Cold-war Bunkers At The Ready In Albania Half A Million Dot The Land. Once Laughable, They Now Are Eyed As Potential Havens.

Posted: April 19, 1999

DURRES, Albania — Take about 500,000 giant mushrooms made of concrete. Put them every place you can think of: on beaches and mountains, in vineyards and pastures, in villages and towns, even on the manicured lawns of Albania's best hotel.

They are Cold War-era military bunkers, installed by Albania's paranoid dictator Enver Hoxha as he imagined his poor little country simultaneously being invaded by Europe to the west and the Soviet Union to the east.

Virtually indestructible, the bunkers remain the most distinctive feature on the Albanian landscape - testimony to a leader gone mad.

But Hoxha, who died in 1985, may have had the right idea after all, Albanians are begrudgingly beginning to admit.

As NATO-welcoming Albania increasingly feels itself under threat from NATO-attacked Serbia to the north, the clunky old bunkers strike many as handy to have.

Some Albanians may smirk about the bunkers, former Minister of Defense Alfred Moisiu said last week, ``but those living on the borders don't laugh - they've cleaned them up and made them ready.''

The bunkers are made of reinforced concrete and iron, with little windows from which to point a rifle or machine gun. The most common are just big enough to hold one or two people, who are able to stand upright because of a circular bottom extending several feet into the ground.

Most were built between 1974 and 1984, at painful expense to a nation so poor that even its best roads today are drivable at no more than 30 m.p.h.

To understand how wildly the bunker defense project spun out of control under Hoxha, consider this: Albania has 3 million residents and an estimated half-million bunkers.

In Hoxha-led Albania, every citizen - young or old, male or female - was considered a vital element of a civilian reservist military force. Albanians as young as 12 learned to defend their country against invasion by hopping into the nearest bunker and sharpshooting from the openings.

Valentina Duka, now a professor of history at the University of Tirana in Albania's capital city, remembers how she began training at age 15 ``to be a good soldier. . . . We prepared ourselves to shoot from the bunkers. Everyone was cleaning and caring for them.''

Under Hoxha's rule, Albania became one of the most isolated nations in the world. All newspapers, television, books and movies from Western countries were banned, and it was easy, Duka said, to accept Hoxha's ``point of view that we were surrounded by enemies. . . . I was proud about the bunkers, knowing that they will defend our country.''

Today, although a small percentage of the bunkers can be found smashed in half or tipped on their sides, the vast majority stand stolidly wherever they were installed, often on private property.

Ali and Naile Muja, for instance, farmers who live with their three children near Tirana's airport, have five bunkers in the small farm plot surrounding their home.

``They are good for absolutely nothing! I have tried to put them away, but it's impossible!'' complained Ali Muja last week, standing next to a squat bunker filled with rain and groundwater.

Over recent years, other Albanians have done their best to find something - anything - to do with the bunkers. They sometimes dart into them to use as roadside toilets.

One very large, room-like facility in this port city has been turned into the Bunker Restaurant. The only apparent drawback is that patrons must duck their heads before walking through the door or risk knocking themselves unconscious by banging into the thick concrete walls.

The chief bunker designer, Albanian Josif Zengali, is still around to both defend and criticize his creations. He is a dapper man of 73, with a fedora hat and a big smile.

The smile masks tragedy. Although Hoxha was initially thrilled with Zengali's bunker design, he later had him jailed for six years on trumped-up charges that he had slowed down bunker production while acting as a secret agent for both the United States and the Soviet Union.

During Zengali's imprisonment, his wife went temporarily insane. His eldest daughter was shunned by friends and acquaintances as the daughter of a traitor. When his daughter died of breast cancer at age 34, Zengali blamed himself for her death.

The bunkers, says Zengali today, were not a bad idea - it's just there are too many of them.

``There is no country in the world that doesn't have fortifications, but everything in moderation,'' he observed over ice cream at the fancy Rogner Hotel in Tirana - a few feet from two bunkers sprouting up from the hotel's lawn. And ``no country,'' he added, ``has so much as Albania.''

Zengali recalled how he came up with the dome-shaped bunker design after studying other fortifications, especially in Russia. Model bunkers - with sheep and dogs inside - were tested by being blasted with artillery and bombs. The round shape was the secret to success: Incoming projectiles would hit the domed bunker wall and then simply zing off into the air.

``They are,'' Zengali observed, ``very strong.''

But, he noted, they have never once been used for their original purpose - protection against an invasion.

If Serbia does attack, he said, ``they are going to serve us well. Let's hope there won't be this need.''

In border areas, said Ministry of Defense spokesman Albert Mullaj, a few of the bunkers have been cleaned up for possible use. Only a few are actually protecting Albanian troops, but there probably isn't a single Albanian soldier in the north who doesn't imagine jumping into the nearest bunker if an attack starts.

At least one nation is envious, Mullaj said:

``A Bosnian general has said to me in an academy, `If we had your fortifications in our country, we would have been saved from the Serbians.' ''

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