Albania’s Journey of Transition / JUTTA BENZENBERG
When Albania’s communist regime disintegrated in 1991-1992 we were told we had embarked on a transition. We all imagined transition as a kind of road, if a long one, starting in one place and ending somewhere else, or as a ship ploughing through the ocean of backwardness towards a haven of prosperity and the rule of law. In our bedraggled state, we were leaving behind socialist Albania for capitalist Albania, for a European Albania. Transition would be a metamorphosis, changing the country’s appearance and its whole essence.
Twenty years have since passed, and not only have we not reached our destination but we do not even have the impression that we are on a road leading anywhere. On the contrary we are faced with many reasons for despair, such as the destruction of the environment, the decay of our cultural heritage, the exodus of the country’s elite and its young people, and the deep corruption of political life and state administration, which lead many to think that the previous system was superior to the present one. Indeed, the country is changing, and parts of it, such as the capital city and other large urban centres, at bewildering speed, but all without any sense of direction, of a journey, or deliverance. Many of these trends and transformations are contradictory, unplanned, and unwelcome: our coastline is disappearing under concrete, our villages are deserted, and the cities expand chaotically. There is something illusory and deceptive about the concept of transition, at least in Albania’s case. In this it resembles the static or eschatological vision of communism, the New World that was to arise after the foundations of socialism were laid. In 1991, the majority of the Albanian population was rural. But what happened to this rural population? What was transition like for them? A large number flocked to the towns and settled on the outskirts of Tirana, Durrës, Vlora, etc., or emigrated to Greece and Italy.
People’s lives have changed, often dramatically and in exciting ways, with satisfactions and pleasures that were once unimaginable and the thousand joys, opportunities and disappointments that freedom brings. But nobody can say that we started in one place and will arrive in another. Unfortunately, in contrast to some other countries of the former socialist East, such as East Germany, which after an accelerated, even over-strenuous transition is today little different from the other part of the country into whose fabric it has been woven, Albania shows little sense of direction, if we set aside the tiresome government propaganda about integration into Europe and the Atlantic alliance. Few people make confident plans for the future, and what might be called master plans or national strategies are non-existent. Within the country it is often said that the communist regime lasted forty-five years, and we will have to struggle for just as long before Albania totally overcomes the trauma of this era and becomes a normal European country. This recalls the alleged prediction of the dictator Enver Hoxha shortly before he died: You will mourn me for five years, curse me for five years, and remember me all your lives.
So where is Albania going now? The country has set its compass north and west and is bent on joining Europe, with such determination that one fears that it might founder on its voyage like the Titanic and sink to the bottom of the ocean. This determination has been poured into concrete, a mass of solid grey that looks so ugly and incongruous in a Mediterranean landscape, which has covered the entire shoreline of Durrës and Saranda, received the blessing of the government with the promise of eight new cement works between Fushë Kruja and Shkodra, and is now spreading across the entire country. Symbolically an extraordinary concrete ship lies anchored near a small town between Fier and Berat, where it stands, a challenge to all the laws of marine engineering.
It is as if poised to embark one day, casting off all the hawsers of history, breaking all the chains of the Ottoman and communist past, challenging all the prejudices of our neighbours and the commissions of the EU, on a voyage to the heart of the continent. Jutta’s work extends across an entire twenty-year period. In October 1991, she took black-and-white photographs in the internees’ villages of Lushnjë, in the former prison of Spaç, and on the roads as the migrants poured toward the Greek border at Kakavija and Kapshtica. In between, she accomplished work of extraordinary value, with characters, situations, and landscapes that charted the country’s destiny year by year. Tragically, her collection was entirely destroyed by fire in 2007, but she started again, determined to make up what she had lost.
Meanwhile, she has lived on intimate terms with different people, including many of the best-loved characters in her photographs, with long-suffering minorities such as the Roma, orphaned children, and the disabled. Few people are aware of her efforts to improve conditions at the children’s home in Tirana, and to bring roads and schools to the remote village of Mokra.
Jutta fell in love with Albania when she arrived here from Munich, and set herself to discover a world and its people.
Courtesy of the artist
Photographs © Jutta Benzenberg
Text by Ardian Klosi
Posted by Francesca Marcaccio