinks the museum should be relaunched, as a tribute not to the dictator but to Albania’s wartime struggle against foreign fascists.

The stable where Hoxha is lying on her back is next to the deceased museum. This is the only part of the villa which, thanks to Ms. Plaku and her daughter, has not been looted.

Despite all the agonies of Hoxha’s reign – when Albania broke with not only the West but also Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and even China, which the dictator of the Balkans ended up seeing as too liberal – some villagers still remember his reign with nostalgia. . It has improved health care and schools across the country.

Still one of the poorest countries in Europe, Albania has hemorrhaged since student protesters destroyed a 30-foot statue of Hoxha in the center of Tirana, the capital, in February 1991. It was an example quickly followed in the cities of the country.

Over the next decade, Hoxha’s acolytes, including his widow, came on trial, and dogmatic capitalist communism replaced dogmatic communism. And almost a quarter of the population emigrated, not because people longed for the old order, but above all because they could for the first time leave to look for work. Before, trying to leave Albania was a serious crime punishable by death.

Ruzhdi Balla, the 42-year-old owner of a small cafe – Labinot Mal’s only business – remembers watching in 1991, when authorities in the nearest town sent a crane, escorted by police cars, to lift a statue of Hoxha off its pedestal. in front of the museum. Workers hoisted the statue into the air, then recoiled in horror when a large black snake appeared under its feet.

Since then, four of Mr Balla’s eight siblings have moved to Greece to find work, while two others have left the declining village, now numbering at most a few hundred people, for other parts of the country. Albania.

Locals disagree that Hoxha got what he deserved when he was shot, but it is widely believed that the removal of his statue was the last time government officials granted much attention to their village.

“Let’s put it back,” said Islam Balla, the older brother of the cafe owner, 72. “Television crews will come and film us. Maybe the world will remember when we still exist.

Whatever his many flaws, according to the older brother, the dictator at least cared about Labinot Mal, browsing there in 1968 for the unveiling of his bronze likeness. “It was a truly spectacular day,” said Elder Mr. Balla, recalling the festivities. “We haven’t seen anything like it since.”

The only visitors today, he added, are a few “fanatics” who arrive once a year to lay a wreath at the base of the pedestal of the overturned statue.

To prepare 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 collapsed into a dangerous and pitted track.

Mr Qoku, a teacher, said the region had always been a world of its own, submitting to the Ottoman Empire long after the rest of Albania had succumbed, and resisting the Nazis with such zeal that the region lost more fighters per capita than anywhere else in the country.

But those unpleasant habits, he said, have today put Labinot Mal at odds with the zeitgeist, dominated by rejection of Hoxha and everything he stood for.

In Tirana, the only Hoxha statuary still on display to the public is a dented marble bust, with a broken nose and a disfigured face. It sits at the back of the National Art Gallery, near an underground museum detailing the horrors of Hoxha’s secret police, the Sigurimi.

Construction work began this year in Tirana to transform a Pharaonic homage to Hoxha – a huge pyramid built in 1988 to house a memorial museum – into a complex of cafes, classrooms and studios. Disfigured by graffiti and in the process of collapsing, the pyramid had previously served as a horror film set, a temporary NATO base during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, and a nightclub.

Ms Plaku, Hoxha’s elderly caretaker in Labinot Mal, said she didn’t want to see another chef like him. But she still feels a sense of responsibility for the past.

Worried that thieves would want to steal the bronze statue and melt it down for scrap, she lamented that “only bad people want Hoxha today.” With his health declining, she said her daughter, Fatush Balla, 66, would soon have to protect him on her own.

“I did my duty,” Ms. Plaku told her daughter as they sat together on the edge of their garden, next to a plum tree. “Now it’s your turn to keep it.”

The girl, who returned from Greece seven years ago to take care of her mother, has already resumed much of the work.

She visits the stable regularly to make sure no one has disturbed her straw blanket and chases away any prying visitors she suspects of bad intention, threatening to shoot anyone who enters the stable without her approval.

“We’ve been protecting him for 30 years, but nobody gave us anything,” the girl said. “I don’t really care about politics and just want a decent life for myself and my mom. “

Fatjona Mejdini contributed reporting.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Keep the last likeness of a hated dictator? It is a thankless job.
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