Albania: the long walk to identify the missing


Matthew Holliday examines the evolution of a comprehensive missing persons strategy in Albania

Sulejman Mara died in 1954 in unknown circumstances at the infamous Burreli prison in Albania. He was 44. His body was never found. In post-World War II Albania, like so many others, Sulejman Mara was labeled an enemy of the proletariat – a persona non grata in a totalitarian state that zealously disposed of its enemies.

Today, Sulejman Mara is regarded as one of the politically persecuted. For Gentjana Sula, former Assistant Minister for Social Welfare and Youth, Sulejman Mara is the grandfather she never knew, a victim who deserves justice, a person whose fate – like that of thousands of others – must be elucidated, for the sake of his own family and for the sake of so many other families.

Romana Vlahutin, the EU Special Representative to Albania, understands only too well the overwhelming need to know the fate of the missing. Her grandmother had four sons, one of whom died in the war far from home at the age of 17. When her grandmother learned that her son had died, she set out to find where his body lay. She began walking and she didn’t stop until she had found the place. She walked for days before she found him. She brought him home and in this way she was able to find a kind of peace. If she had not been able to bury the remains of her son she would not have been able to find peace.

Society, like individuals, needs to find closure.

In its annual Report on Albania, the EU has sent a strong message that this country needs justice. However, there cannot be justice as long as the fate of thousands of citizens who were politically persecuted during the communist era remains unknown.

More than 20 years after the fall of the communist regime, there is no precise number of persons who went missing between 1945 and 1991. Official data on missing persons and on judicially or extra-judicially imprisoned or executed victims  is incomplete. Non-governmental organizations offer different figures. Some estimate that as many as 6,000 people were executed. Their bodies were never returned to their families for burial. Instead they were interred in mass unmarked graves near the many notorious detention centers, prisons and labor camps that existed throughout the country.

Since the fall of the communist regime, various administrations have taken steps to address the issue of missing persons. In 2006, the Albanian Parliament adopted a Resolution on Condemning the Crimes of Communism in Albania. The Resolution is important since it was the first time that an Albanian legislative body in the post-communist era called for resolution of the fate of missing persons. Article 15 states that the “Albanian Parliament supports the development of the national strategy on the elimination of the half century totalitarian regime in Albania and appeals to state institutions to fulfill all obligations regarding the status of the former politically persecuted, for their integration, education, employment, shelter and compensation as soon as possible, and for the fund for locating the missing and killed with or without trial for political purposes.”

In the past five years the Albanian authorities have undertaken a more focused effort to address the issue of missing persons. In 2010 the mass grave near Dajti Mountain was discovered and the authorities recovered the remains of 13 individuals. For lack of technical capacity, however, these remains have not yet been identified.

In 2015, ICMP received an official invitation from the Albanian Government to visit Tirana and discuss perspectives of potential ICMP assistance to the Government in resolving the issue of persons missing from the former communist regime. Since 2015, strong cooperation has developed between ICMP and the Ministry of Social Welfare and Youth, under whose umbrella the Center for the Integration of the Politically Persecuted has taken the first steps to document Albania’s missing persons. An official visit of representatives of the Albanian authorities to ICMP’s facilities in Bosnia and Herzegovina in October 2015 resulted in the development of a roadmap outlining prospective cooperation between Albanian institutions and ICMP as well as a series of coordinated activities to locate, excavate and identify the missing through a sustainable process led by the Albanian authorities with technical assistance from ICMP.

Today, ICMP and the Albanian authorities are discussing ways of formalizing cooperation in order to enable ICMP to assist the Albanian authorities on the ground to begin a thoroughgoing and transparent process to account for the missing. This process will uphold the fundamental rights of families of the missing and it will help to consolidate the rule of law in Albania and strengthen institutions that are accountable to citizens.

The EU Special Representative to Albania recently announced that the EU would provide funding for a project to recover and identify the missing from the communist era. ICMP is poised to help Albania implement this project. It is a project that will help families of the missing; it will help people like Gentjana Sula; it will help all those who have lost loved ones to exercise their right to know the truth, to receive the human remains of their missing relatives and to give them a dignified burial, so that – like Romana Vlahutin’s grandmother – they and society can find a kind of peace.