Address on the occasion of the opening of "Memory Days 2017"
16 November 2017
Prof. Sami REPISHTI, historian
Dr. Jonila Godole, Director of IDMC
The Honorable Members of the Diplomatic Corps and friends of Albania,
Sisters and brothers!
Today I am honoured to have the opportunity to express some of my opinions about a fundamental problem in our society here in Albania: the problem of 'forgetting' about the very bitter, though not so distant, past; a problem shared by our people who are still badly wounded from the indescribable suffering experienced during the years of the Communist terror.
I agree with what My Lord Archbishop Rrok Mirdita said, that '…for both Albania and the Albanians there will be no secure foundation for national progress as long as there is no brave process of purification of historical awareness; individual and collective awareness among Albanians of their identity as a people and as a unit organised in an independent state…'. In short, we must overcome the barriers we inherited from the not-so-distant past, by building an Albania free from complexes: free and dignified.
A few days ago I read in the German media the news that a group of German prosecutors were preparing a list of Nazis who were former guards at the extermination camps, even though seventy years had passed; the youngest was 87 years old, the oldest 96 '… because they knew about the terror of the organized mass killings and they knew that prisoners, who were facing their fate as defenceless innocents, were dying for the most inhuman of reasons imaginable;... as members of the group of prison guards they contributed to the executions… knowing full well what was going on, and they willingly supported these barbarous acts…'.
Let us ask a question of everyone: let's assume that Fascist, Nazi and Communist criminals persecuted, arrested, imprisoned and executed members of your family. The guilty person fell ill; before he died he wanted to meet you and ask forgiveness from you for the crimes committed against all 'reactionaries'. What is your response? Do you have the right to forgive the criminal in the name of their victims? In such a situation an Israeli victim, Simon Wiesenthal, refused.
This is a question which is at once religious, political, moral and above all personal. Consider the enormity of the crime committed and the consequences of your action. In such an extreme case, is the absolution of guilt an option for those of us who survived? What would be the reaction of one of the victims who died? Entire classes of the population were the objects of attack, of physical extermination by criminal regimes: in Albania, the Albanian Catholic clergy and the intellectuals trained in western universities were exterminated.
Simon Wiesenthal, the most persistent prosecutor of Nazi criminals, wrote in July 1995 to President WJ Clinton: 'the events in Bosnia, as they are currently being presented to us by the press, with all the Serbian crimes against humanity – ethnic cleansing, slaughter of civilian populations, of all ages, like animals, mass rape of Muslim women – are, if not a Holocaust, a repetition of many of its crimes… I believe that the punishment of those responsible will have its effect. The USA can… make public all crimes that have been committed, so that they are not forgotten, and the criminals do not escape punishment…'.
The importance of unmasking criminals and making public their identity and their crimes is undeniable. Just as undeniable is the importance of 'remembering' and the rejection of 'forgetting'. How can social peace be established between criminals and victims, and previous relations and a 'normal' life be resumed in a world where the memories of fear under the dictatorship are so deep? 'I don't want to leave prison' a colleague said to me, 'with three brothers killed and two imprisoned… My family has disappeared!'
How can we accept that today criminals still remember with nostalgia the regime of crime, that they continue the 'punishment' of the victims, and defend their own or their parents' criminal activities, that today support political movements aiming at the return to the regime of the rope and the stick, and justify this by saying that 'time' – this unknown entity which allows no pause for consideration - partially wipes out our memory today, and entirely for future generations?
A common fate makes us all equal… (but not equally guilty!). This was not accepted by the Communists, not even when we died and were buried in the prisons' yards, and the forced labor camps of extermination. In the face of such a situation, how can a victim consider that God created us all equal? How is it possible that everyone – victims and criminals – are created from the same clay? The criminal cannot be my brother or sister…; otherwise there is no crime on this earth, and nor is there complete innocence! Because it is impossible for a victim to believe in the Creator half of the creation refuses to accept the other half as human beings with equal rights, and thus continues with crimes without a guilty conscience. It seems that God is on vacation…!
During the years of my imprisonment I trembled at the idea of death, of burial without ceremony, in a pit full of mud, alone or with other victims like myself. With no flowers! With no prayers! With no light to illuminate my life of darkness, and as the poet says, 'without colourful butterflies to dance around my terrifying grave…'.
We live in difficult days, and this frightens me! We live in a world where in many countries an oppressive minority carries out savage attacks because of the frightened and passive majority. This majority without initiative, with a deadened soul and a mangled heart, has just one desire: to die in peace. The idea of opposition, of revolt, of revenge died before the death of the 'victim'… the corpse which moves without purpose, with no aim, as a resident of a life that has lost meaning.
The problem of the responsibility of all of 'them' who support and sustain a Communist regime will perhaps never be solved in our country, because 'they' lack the skills to understand the moral decadence into which they have fallen; to understand the terrifying proportions of the oppression which rules. Most of 'them' are reduced to repeating 'that's what it was like then', 'everyone does it' – the phrases preferred by an unthinking mob … or 'I uphold the law', 'that's what the law says…' – even when they kill the innocent and make them disappear without trace (sic!!).
Nevertheless, one thing is certain: none of 'those' who voluntarily helped – or were forced to be persuaded – will be in a position to shake the responsibility for the stance they took during the 45 years of terror scientifically organized. Even if someone is not 'guilty' he or she should feel ashamed… The victims of Communist persecution should keep their distance from these miserable elements of our population who lost their humanity, their natural solidarity with human beings in difficult days. It was thus with the Fascists, with the Nazis and thus also with the Communists. We should not forget!
'Forgetting' crimes that have been committed is possible only as time draws a veil over them and our past too – without mercy! The judgement on the act remains, as does the possibility for its forgiveness. The forgiveness of the act is a voluntary gesture which can be offered only by those who suffer from the crime: the only category of people who have this privilege, who are rationally capable and morally equipped to forgive where there is guilt. Only those who suffer from the crime have the right to answer this question; only the victims of the dark past. Who else has the political or moral authority?
Forgiveness cannot be offered in the name of a victim by someone who has not borne the terrors of unbearable tortures which cannot be 'forgotten'. Not even "the king" of a martyrized country…! The absolution of guilt for those who seriously feel the effect of 'collective guilt' is possible even though the mark of shame remains indelible. It is their silence which sentences them!
Today we must fight 'forgetting', because we are convinced that silence represents the greatest risk of past terrors being repeated.
Today we must fight 'forgetting' because we should not allow the loss of our ability to work freely in a free world which we have defended with so much sacrifice.
Today, 'forgetting' would, for us, be to abandon the legal and moral authority of the victim without the victim's permission; our work should take place in this context.
The victims of the red terror found sufficient courage to scorn hatred and its first-born child, revenge. With this attitude they ennobled themselves and gave a shining example for our country's history. There has still been no response to this sublime gesture! A great misfortune.
But 'forgetting' – and perhaps also the 'absolution of guilt' – is not only 'personal'. No-one has the right to absolve guilt in the name of a victim. We must not allow it. (A French proverb says that we are very strong in enduring the misfortunes of others). This is a categorical imperative for Albanian society, and particularly for the victims here. Because this dictatorship attempted to make great sectors of the population physically disappear. It was a Hell that never froze!
The importance of judging and punishing guilt of this kind is undeniable. We should not forget this, because 'forgetting' makes it possible for the past to be repeated by the twisted minds of opponents of democracy in our country. We must speak out; we must narrate and describe the Communist hell with all its tools, but without violence. Violence is not our weapon; justice is!
Today we face the second phase of the moral reconstruction of our life in Albania. In the first phase we scorned hatred and revenge. Today we have hope that it will be possible to take the next step: reconciliation between ourselves. Because as victims we also have a need for the peace we have lost. How can we achieve something so difficult? Perhaps… if we are certain that 'reconciliation' will return the human element to us – to all of us – and our ethical values.
I have still not fully achieved such certainty. And so I live with anxiety, I do not forget, and I will always continue to 'remember' the Communist crime. Me, the former prisoner, who has rejected hatred and revenge…