Albanians Take Bunk out of Bunkers

TIRANA, Albania -- Albania's bunkers, one of the most paranoid legacies of its former Stalinist government, are getting a new lease of life -- as chicken coops, mushroom farms, art galleries, cafes and even tiny, dank homes.

In a country once so worried about invasion that it placed metal spikes in vineyards to skewer parachutists, Albanians are constantly looking for ways to recycle an estimated 500,000 domed concrete bunkers.

"Even bombs can't hurt us," said Jonuz Kasmi, 47, who lives in his pill-box, with walls 30 centimeters thick, by a roadside overlooking a river west of Tirana.

"But I can't recommend living in a bunker," he said. Kasmi, his wife and four children, have lived for 3 1/2 years crammed into a space about 5 meters across and 2 1/2 meters at the highest point.

He has electricity, water and a gun, if needed to defend his family from bandits following the insurrection that swept Albania last month.

Pointing north, south, east, and west -- tiny Albania saw enemies everywhere -- the bunkers drained resources from a desperately poor country that was Europe's most hermetic state for 45 years until communism collapsed in 1990.

"This is probably the only area of the economy where we don't need new investment," said Colonel Qemal Mehmeti of the Defense Ministry.

Albania began building bunkers as its main fortifications after its ties with the former Soviet Union soured and Tirana pulled out of the Warsaw Pact in 1968.

It turned to China but went it alone in the mid-1970s, angered at Beijing's rapprochement with Washington. Apart from the bunkers and grids of spikes in vineyards, it dug tunnels under cities for air raid shelters.

The feared blitz never came.

Mehmeti reckoned 10 percent of bunkers have been wrecked by people, hit by landslips or choked by weeds. Even so, they remain a key part of Albania's defenses -- people can turn them to nonmilitary uses only if they do no structural damage.

"My neighbor keeps chickens in his," said Isuf Hoxha, 71, who has three small bunkers in his 50 meter yard, including one overgrown by weeds.

"Even during the communist years, I never felt protected," he said as a police armored car rumbled past. "The bunkers disrupted the land, the beaches, our homes. Why? They're useless."

Hoxha, no relation to the late communist dictator Enver Hoxha who built the bunkers, showed off a metal spike that used to be atop a concrete post in his vineyard. "This was for the imperalists!" he laughed, jabbing it skyward.

Near the port of Durres, bunkers along the beach have been converted into seaside cafes. Further south in Qeparo, some Italians have decorated bunkers with bright paintings.

Expressing resignation about the presence of the bunkers, one Albanian joke asks: "What did you get from the land privatization?" The answer: "Two hectares and three bunkers."

Albanian souvenir makers have found a new use for the bunkers -- minibunkers in marble are popular with tourists.

And even though many Albanians gripe about the bunkers, some have wistful memories -- bunkers every 50 meters or so along the beaches of the Adriatic were favored lovers' hideaways during communism.