Prisoners of the Past

Aleksandra Bogdani

Having spent half his life in a labour camp, 71-year-old Lavdrim Ndreu was not troubled by the history of his apartment. He couldn’t care less that the small bedroom had served as a toilet for the Partizani football team, or that the rest of the building had been used as the club’s boiler house.

He was simply happy to be a free man with a new home. “It was like being born again,” he says, looking back on the day when he moved into the building.

Listening to Lavdrim on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I thought about other definitions of happiness put forward by people who had served long jail terms in communist Albania.

Pjetwr Arbnori, a writer who was imprisoned for 25 years, spoke of the joy of receiving an additional spoonful of sugar in one’s rations. Meanwhile, he said, a thousand kilos of sugar would not lift the spirits of a depressed person in the world outside.

Lavdrim grew up and grew old in the labour camp. He became a husband and a father in the gulag complex which housed Albanians who were deemed to be enemies of the communist regime.

He has had a hard life, its highlights as memorable as those spare spoonfuls of sugar. As a prisoner, he drew satisfaction from treating his children to an occasional kilo of milk, and in procuring the right medicines to heal their illnesses.

As a free man in the 1990s, he distracted himself with the construction of a boat that he hoped might take him to Italy. He also took delight in turning part of the old boiler house into a home for his family.

His life has had its share of sorrows. His daughter died from a virus in the camp. Her last wish was for a spoonful of yoghurt, but he was unable to find any. “I knocked on all my neighbour’s doors,” he says, tearful at the memory. His father died in the camp too, after spending seven years as a prisoner.

Lavdrim is still waiting for the government to recognise his right to the property that has been his home for the last 20 years. He shares the building with other former prisoners – “my cousins from the camp”, he calls them.

Albania’s communist dictatorship fell 20 years ago, but Lavdrim and his neighbours have not entirely escaped their past. “You see, our lives haven’t changed much since then,” he says. But even as he complains, he has the reserved manner of a man accustomed to much worse.

Fellow Bio

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Aleksandra Bogdani

Aleksandra Bogdani has spent the best part of a decade covering crime, corruption and courtroom stories in Albania.