(CN) – The small Balkan nation of Albania is shedding new light on its dark past: This year international experts are expected to begin exhuming and identifying the remains of victims of the country’s brutal former communist dictatorship.
In November, Albania’s parliament ratified an agreement that allows the International Commission on Missing Persons to help Albania search for people who went missing under the decades-long regime of Enver Hoxha, a paranoid and cruel Stalinist dictator who kept Albania sealed off from the rest of the world.
More than 6,000 people were executed, many without a trial, under the communist regime and the remains of more than 5,000 victims have not been found after they were buried in secret unmarked mass graves throughout Albania, according to officials. The repressive communist dictatorship ended in 1991.
“There cannot be complete rehabilitation of the victims of the communist regime without finding and identifying these victims,” said Bilal Kola, the general director of Albania’s Institute of Integration of Ex-Politically Persecuted, in an email to Courthouse News. “This is important not only for the families directly affected but also for the Albanian society in general.”
Kola said the regime sentenced about 103,670 Albanians on politically motivated convictions and that about 65,000 people were sent to concentration camps.
The Institute of Integration of Ex-Politically Persecuted is a state institution with a mandate to help Albanians find relatives who are missing after they disappeared during the communist regime.
In recent years, the Albanian government has begun to deal with this ghastly past. In 2016, a state agency was set up to collect and declassify the archives of Albania’s Sigurimi secret service. The Sigurimi used mass surveillance on the Albanian population and carried out torture and executions.
For a long time Albania’s government was unwilling to open up this past. After the fall of communism in 1991, many Albanians sought to open the communist-era secret service files, but those efforts were stymied until 2015. It wasn’t until 2006 that the government adopted a resolution condemning the crimes committed by the communist regime.
Opening the secret service archives was viewed as a threat to officials in government and others who did not want their roles in the communist regime exposed, as reported by Balkan Insight, a news site for the Balkans.
In Tirana, the government also recently turned the old headquarters of the Sigurimi, the so-called House of Leaves, into a museum.
As the silence over the past was broken, Albania’s government last year agreed to look for the remains of victims from the communist era.
Luigj Ndou, a spokesman for the International Commission on Missing Persons, said experts first will seek to identify and exhume the remains of victims at two sites: One is near Dajti Mountain, which is close to Albania’s capital of Tirana, and a second site in the south is in Ballsh, a town where there was a forced labor camp.
He said at least 93 political prisoners died at the labor camp in Ballsh and were buried in unmarked graves. Experts hope to exhume those bodies and identify them, he said.
For years, people – of their own initiative – have looked for missing relatives they believed were killed and buried in the overgrown area of Dajti, according to reports by Balkan Insight and the BBC.
Ndou said families seeking their relatives exhumed the bodies of 13 people at that spot in 2010. Those bodies were taken to the Institute of Legal Medicine in Tirana, but he said they remain unidentified. He said Albania lacked the forensic expertise needed to identify the bodies.
To determine who the victims were, DNA will be collected from bone samples and examined at the commission’s laboratory in the Netherlands, Ndou said. The hope then is to match the DNA from the exhumed bodies to that of relatives alive today.
He said the commission’s experts and Albanian authorities are expected to conduct new excavations at the Dajti site in searchers for other bodies.
The commission’s work is being funded with about $570,000 in European Union money. This initial work is considered a pilot project and the hope is that more funds will become available for more extensive work.
Albania is not a member of the EU but it is seeking to join the bloc. It is a poor country that has struggled in recent years with organized crime groups involved in the drug trade. Albania is a transit country for narcotics shipped into Europe from southwest Asia and South America.
Finding the missing is made harder by the fact that the whereabouts of mass graves are unknown and because family members of victims often emigrate from Albania, Kola said.
Kola said identifying victims will help restore “the dignity of victims and their families” and help Albania heal. He called this important for Albania’s “collective memory” and a step toward ensuring similar crimes do not occur again. He added that this work helps “the prolonged Albanian transition” from dictatorship to democracy.
The International Commission on Missing Persons is an intergovernmental organization based in The Hague, Netherlands, dedicated to searching for and identifying missing people killed in armed conflict and by authoritarian regimes and natural disasters.
The commission was created as an initiative of former U.S. President Bill Clinton and its initial work focused on finding and identifying the roughly 40,000 people missing following the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)