Iliria Mataj knits her way across Tepelenë. Unpicking the threads of History

Iliria Mataj of Tepelena
Iliria Mataj of Tepelenë. Photo by Ebi Spahiu.

This is Iliria Mataj from Tepelena. She is a resident in one of the buildings overlooking the abandoned Tepelena Internment Camp. There is something mesmerizing about a place that is left in ruins. The camp is located in the outskirts of Tepelene, a small city in south west of Albania, surrounded by high mountainous terrains and the sight of the Vjosa river. Tepelene has well over 9,000 habitants. People are particularly proud of the city’s history of heroic tales of battles led against large empires and invaders over centuries.

But Tepelene is also notorious for hosting one of the harshest concentration camps ever recorded during Enver Hoxha’s regime in Albania. To this day, over 30 years since the fall of the Communist regime, little is known of the camp that resides in the city’s backyard, overlooking rivers and the highlands of the south.

Iliria approached us when we entered the compound, curious of the strangers that were visiting the empty site. She immediately rushed to tell us her story as a camp survivor. A story she felt was missing into the void.

A member of Iliria’s family had been shot inside the camp in the late 1940s. Because of her family’s history, she remained an outcast from the regime, with no viable work or education opportunities for her future. She ended up marrying someone from a similar background, whose family ties to a relative killed by the regime left him without the possibility to have a better life either. When the regime fell in the early 1990s, the state had built blocks of pre-fabricated apartment buildings where many relatives of camp survivors were still living to this day.


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Tepelena Internment Camp. Photo by Ebi Spahiu.

The day we visited the camp, Iliria was knitting new mittens for her niece. She was very proud of her knitting skills, producing colorful socks, scarfs and plenty of other warm clothes to prepare for winter. Just like many young people, her children were also no longer living in Tepelene, but in Iliria’s eyes they were the reason she still felt joy. By the time we toured around the compound, she said she had already finished the red socks she was making for her niece, as if to ironize our sense of time tracing this large empty space.

There is lack of official data about the number of people who ended up serving time at the Tepelena camp, their ages or the exact number of deaths that torture, famine and diseases caused. Over 300 children are believed to have been among the victims: “The guards reburied up to three times the corpses of the children that perished in the camp. Their preferred dumping place was near the river”, are some of the claims that have come out of camp survivors.  The camp hosted prisoners until the 1950s when the regime decided to close down the facility. Precise historical records are difficult to come by, but some reports claim that the camp was closed down due to international pressure imposed by the United Nations when stories of severe torture first emerged outside of Albania.


Tepelena Internment Camp. Photo by Ebi Spahiu.

Judging from the conditions of this historical landmark there is not much we can learn about what really happened in Tepelene. Who were the people that were sent there? What did they feel as they glanced outside those small windows and peeked at the side of a snowy mountain or the shining leaves of a tree basking under the spring sunlight? The memories of the victims from the Communist regime are fading into dark and dusty corners of history where there is just an eerie silence of hundreds of souls screaming for their stories to be told.

In Albania today, the discourse in dealing with the past is fragmented and overwhelmed by a climate of fear that continues to dwell on survivors. Albania has yet to have a collective ‘Never Again’ moment in which society commits to never again repeat this past. At the political level, there is resistance to honor the memories of thousands of victims that perished during Hoxha’s regime due to a legacy of officials and leaders of those years that continue to be part of Albania’s political life, whether from the left or the right side of the spectrum. Our shared responsibility to learn from the victims’ pain is diminishing under the noise of the current political elite that refuses to let justice be served. Over 9,000 people are still missing from the years of Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship, and yet, it is still difficult to find a single museum dedicated to victims of communism. Most internment camps are facing the same fate as the one in Tepelena: falling apart until history forgets them.

The fortress of Tepelena on the Vjosa River depicted by Edward Lear in 1848