Review: Life is War: Surviving Dictatorship in Communist Albania by Shannon Woodcock (2016) Assessment 5 out of 10

Oral history, which helps explain Albania’s strangeness, but not in a good way.

Albania is a strange mountainous country, little known and little visited by other Europeans.

Six Albanians tell how they survived the Communist dictatorship which continued for 47 years, 40 under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.

All were affected, variously compromised or persecuted. There was malnutrition. The level of education reached depended on links to the Party. Contraception and abortion were illegal. Religion was made illegal,priests persecuted and churches and mosques, an important part of the country’s heritage, destroyed. There was “voluntary” forced labour and compulsory military training. Employment and where people lived was directed. Teachers, despite being relatively privileged, slept in the class rooms in which they taught. Albanians had only one set of clothes. Schoolgirls, participating in May Day processions, had to return the red skirts, white blouses and red kerchiefs, once the procession was over.

How people fared depended on whether their family had “good” or “bad biographies. Informers and the secret service was everywhere. There were show trials. The country was full of prisons, prisoners tortured and “disappeared”.

The size of Albania means its frontiers with other countries are close, then Greece and Yugoslavia, now Greece, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia. Nonetheless Albania was shut off, as contact with the outside world was progressively cut and Albanians told they were better off than elsewhere. Bunkers were built supposedly to provide protection from imminent attack, demonstrating the regime’s paranoia and encouraging paranoia amongst the people.

There are good reasons for visiting Albania, the mountain landscapes, the stunning Adriatic coast, the locally sourced food. If it is to build a viable tourist industry, as it hopes, it should address the plastic litter found everywhere,but in the most remote places.

I borrowed “Life is War”, whilst in Albania on a cycle tour. An easy read, it shows how Albanians suffered under prolonged dictatorship and why they are struggling to adjust to the post-Communist era.

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