The Present Past – Former political prisoners return to Spaç to share the stories of survival and shed light into Albania’s dark past

April 15, 2024

Sitting on the terrace where the guards used to make the roll call of the prisoners, an old man with a walking stick looks at the buildings where 50 years ago, he and his inmates risked their lives showing a strong example of resistance. “Every time I come back to Spaç prison I feel a sense of guilt. The idea of hoisting the flag without the communist star at the Spaç revolt was mine. I prepared the flag. I held it and I feel guilty for those four men executed after the revolt in 1973, whose remains were never found,” says Gjet Kadeli, 84 years old who spent 16 years of his life in prisons during the communist regime.

His portrait is one of the 49 sculpture portraits (masks) created for the audio-visual exhibition “The Present Past”, a memorial for all political prisoners who suffered and survived in Spaç, Mirdita and their recorded testimonies. Supported by the EU-funded EU4Culture programme, implemented by UNOPS Albania in close partnership with the Ministry of Economy, Culture and Innovation of Albania. the permanent exhibition reminds through faces and voices, the sufferings of the past joining three themes: remembering, experiencing, and reflecting.

Incorporating the voices of former political prisoners in the memorial and having them present during the event, made young visitors experience a human library and learn about the past or even their own past. One of the curators of the exhibition, Kristian Zara, learned his grandfather had suffered in this prison while working on the project, while the project itself is a way to leave their traces there. “These kinds of sculptures are created by taking the form of their faces, so with those portraits, their DNA remains forever in Spaç” explains Arnen Sula, the other curator.

In a toneless voice, Gjet Kadeli recalls days when they were forced to work in the mine and cold nights in the cells with concrete floors. He had felt the political persecution since childhood. At seven years old, he was sent to Tepelena camp together with 21 members of his family. Now, he wants to see Tepelena camp and Spaçi prison as memory sites to make them known to young generations.


“Societies that do not know the history of their country are destined to repeat it. The former Spaçi prison is a living testimony of pain and violence, but above all a testimony of how wrong political systems force the individuals to destroy lives”, says Serona Kolaveri, a Young European Ambassador.

“Meeting the survivors of the Spaç Prison, one of the most brutal prisons of the communist regime in Albania was deeply moving. Listening to their stories reminded me that so much remains to do in dealing with the past. I am glad so many young people came to Spaç to meet the survivors – they need to understand where they come from and what Albania went through. One needs to heal the wounds of the past by addressing the rights of the victims. I am truly proud that we supported this event, but this is not enough. The former prison of Spaç is deteriorating rapidly and should be preserved so that we can remember what happened here and say, ‘Never Again” noted EU Ambassador to Albania, Silvio Gonzato.

Survivor’s stories

When Barjam Durmishi was arrested in 1977 accused for agitation and propaganda, he was 47 years old and the father of six children. “For almost seven years I couldn’t see my family. My wife came once to visit me, but travelling from Skrapar to Spaç was difficult and expensive, so I asked her not to come any more, so she could take care of the children”, recalls the 95-years old with a peaceful smile, while he doesn’t want to complain. “It was difficult at the beginning, and then I got used to what life was like here. I survived and others didn’t. Some died in the mine, and their remains are still underground”, he tells with a sad voice.

Hysen Haxhiaj, another former political prisoner, emphasizes the need to preserve the prison as a memory site. “We have gone through terrible times. Every building or even stones here deserve respect because they carry the memories of young men who died in the collapse of the underground mine or in the prison. Their remains were never found”, he notes.

Completely isolated, the labour camp and prison of Spaç is located in a remote area in the middle of the mountains. Former political prisoners have mixed emotions while they revisit the site. For some of them, it is still difficult to go voluntarily where they suffered political sentences. However, surrounded by young generations, they tell their stories trying to make sure about the future.

Gjon Prendi, another former political prisoner has visited the prison with his nephews. “It’s important for them to know what happened here. As the country was becoming atheist, my uncle, who was a priest, escaped from Albania in 1952, so my family was interned in Tepelena. In 1966, I wanted to escape to find freedom and find my uncle, Bishop Zef Oroshi, but I was arrested near the border and sentenced to 10 years in prison”, tells the 82-year-old.  

He hardly remembers his uncle, as he was just 10 years old when he saw him for the last time in the church, but on the hardest nights in Spaç prison, he would close his eyes, recall the masses, make the sign of cross and pray to God for another day.