From the 1970s, Albania’s paranoid dictator Enver Hoxha built as many as half a million concrete bunkers across the isolated Communist state, fearing invasion or even nuclear attack at any moment.
The domed structures were supposed to form an impregnable defence but today some are finding innovative new uses, while others are being flattened.
Hoxha’s “bunkerisation” policy began as Albania, which had already broken with Moscow and Yugoslavia, started to move away from its sole backer, China. The structures ranged in size from pillboxes to spacious underground shelters and were erected across the Balkan state in coastal regions and along its mountainous borders with Greece and Yugoslavia.
At Lezhe, north-west of the capital Tirana, a large bunker has been transformed into a hostel for backpackers by German and Albanian architecture students. Bunkerfest, a music festival inspired by the “concrete mushrooms”, is now in its third year.
“The bunkers should not be demolished. What Hoxha created for war, we should use for love,” says Zhujeta Cima, director of Bunkerfest. During and after Hoxha’s reign the fortifications often doubled up as private spots for young couples.
This year Bunkerfest moved to Pezë, a village outside Tirana where, in September 1942, Albania’s National Liberation Movement was founded, to fight the Italian fascist occupation. Amid monumental statues and a ring of bunkers, musicians from Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania and Italy performed to a crowd of around 500.
“Nobody wants to speak about the bunkers but they are part of our history,” says concert-goer Anisa Coniku, 26, who, like many Albanians, recalls playing in the bunkers as a child. “They shouldn’t all be maintained, but some should be kept so people can see how life here was.”
The bunkers were built at great cost to a cash-strapped regime which prided itself on self-sufficiency. When Communism collapsed in 1991, many impoverished Albanians converted the once daunting symbols of oppression – the very eyes of a stony-faced government – into everything from toilets to homes. The cement igloos have also been destroyed for steel, a valuable commodity in one of Europe’s poorest countries.
“Even now, after 20 years, the bunker mentality still exists,” says Kujtim Cashku, director of Kolonel Bunker, a 1996 film about an Albanian army official who wrote a letter to Hoxha denouncing the bunker policy.
Whilst originally popular after their renovation, the novelty appears to be wearing off. Since 1994 the Bunker restaurant has sat on the beach at Qerret, a resort, eight miles south of the busy port of Durres. It was built to accommodate a 75mm anti-tank gun. Its 10ft high bunker was converted into a kitchen, with many diners drove over an hour from Tirana to sit on plastic garden furniture and eat freshly caught fish there.
‘We only open in summer now’, says the proprietor, Nexhmedin. Many others in the area have been removed by locals and sold for scrap.
But Nexhmedin has no plans to close the Bunker: “I’m not going anywhere”.