SPAC, Albania (AP) — Buried in the mountains of northern Albania are crumbling buildings and an old copper mine where political prisoners were once forced to work to exhaustion and even death.
The doors and window frames of the infamous Spac prison have rotted away and signs above the doorways have faded. But the nightmares never ended for former inmates who as young men were labeled enemies of Albania's communist dictatorship and punished there with years of hard labor.
As the prison falls into ruin, some of them fear that the thousands who suffered there will be forgotten, and they are campaigning to have the site turned into a museum and to have May 21 declared a national day of remembrance for those who suffered under communism.
"This is a symbol of communist hell. It must not be lost and forgotten," said Bilal Kola, the head of the prisoners' institute which is leading the campaign.
One former inmate, 75-year-old Hysen Haxhiaj, hopes help might come from the West to preserve this site of suffering where the regime broke its opponents — some falsely accused — as the tiny country descended into isolation and paranoia over nearly five decades.
"We're hoping Germany or the United States can help us turn this place into a museum. Forget about our government," said Haxhiaj, a stocky, silver-haired 75-year-old, who served 13 of 15 years of hard labor at Spac.
As a young man, Haxhiaj joined a tiny book club in his hometown of Durres in western Albania. Their group of seven friends discussed novels and poetry, but some of the books had apparently been banned as being pro-Western or too pro-Soviet. Though communist, Albania had split with other Communist countries.
The club was spied on, denounced for "anti-state agitation," and its members were jailed for a minimum of 10 years.
Albania was ruled for more than four decades after World War II by Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, with state repression steadily growing as Albania split from other Communist countries — similar to the course taken by North Korea.
Religion was banned, so was leaving the country. Criticism of the regime, even in private conversation, could destroy a person's life with a hefty jail sentence. Cut off from the world, the country relied heavily on forced labor to build infrastructure and service its mines.
Abuses at Spac and other labor camps were first exposed in the mid-1980s by Amnesty International , which documented accounts of beatings, solitary confinement and desperate conditions described by a handful of former inmates who managed to escape the country.
The truth turned out to be far worse.
In late May, Haxhiaj and other former inmates traveled north along 13 kilometers (8 miles) of dirt road to Spac to mark the anniversary of a prisoner uprising. The revolt started on May 21, 1973 and lasted three days. The country's red-and-black national flag, without the communist red-star, was raised over the prison. Police cut off water and food and the inmates were easily crushed. Four alleged rebel leaders were executed and 1,700 years of jail times was added for 100 others.
Forty-three years later, visitors at Spac prison were keen to tell their story, many overcome with anger or breaking down in tears as they gave their accounts:
— Zenel Drangu from near the northern town of Shkodra was jailed for 16 years after fleeing for three days to neighboring Yugoslavia. He visited his former cell at Spac. "In this room 54 people slept in three-tier bunk beds. The mattresses and pillows were made out of hay."
— Pajtim Lamaj, 62 from southern Vlora, served 15 years. Nine of his cousins were imprisoned for a total of 143 years and two of them executed. Drangu kept him alive, giving him water, when a section of the copper mine collapsed and they were cut off for three days. "I can't believe I am alive today," he said.
— Bajram Dervishi from central Berat, served 28 years. He said inmates were forced to meet quotas of digging copper ore. "In an eight-hour shift every man had to fill seven wagons with copper pyrite." Failure to comply, he said, would lead to prison isolation, beatings or torture: Freshly boiled eggs placed under people's armpits or electric shocks to their genitals.
— Dush Martini, 65, from Shkodra, served 11 years in Spac and remembers the extreme conditions prisoners were subjected to. "Imagine working in over 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) 2,500 meters (a mile and a half) deep into the mountain and then to come out in minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 Fahrenheit)."
Haxhiaj had a young daughter when he was imprisoned. He divorced his wife to try and spare his family reprisals that were commonly carried out against the relatives of political prisoners. Alone at Spac, he tried to take his life, climbing a barbed wire perimeter fence and hoping to be shot by guards. A fellow inmate stopped him.
Between 1976 and 1990, he worked at three hard labor camps. After his release, he re-married his wife.
"I left our daughter at two years old and found her at 17."
Some 43,000 Albanians were imprisoned, sent to internment camps or executed during the Communist rule which lasted from 1944 until 1990, according to Albania's Institute for the Integration of Former Political Prisoners.
The Hoxha regime had 50 prisons and internment camps; 5,577 men and 450 women were executed; about 1,000 died in jail; 17,900 were imprisoned with 914,000 jail years and only about 2,700 of them are still alive now; more than 30,000 were sent to internment camps.
Twenty-five years after the regime collapsed in chaos, nearly half the country's 3 million population has no or little memory of life in one of the world's most isolated countries. The ambassadors of Germany and the United States have visited Spac, and in 2009, the Albanian government in 2009 listed it as a national monument.
That's all it did.
The New York-based World Monument Fund has described Spac Prison as being "in an extremely advanced state of deterioration," considering it as one of 50 most endangered monuments worldwide in 2016.