Sabire Plaku is suspicious of every stranger who sets foot in her remote village of Labinot in central Albania.
If she sees a visitor, or hears of their presence, the 78-year-old halts whatever she is doing and rushes from the house she shares with her daughter, past a garden of vegetables, fruit trees and wandering hens, towards what used to be the village museum.
Her shoulders slumped in a loose navy blue jacket with free-hanging sleeves, Sabire stops and gasps for breath. Although her house overlooks the former museum, she has to walk 100 metres before climbing up a steep, muddy slope to reach it.
For the last three decades, she has served as the guardian of the two-storey abandoned structure in the centre of Labinot, and the three-metre-tall (10-foot-tall) bronze statue that lies hidden in its basement – a statue of Albania’s first communist chief of state, Enver Hoxha.
The former dictator brutally ruled the small southeastern European country from the end of World War II until his death in 1985. Dozens of depictions of him stood across the country during that time, but now, the one Sabire so cautiously guards is the last undamaged statue that remains.
Labinot, in the Elbasan municipality, is home to about 6,000 people. The road that takes you there – like those inside the village – is steep, narrow and poorly maintained. People rely on agriculture and livestock to make a living, while many youngsters temporarily immigrate to Greece and Italy to find work.
Residents are wary, especially of people scoping out the old museum. Over the years, those opposed to Hoxha’s legacy have vandalised the site on moral grounds, while others have tried to steal the statue to use for scrap metal.
But once the villagers are sure a visitor does not have any “sinister” intentions, they invite them home for coffee or lunch. When asked about Labinot’s past, their eyes light up and a burst of energy seems to fill their bodies.
A heavy burden
In 1943, when Albania was occupied by Italian fascists, communist partisans used mountainous Labinot as one of their war bases and, in March of that year, held the first national Communist Party conference there.
This conference became a keystone for Hoxha’s political career. There, he was chosen as the new leader of Albania’s communists, which opened the way for their rein over Albania during the four decades that followed. A few months later, the National Liberation Army – a body that helped intensify the communist resistance until the end of the occupation – was also formed in Labinot.
Both historical events were held in the house Sabire now devoutly guards, a house that after the war turned into a museum to document the village’s past.
In 1968 during the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the uprising, the statue of the young Hoxha in military attire was erected in front of the museum.
In 1991, when communist rule collapsed in Albania, the museum closed its doors and Hoxha’s statue was brought down.
But it was left to the villagers to decide what to do with it. Instead of getting rid of it, they shielded it in the basement, without imagining that it would remain there for decades to come.
Sabire, encouraged by her fellow villagers, felt a moral duty to safeguard both the house and the statue, in memory of her late husband who, during his lifetime, served as the museum’s administrator.
Sabire does not mention politics. When asked about the reason she continues to guard the dictator’s statue, she looks up, as if amazed by the question itself, and replies: “I cannot just toss it away … ”
But as the years pass, and with the threats from burglars and vandals, she knows it is an increasingly difficult task.
“Keeping the house and the statue safe for all these years has been emotionally draining and very challenging,” she says. “I have been supported by my neighbours as well, but the biggest responsibility has been on me.”
Sabire walks slowly, with a limp. She feels the guardian role is becoming a heavy burden and one that will be difficult to carry for much longer. She looks forward to the day the authorities take the house administration into their own hands and find a place for the statue in the basement.
“I haven’t kept the house and the statue safe for myself, they belong to the state and I want to hand them over as soon as possible. It is time for them to act and tell us what they want to do,” she says.