Up to 750,000 military bunkers once dotted Albania, a Balkan country in southeast Europe of just 11,100 square miles. They were put there by communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled for 40 years following World War II, believing his enemies might attack at any moment. That never happened. So citizens quietly put the war pods toward other uses: sheltering livestock, accommodating back-packers, vending tasty snacks.
British photographer Robert Hackman captured 250 of them while traveling through Albania over the past decade. They appear in Metamorphosis: The Reuse of Albanian Bunkers from the Communist Era, a book he describes as “a document of the people’s triumph over oppression.”
“I wanted to make a record of this transitional chapter of Albanian history,” he says, “to share not only the bunkers but the Albanian people and their country with a wider audience.”
The bunkerization of Albania was a $2.22 billion endeavor fueled by the country’s extreme isolation. Hoxha—whose underlings called him “The Sole Force”—took control of the country in 1944, touting a fanatical brand of communism no allies could equal. He pulled out of the Warsaw Pact (Moscow’s answer to NATO) in 1968 and soured or severed relations with The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and China. Without friends, he bunkered up. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, factories churned out steel-reinforced concrete slabs and cupolas for shelters ranging in size from single-soldier pillboxes to five-story subterranean fortresses. Workers used tractors and cranes to erect them on beaches, fields, and city streets across the country—hundreds dying in the process.
After communism fell in 1990, the lands on which the bunkers sat returned to their original owners, who tried to make the best of them. They turned them into everything from barbecues to pool halls—as was the case with the first bunker Hackman saw in 2001, while in Albania on assignment for the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees. “I knew it was unusual subject matter and would make a great photographic project,” he says.
But it wasn’t until 2008 that he began seriously photographing them. After flying into the capital Tirana from London, he’d spend up to two weeks driving around, searching out the telltale gray bumps in the landscape. Locals were mostly happy to have him photograph the structures—though sometimes only after a solid day of drinking raki, a high-proof brandy. “When I got to take the shot in the evening, I could barely stand,” Hackman says.
As the project progressed, Hackman noticed the bunkers disappearing en mass. Scrap metal prices had mushroomed, he says, and poor Albanians used explosives and industrial machinery to break the bunkers apart. Though the government has since protected them—it still claims them as property—they continue to be destroyed. “I believe the local community has missed an opportunity to be the guardians of remembrance for those who suffered under Enver Hoxha, and also denied themselves a huge income from tourism,” Hackman says.
For their part, Albanians are mixed: Some are happy to see them go, while others agree with Hackman and have pushed to preserve them. In 2012, students at Polis University in Tirana began Bed and Bunker, an effort to turn bunkers into B&Bs for tourists. The Concrete Mushrooms Project also developed a step-by-step manual for how to convert and reuse bunkers. In 2014 and 2016, two large underground bunkers were turned into museums—one damaged during construction by a group that saw it as a glorification of the past.
Hoxha may be gone, but it seems at least some of his bunkers will always be around.
Metamorphosis is available from Dewi Lewis Publishing.
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