The images emerged from a dusty box that had resisted three removals. Inside there was, I say without emphasis, a fragment of the memory of theAlbania in a difficult period of its history. A photographic journey to Albania at the time of the country's isolation.
It was the end of the summer of the 1982, the week between the 21 and the September 27 to be precise. Still without emphasis, I believe I am one of the few to have impressed on film and then preserved photographs from another political and historical era.
The lack of time and laziness had put that old reportage into oblivion. Then a forced stop due to the Achilles tendon rupture drove me to recover those memories. I did well, because the supports started to deteriorate.
I had started with two slide loaders and the same number of black and white ones, a normal equipment for the time when the analog forced us to shoot with a thrift that digital does not require. In all, on slides and negatives there were about 140 images captured with a Minolta reflex and a compact Olimpus, a hundred usable ones. I am not a professional but I like to photograph.
In 1982, at 28 years, I had a basic instrumentation in Italy but obviously unimaginable in Albania. The photographs of that trip, which I scanned from the films and carefully edited, are now available to Albanianews. At the portal I have granted free of charge to make the popular and cultural use that it considers most appropriate.
On that distant 1982 I was struck by the advertisement of a Rimini agency specializing in trips to the communist Eastern countries. For the first time they proposed Albania and the occasion seemed to me tempting to go to the discovery of the mysterious country beyond the Adriatic.
I had previously had a single contact with an Albanian citizen, a truck driver with a load of tomatoes met in Austria. I proposed the trip to some friends and four followed me. We left by boat, Ancona Durres on the outward journey and Split Ancona on the way back.
We entered Albania from Montenegro, Hani Hotit pass, I would say looking at the possible border crossings on the maps. I remember that the bus unloaded our group in front of a hut and the Yugoslav border guards sent us informally to the bar that marked the border. To the right we had Lake Scutari. After crossing a hundred meters of no-man's land, the Albanian border guards took over.
On both sides of the bar, Yugoslav and Albanian soldiers scrutinized each other armed, I assume with the blow in the barrel. The customs operations were long and meticulous. Each of the tourists was searched and checked. The books were compared to a list held by border guards and many were seized. Newspapers such as the Corriere della Sera and the Republic passed, but not the Unit (the newspaper where, later, I would have worked for over thirty years).
In any case, all the objects were returned on the way back to the same pass. My cameras went unharmed. The group, having completed the customs operations, was entrusted to two guides (a boy and a girl) and sent on a Fiat minibus.
Click here to see the photographic journey of Onide Donati in the Albania of 1982
First stop Scutari, where we arrived after having skirted the homonymous lake. In the city we found ourselves immersed in another era. Scutari was very poor, half-ruined. I was struck by the sadness of the people and their resigned attitude. The group was carefully controlled, contacts with the locals were impossible but the eyes were enough to understand many things.
Photographing was possible but more discretion was better used. The only prohibition that came to us was to aim the target at the cement forts scattered everywhere, an unlikely defense against an invasion of the enemy. In any case, I soon realized that I had objects unknown to the Albanians. It was in Scutari that I noticed that I was checked a few times. On one occasion, a person who told me to stop photographing also came up to me.
The journey was hectic, never more than a day in the same place. From Scutari we went to Tirana, from Tirana to Durres, from Durres to Berat, from Berat to Elbasan and then again to Scutari on the way back.
We were lodged in basic but dignified hotels, we ate discreetly. The rare dialogues with the places allowed by the guides took place without language problems, because almost everyone knew Italian learned from television.
I have no travel notes and so I go to memory. I was impressed by some flashes. Meanwhile, the obsessive excitement on the part of our companions of the Communist Party secretary, Enver Hoxha, who ruled continuously over the land of the eagles since the end of the Second World War. I remember the "Lavdi Hoxha" written everywhere, even on the ridges of the mountains with compound stones in the shape of words. And then the absolute absence of cars, the small roads invaded by bicycles and by horse-drawn carts and donkeys, some rare motorcycles, a few public buses (I think Czechoslovak), old Chinese trucks, some rare and modern Fiat Fiat which was used to export goods (I imagine agricultural products) in the capitalist West.
A Tirana, where the standard of living was superior to that of the rest of the country, it happened to see occasionally some cars, usually Mercedes of the embassies and of the ministries. The infrastructure seemed discreet to me in the capital, bad elsewhere.
I was struck by the desolation of Durazzo, the rust of its port from where the ships of the refugees sailed some ten years later. I was struck by veiled women: "ethnic tradition", the guides told us, but in reality it was a clear religious demonstration in a country that was based on atheism.
There was an embarrassing moment in Elbasan, when in the restaurant, perhaps thanks to a few too many glasses of brandy, some of our group started singing and dancing Raffaella Carra's Tuca tuca asking an orchestra to be accompanied.
The Carrà was well known in Albania and the musicians sketched the notes of the song. But the exhibition was stopped in a manner decided by a party official, who had suddenly materialized. Another bad episode occurred at the end of the journey to Scutari. It had happened that a lady from our group had left a package of clothes with a ticket at the hotel: "For the poor".
The parcel was returned to the lady on the bus by the usual official who rebuked her severely, pointing out that there were no poor people in Albania and that they did not accept the charity of us Western capitalists. A good part of the group protested and the end of the journey, after a stop on the shores of Lake Scutari, ended in a climate of tension. The border authorities badly returned the objects confiscated from the outward journey and made us pass through Montenegro without bothering to say hello.
I am aware that my photographs have no particular artistic or technical value. But I believe that they document the climate of that 1982 in Albania, in the midst of the dictatorial power of Enver hoxha , who could even afford the comparison with western tourists.
I have difficulty attributing essential information to each of the photographs. I recognize some cities, first of all the unmistakable and characteristic Berat. Two of the most beautiful photos, those of the ice cream maker with the cart, were made in Tirana. The statue of Stalin, under which I was photographed, was certainly in Scutari as I could verify on Google.
Other places will be recognized by the readers of Albanianews in order to order the photographs of the album with a logical succession.
Finally, let me give you personal and family notation. I live in a town in Romagna, Bellaria-Igea Marina, which has a very high density of Albanian citizens, a thousand on 20 thousand inhabitants. Surnames such as Mema, Kalliku, Cobo, Jordake, Hasani, Alla are common.
My wife, for many years Vice Dean of the Comprehensive School and Councilor for Culture, has done a demanding job to encourage the school integration of Albanian children. Successes and failures have alternated, but overall the situation today is good.
The Albanians are the owners of many companies, especially in construction and catering. The 25 April 2009, on the occasion of a manifestation of intercultural dialogue with music and interethnic dances in the square, the poet came to Bellaria Visar Zhiti , cultural attaché of the Albanian Embassy in Italy and, connected by videoconference, the mayor of Tirana Edi Rama (now premier) greeted his fellow citizens.
I know many Albanians, in the office of my primary care physician there is a young Albanian doctor, my daughter at the turn of the century attended primary school and middle school with more and more children just arrived from Albania.
We are beyond the "different is among us", we are in a situation of "ethnic contamination" now normal.
Given what I saw and documented in Albania in the 1982 to me this seems a miracle. I'd like to go back in the footsteps of that remote journey. Sooner or later I'll do it.
The article was originally published on ALBANIA NEWS the 28 June 2016 and has been taken up by most of the Albanian media for the historical importance of these photographs, a living testimony of the Communist Albania