Sunday, January 4, 2009

An angel forbidden to spread her wings

by Teki Gjonzeneli

In this narration I am relating to the reader and to those who are not yet convinced of the ferocity of the communist regime an account of an ordinary day when Albania was under the yoke of the present day socialists’ parents. That machine which created so much suffering spared neither children nor infants of parents declared enemies of the Party and people. The word ‘dictatorship,’ even when you articulate it, grinds your teeth to bits… Without discussing the well-known facts of tortures, internment camps, prisons, executions, and hangings, I will merely recount how a child of the enemy of the Party was treated by the communist state.

At the Shkopeti Hydropower Station

During the time of the ruthless Communist dictatorship, I was serving my last months of compulsory military service in a labor unit where only the sons of families singled out as “enemies of the people,” anticommunists, were sent. Being skilled in operating high cranes, the unit military commander ordered me to work in the hydropower station. There, I was acquainted with many engineers that directed the works: A. Meksi, B. Selenica, N. Muço, and, in the end, the electrical engineer, Fatmir Belishova. Fatmir Belishova’s sister, Liri Belishova was a former Politburo Member of the Communist Party. She and her husband, Maqo Çomo, were declared “enemies” of the Party and people, and had been banished to internment camps.
It was not long until I was released from the army. While I was waiting for a truck to take me home to the city of Vlora, I heard a familiar voice behind me. “Have a safe trip, fellow Vloran!” It was engineer Fatmir Belishova. I was jubilant. I hadn’t expected anyone to wish me farewell. I thanked him and we parted, waving until the truck took a turn and disappeared.

The Encounter in Vlora

More than a month had gone by and no one wanted to employ me. As always, employers continued to give me the evil eye. One Saturday afternoon my old friends and I took a longer stroll to the center of the city, Flag Square. Facing Hotel Sazani, sitting on the sidewalk, I caught sight of Fatmir Belishova accompanied by a little girl. I parted with my friends and headed their way. As I neared them I spoke quietly, “What good thing brought you here to our Vlora, engineer?” The engineer, who seemed to have been eying me from afar, stood up and greeted me cheerfully. “I know that Vlora is yours, but I have not come to take it … One misfortune brought me to this area…” We embraced as I said, “Strangers as you are, we will do whatever we can to help you with your ill fortune…” Without lengthening the conversation, the engineer turned to the direction of the hotel entrance and asked me if I knew the hotelier at the door. “I distantly know him; what do you need?” I asked.
“We need a hotel room just for tonight. But, he will not allow my niece. She is the daughter of my sister, this doll here. ‘Children are not allowed,’ he said. ‘They urinate on the mattresses.’ When I tried to convince him that the girl does not do such things, he replied with hostility, ‘That girl is not yours, but the enemy of the people, Liri Belishova’s.’”
I was thunderstruck, not so much by the employee’s inhumane conduct, but from his promptness in collecting the information in such a short time. It was obvious that I myself was also under the surveillance of the State Security.
“Yes, he is a State Security officer, dear engineer, and it is impossible to speak with him,” I said. The engineer’s face whitened, but he did not show any emotion. He patted his niece’s head, and sweetly said, “My dear niece, do not be upset, it is summer, we will manage…” It was clear, in the tone of those words, not only the sadness, but also the pain that he felt for his pretty niece who had to face, from that very young age, the class struggle.
I felt sorry for both of them, but more so for the little girl. I remembered those years, when I, too, was about her age. The parents of that little girl had my father arrested, accusing him to be an “enemy of the people.” (Even after many years, in my old age, one question still remains: Did the engineer realize that day, that the reason for all their suffering was the proletariat dictatorship that the little girl’s parents had worked and fought for?) I pulled myself together and said to the engineer, “I will take the girl to my house, regardless of the fact that we are not under the best conditions. She will sleep with my little sister.” The engineer, who did not expect the offer, spoke in an undertone, “And who can be concerned with ‘conditions’ right now? Tomorrow morning I will take her to her father on the Island of Zverneci, where he is exiled, so please, bring her back at 8 o’clock in the morning.” I asked the little girl for her name. “They call me Drita,” she answered in a hushed tone, perhaps because she was parting with her dear uncle.
Returning home, a thought occurred to me: Would we be able to provide the friendliness that a girl of such a young age deserved? Like the child she was, she could not understand the situation we were put in because of the class struggle introduced and carried out by her parents.
The sun was pointing in the Otranto direction to set over the Channel. It was huge and fiery and created an arch with magic color over the waters of Sazani Island and Karaburuni Peninsula. This scene, repeated a thousand times before my eyes, had always revived a gentle and inspiring feeling in me. I asked little Drita if she liked the area we lived in. “Very much,” replied my little friend, dazzled by the view. She seemed very emotional while I, as always, thanked God for the gift of this majestic sight. When our feet touched the sand of the old beach, the little girl let my hand go and ran toward the shore where the calm evening waves of the sea, hardly capable of splashing, created an alluring sound… Drita filled the front of her dress with shells and returned, joyfully, to me. “Will you give them to your mother?” I asked amiably, and quickly realized they were not the right words to say in such a situation. I did not pursue the conversation further. “No,” she said, not taking it badly. “I was at my mother’s yesterday, among some high mountains, far away. They do not let my mother come home and I don’t know when I will see her again. We cried a lot when we parted.” Touched by her sincerity, I began to treat her with even more kindness.
We stopped at Aulona to buy an ice cream. While she was naively enjoying her ice cream, I felt sorry for her. Why in the world should that angel pay for the thoughts and actions of her parents? How many enemies did this Party have? In 1945 my family started to suffer from the destructive effect of the Communist dictatorship, and after the never-ending torments, even death seemed like nothing to us. Little Drita interrupted my thoughts with her question,
“How are you related to my uncle?”
“We have worked together.”
“Well, what should I call you?”
“You may call me anything you like.”
Close to my home, one of my friends found out about my little guest and said to me, “You did a good thing by bringing her home. It would have been a shame and a sin to let her spend the night out. But be careful, and on guard, for your father has just gotten out of prison, a year ago one of your brothers fled the country, and another one was sent to jail for political motives. The State Security is watching you, and even for the act of sheltering the little girl, you, too, may land in prison.”

In our House

When we arrived at the front door my little sister, Arrestime, appeared before us. My sister received this challenging and surprising name which means “the Arrest,” from my father, who had been arrested as an anticommunist a few days before she was born, sixteen years ago. Asking no questions, she carried little Drita inside while patting her. Arrestime did not part with the little guest until the next day, when she waved us good bye. My mother, who had suffered so much in life, embraced the little girl even after she found out who she was. My father was not at home and I waited impatiently for his reaction. It wasn’t long before my father came home. When I introduced him to the little girl, he said nothing, and turned toward the kitchen wordlessly. When mother gave him his coffee, we heard them talking:
“You and Teki think you are ‘right’, because you do not fully realize who Liri Belishova and Maqo Çomo truly were,” my father said.
“It is a sin in the eyes of God. She is an innocent child and we could not leave her in the streets of Vlora.”
My father asked, “What about you? Who felt sorry for you in 1945, when you were in the last month of pregnancy, and with a load of children on your back? They imprisoned your innocent husband, confiscated all of your property, drove you out of your house, and left you in the middle of the road. Didn’t Liri Belishova and Maqo Çomo do this to you?”
I did not interfere in their conversation, because I understood my father’s emotional revolt. It was not until the next morning that I was positive that his rebellion was only a momentary outburst. (My father did hard labor work, and the only treat mother gave him was a fried egg for lunch. In the morning, before he left for work, we heard him telling her, “Do not make my egg today; boil it for the little one,” and he patted the little girl’s head. Upon overhearing this, I was filled with a warm feeling of love for my father’s caring spirit.)
For dinner, mother prepared rice pudding with ground rice and powdered milk. My little brother, Murat, who had not said a word until that moment, addressed Mother, saying, “Put my portion and Drita’s in one dish.” Mother, heedless of any wrongdoing of Murat, did so. While eating the pudding, Murat faced Drita and said, “Do not be surprised, little girl, by our eating together, because ‘Uncle’ Enver taught us to do so. All Albanians must eat from one plate...”
Arrestime made room for the little girl to sleep near her divan by the window. She begged the little girl to take off her dress but Drita resisted. After midnight, because of an insect bite, the little girl was frightened in her sleep. Forced to take off her dress and accept the traditional cure of vinegar and cold water, she still clasped the dress tightly in her hands. When Mother asked why she did not let go of the dress, Drita replied, “I have my father’s watch. My grandmother sewed it to my dress, and I will give it to him tomorrow when we meet…” Poor girl… I took her in my arms and petted her with fatherly love while she fell back to sleep. Mother, with tears in her eyes, patted the little girl’s head and said in a soft voice, “God take vengeance upon them - for you and me.”


In the morning, before we parted, Mother embraced little Drita, smothering her in kisses, and made this wish for her, “May your life shine, my daughter!” Arrestime wished us farewell from the porch, whereas my brother accompanied us up to the center of the city. While waiting for the bus, my brother begged little Drita to tell a tale that her parents had told her. “I know many, but one with partisans is my favorite.” She began to tell it with childish enthusiasm. “The partisans were in a war with the Germans. Between them was a deep creek. The partisans began to hit the Germans with stones. On the German side there were no stones but a sandy soil. Germans began to dig into the sand with their nails. Instead of rocks, they found potatoes. They began to pelt the partisans with potatoes. The hungry partisans ate baked potatoes until they were bursting, whereas the Germans were dying of hunger. Did you like it?” asked the little girl. “Very much,” said my brother, “But be ready, my little Drita, because the same thing will happen to us from the heirs of the partisans.” In fact, the words of my brother, Murat Gjonzeneli, proved to be prophetic. Shortly afterwards, he began suffering 19 years in political prison as an “enemy of the people.”
Drita and I boarded the crowded bus. When a lady I was acquainted with saw the cute little girl, she took Drita on her lap, and while patting her head, lovingly asked whose she was. “Maqo Çomo’s,” replied the little girl without hesitation. The lady, as if a snake had bitten her, jumped up, pushed the little girl away, and faced me viciously. “Take this ‘enemy’ away from me, Teki! She is your kind!” and turned her back with abhorrence.
Because all life in communist hell was inhuman, I recounted this ordinary experience of mine. Had it been the only circumstance, I would not have bothered to tell you of the event.

What became of Drita Çomo?

Little Drita was raised in internment camps, suffering physiological torture. Despite the consequences, verses full of humane love poured out of her beautiful soul. She wrote poetry which, after the 1990s, attracted the attention of many writers. She was an angel forbidden to spread her wings. Cancer took over her delicate being and she died at a very young age, in extreme poverty, deprived of everything- even the presence of her exiled mother in Cerrik and her father imprisoned in the notorious Burreli prison. Decades have passed, but the faraway vision has remained in my memory­ with a special purpose for the present. Let this real life story pay homage to Drita Çomo and to all the children of her generation and mine, to all the unfortunate who had a life worse than Drita’s, to those who died in extermination camps built by the parents of the present day socialists, and to those whose graves were lost forever. Let this story be a call to the conscience of the honorable Ambassador of the United States of America in Tirana, to find out which side he is on: Drita Çomo’s and Teki Gjonzeneli’s or the state security officer’s- a man who threw a young child into the middle of the street.

Translated from The Albanian by Hilda M. Xhepa

1 comment:

  1. Sad story dear. But a real albanian story. Know it first hand Drita was my cousin. I saw her fora very very short time. She came to attend the mock trial of my dad who was her uncle. She was a brave lil teen at that time. She asked for premission to make a statement on my dads trial. The garbage commie judge of the mock trial denied her permission to talk under pretext she was resident of our city and had nothing to add so called facts of trial. My dad was convicted of false crime "under agitacion and propoganda against the communist state " he went in prison for long time. I remember poor Drita trying to give me courage I was a lil boy then 11 yrs old. She said do not worry better days will come. I wish she was around when the days came. I ended up accuseed as enemy of state on my later yrs while forced to serve in Albain army but thats another story. I left the cursed land of ALbania with embassy exodus and never went back even to visit. The memories stuck on me were as distubing of the jews on aushwicz. I have tried to forget the past but I will never forgive the the people whom made albania the living hell of two millions.