The first time I saw these bunkers was on my way from Macedonia to Tirana, the capital of Albania. I read about them before and saw a documentary, but the view from the bus window was exciting. I faced bunkers in the most unexpected places - backyards, cemeteries, playgrounds. They were odd buildings along the road, which to me resembled the abandoned ruins of ancient temples that sometimes surrealistically supplemented the urban or rural landscapes of the country. They were temples, in a sense: the temples of an atheist state.
Albania, under the leadership of Enver Hoxha, was declared the world's first atheist state in 1967. Every single place of worship had been destroyed or converted into other uses, such as cinemas, warehouses, or sports halls. Enver Hoxha strongly admired Joseph Stalin, and, like Stalin, he persecuted and subjected religious institutions and believers to reprisals. However, it was not a question of the complete destruction of religion in Albania. The law prohibiting all religious practices was adopted, possibly under the influence of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. On the other hand, in the period from the 1960s to the 1980s, Hoxha carried out a programme of the country's "bunkerisation", which resulted in the construction of a total of 750,000 bunkers in every corner of Albania.
“The bunkers are our cathedrals, our scars," an old Albanian once said. There is a widespread belief that Hoxha was paranoid. After the death of Joseph Stalin, he broke with the Soviet Union and gradually isolated the country from the rest of the world. Hoxha lived in constant fear of attack from outside. Therefore, the bunkers were intended to act as defensive positions across the entire country.The regime also desperately tried to militarize civilians. From the age of 12, Albanians were trained in bunkers to repel any invaders' attacks. Contemporary research indicates that six small and one big bunker were built per square kilometre. This meant that every citizen could defend against invaders wherever he happened to be in case of attack: from his backyard, workplace, or any public place.
The bunkerisation programme was stopped after Hoxha's death in 1985, and the bunkers were abandoned following the collapse of Communism in 1990. In recent years, the government has been pursuing a policy of bunker liquidation. It is difficult to find abandoned bunkers in big cities today. A few of them have been turned into artistic objects; the rest were simply destroyed. I have learned that a lot of the bunkers are being put to new use as cafes, restaurants, and for other purposes. I found places where they were, but now all of them are closed and demolished. It wasn't all bad, in the neighbourhoods and villages there are still many bunkers untouched since communist times. For two weeks I travelled around Albania, looking for bunkers and people who live near them. In Albanian cities it's easy to find people who speak English, the situation is entirely different in the countryside. At best, older people can remember a few Russian words they learned in school under communism. Mr. Bregu, the roadside cafe owner, who drinks homemade wine in the backyard of his cafe in my photo, talked with me for a long time, showed me mountains, river, road, sun, recalled their names in Russian and was happy that I was able to understand him. Fortunately, I always had a piece of paper on me which the owner of a hostel kindly explained my goals in Albanian.
Also, among elderly Albanians, there are many people who remember communism with nostalgia. One of them picked me up when I hitchhiked. "Are you a communist or a capitalist?" - He asked before opening the car door. He used to work as an English teacher, so his English was very good. "My dear capitalist friend," - he told me, - "You need to pay for the fare. Now is not the communism time." However, it did not prevent him to ply me with a coffee and rakia later.
Albanians grew up surrounded by bunkers. Since childhood, the bunkers have been part of their daily lives. They were an integral part of the scenery. Young and elderly, Albanians often asked me wondrously - "Are there really no bunkers in other countries?"
The time of communism has passed along with the prohibition of religions. Now all the places of worship have been returned to their former value - mosques and churches. Hoxha's temples, forgotten and no longer needed by anyone, are gradually disappearing from the face of Albania. They are temples of war, which, fortunately, were never used for their intended purpose.