When I lived in Albania several years ago, I was struck by the plethora of small bunkers scattered around the countryside, by the beaches, and within the towns and cities too. When I asked my Albanian colleagues about them, they answered with a touch of embarrassment, that they had been built during the communist era, to protect the country against possible invasion.
Made of concrete, they are not easy to get rid of, but over the years, many of them have been dismantled, dislodged or broken up. But the warren of underground bunkers that nestle into the hillside at the foot of Dajti mountain are of a different order. On the outskirts of Tirana, they were built to house the government and the nomenklatura of the communist era in case of an emergency, an invasion by some hostile power, or a nuclear attack. This complex of corridors with rooms branching off them is now the site of Bunk'art, a multi-media museum cum installation.
I'm staying in a delightful old building in the city centre (yes, there are still a few old buildings left in Tirana, despite the feverish erection of multi-coloured and multi-shaped high-rises that's been going on and still is, for the past two decades.) I say I want to visit Bunk'art.
'You can get a bus there from just outside', said Elton. 'But which bus?' I say, 'which direction?'. 'From the other side of the street', he replies. Olsi is sitting in front of the computer, hears our exchange and has a better understanding of my need for more information. 'Not an orange bus', he says. 'Just ask for Bunk'art. Or the Teleferik.' 'Not an orange bus' means a blue bus or possibly a white one. So I cross the courtyard, go out of the gate, and cross to the other side of the street. Two or three people are standing on the pavement so I join them, and when a blue bus comes along, I call out 'Bunk'art?'. The conductor nods. I get on, hardly able to believe my luck.
Traffic is congested along the Rruga Dibres, but by the time we pass the Medresa and turn right along the wider street past the huge bazaar which I'd visited earlier and bought a couple of my favourite hard-backed notebooks, the traffic is flowing more easily. There are a couple more turnings before Rruga Kongresi i Manastirit, which has a long wall running along one side, painted in blotchy patterns of camouflage colours of cream, terracotta and khaki. It's too high to see over and I'm curious about what lies behind this fervent wall.
The streets, like Rruga Dibres itself, are full of small shops, selling byrek, sufflaq and piça – clothes, pots and pans – and some with indiscernible interiors. Finally, the conductor remembers me, calls out 'Bunk'art', and I get off. There are fewer shops here, it's become a residential area, with smart new houses. I follow the signs, which fortunately are numerous, and walk uphill about half a kilometre. The houses end here and there's a clear view of Dajti mountain.
The entrance is a tunnel, with a set of traffic lights above it. I walk into the tunnel. Ethereal electronic music is playing, and there's also the slightly unnerving sound of dripping water, so I'm aware of ambivalent reactions, mixing the relaxed and the unsettling. From the tunnel you emerge into open countryside, and a wooden hut – the ticket office. Pointed in the right direction, I set off on an uphill track surrounded by trees and woodland. Past a sentry at his post, but he doesn't challenge me. It's a warm sunny day, a few birds sing – it's all very peaceful.
The bunker itself is a vast complex of tunnels and rooms. The main theme is defence and weapons. There's plenty of photographs and archive footage, particularly of the victory parade after the retreat of the occupying German forces – line after line of tanks rolling up Tirana's main boulevard, the cheering crowds celebrating liberation.
There are different sounds, both in the corridors and the rooms themselves. Sometimes it is recordings of a romantic song in Italian, sometimes marching feet, sometimes choral singing in Albanian, which sounds celebratory, like a national anthem. Then there's the sound of breaking glass, and air-raid sirens. These different sounds mingle together, producing a dream-like effect as if I'm walking through a mind with different memories in each room, only the sounds echo and overlap – is it my own memories? Someone else's? They are certainly my responses, and they veer between the pleasant, the uplifting, the troubling and the deeply menacing.
Hoxha's personal bunker is simply furnished: a bed, a desk, a book-shelf, and his recorded voice plays from an old radio. There is even an old-fashioned phone which you can lift up and listen to his voice through the receiver.
The main focus in this impressively well-researched display – a mixture of museum exhibits and installations – is on the defences of the communist era, though one room is dedicated to the show trials, the killings and executions. The installation in one room portrays the border, covered in barbed wire, where so many tried to escape, and so many failed. In another room the installation shows a video on a loop. It's of a passing train seen through a window, and then suddenly, shockingly, the sound of a shot, and a bullet hole appears in the window. (This is where the sound of breaking glass comes from.) The idea is that windows are exactly what a bunker should not have, for it can be a crack in the defences.
These vast underground bunkers were created for the nomenklatura, the political elite, for use in a time of national emergency. They were never used, and it's very unlikely that the general populace knew of their existence – apart from the people who had to build them, political prisoners and other 'volunteers' who had to work underground in dreadful conditions. One room is dedicated as a tribute to the hundreds of people, we are told, who died in the process of building them.
Just before the exit, there's a room with a different perspective, showing the humour and irony that Albanians are so good at, even in the darkest times. What about the tens of thousands of small bunkers built for defensive purposes in case of invasion, that still litter the countryside? It seems that they do serve some purpose after all. They have provided homes for several species of bats which have found their dark interiors the perfect places in which to take up residence.
Bunk'art is a superb creation, stepping into an immersive theatre of the past, a macabre and threadbare carpet of history soaked in an atmosphere of menace and paranoia and the brutality that arose from it.
It is good to leave it behind and emerge again into the sunlight and warmth of an autumn day. I sit for a while outside, on a rusted old bench, in the shade of a fig tree. The sky is clear and blue. There are no other people around and the woodland is peaceful – just the humming of insects, an occasional bird call, and a dry leaf falling onto the ground.
Photograph of Bunk'art taken by Morelle Smith