The eagle does not forget the nest, but flies high
For several centuries, Albania has been a predominantly Muslim country, but with a small but sizable Orthodox and Catholic presence. Between 1946 and 1991, it was ruled by one of the most cruel dictatorships ever seen in Europe. Since 1967, the regime, led by the communist dictator Enver Hoxha, has tightened its policy towards religion, unleashing what was called the fight against “religious superstition”. All religions were victims of this persecution, which led to the proclamation of the first atheist state in the world and the incarceration, torture and death, of thousands of men and women, including many lay people, Catholic priests, nuns and consecrated.
I had the privilege of meeting and talking with Sister Lula, an Albanian nun who lived under the regime during her youth. During the regime, her convent was the headquarters of the secret police in Shkoder – a place of terror for the people. Next to the convent, one can still visit a prison that was the scene of atrocious torture, where many Christians and Muslims lost their lives.
The first thing that strikes me about this woman is a her warm and sweet smile. She seems to be happy. A happiness that is contagious. We sit in the parlour and she starts telling me her story.
I consider it a gift of God that I was born in a Christian family. My family was a classic patriarchal one. When the communist regime arrived, it took all private property and started persecuting intellectuals. Enver Hoxha wanted to wipe out the brightest people in the nation.
They started striking the people at the head. Then they aimed at their hearts.
I was baptized because the priest had not yet been arrested. I was born in 1964, three years before they closed all the churches. I received all the other sacraments secretly.
When I was three years old, it was forbidden even to mention God. At school, teachers often asked children if they could make the sign of the cross. If someone answered yes, the family was imprisoned or deported. When my parents came home after a long day at work, they immediately put us to bed. I did not understand why. I wanted to be with them. But my father used to say “young children need more sleep to grow up”. Only a few years later I understood. After putting us to bed, they released the dogs, barred the windows and prayed the rosary in a low voiced, while one of them was on guard. They lived in fear because the police were constantly checking to see if you had any sacred objects. When I turned seven, they made me pray with them. It is my family who has transmitted faith to me. I call them “my saints”. We were afraid, but thanks to our parents we managed to resist.
They lived in fear of being discovered. The secret police could enter at any moment. Or a neighbour could report them. Or one of the children, naively, could say something at school. Yet this did not stop them. The name of God was whispered in many Albanian houses.
Our family was not allowed to attend high school because the clan our family belonged to had opposed the regime. So I went to work at a very young age. I often left the house without having breakfast because we did not have enough food. What we had was barely enough for two poor lunches. I felt like crying. I’ve always been a cheerful girl, so when my grandfather saw me crying he asked me why. I replied that at work they had not paid me and we had no food. He told me “Have faith. The Lord does not abandon us”.
When I was twenty my father took me to a priest who had just been released from prison and I made my First Holy Communion and Confession. It was the most beautiful day of my life. I wanted to shout but I could not tell anyone. In 1988 I made my Confirmation.
Sister Lula’s words are strong, but I do not feel any hatred nor resentment in them. It seems that everything in her life speaks of love.
When I was about twenty, I fell in love with a boy. We worked together and he was beautiful. A person who does not know how to fall in love with another person can not fall in love with God. We looked at each other from afar. They were other times. He deliberately took a long walk to see me, to look me in the eyes. We were in love, but we were not free to say “I love you” or to give a kiss. But our eyes said everything. The look means a lot, you conserve the person in your eyes. If you look at Jesus in the eyes, he makes you fall in love.
We were in love, but I did not feel that I was to marry him.
During the regime I undertook several jobs. I dug holes for landmines, but mostly I worked in tobacco fields. Then in rice fields. It was terrible, it was cold. We did not have good shoes and we cried because of the cold. Then there were the leeches. It was a really difficult time.
We all slept in one room, all of the family. We slept on the floor and during the day we folded the blankets and put them in a corner of the room.
Sister Lula’s eyes get teary. And mine too. Her story brings to mind the words of Karl Rahner who, wondering what would happen if the word ‘God’ disappeared without a trace, said that man “would never be more disconcerted, silent and worried in the face of the whole world and of himself. He would no longer notice that he is only an existing individual, but not being in general. […] man would cease to be a man. It would become just an ingenious animal”. (K. Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity).
This is what could happen to Albania, and to some extent, has happened. People can become dehumanized, they have ceased to be human beings and see the human person next to them. The torture, the violence, and the murders that for fifty years have tormented this land are proof of this. The regime raised its voice, screaming the overwhelming power of its own inhumanity.
Yet evil did not prevail. The name of God had not vanished into thin air. It was whispered in the houses, in the evening, around the fire, instilling strength and courage to this people who decided to remain human. Faith – humanity – in Albania, survived thanks to the courageous whisperings of the “saints” of Sister Lula and the noise of evil was defeated by the whisper of a light breeze.