I spent an afternoon discussing with Fatos Lubonja last week in Tirana, Albania. He was sitting at a cafe, outside on a terrace. Here in front of me, was a man who spent 17 years in the Albanian gulag. He was initially sentenced 7 years for criticizing Enver Hoxha, a brutal dictator who ruled the country with an iron fist for 50 years.
Fatos was then sentenced again, while incarcerated, for supposedly belonging to a pro-Soviet underground movement. Hoxha had been an admirer of Stalin but fell out with the Soviets once Khrushchev began to open up to the West. His visit with Nixon infuriated him.
Fatos spent the first five years working in a copper mine in Spac. He then went to a prison in Burrel and spent another 17 years in a dingy concrete cell until his release in 1991. It was while at Burrel he wrote, surreptitiously, his first novel. On the back of cigarette packages no less.
This award winner author and journalist has lived through some of the most trying times during Albania’s isolation. Today, as a journalist, he is being persecuted by an oil tycoon and his paper is being sued for libel for 500.000 Euros.
But for someone who has endured so much, for someone who continues to fight against corruption, for someone who continues to expose those in power as frauds, Fatos remains a remarkable individual with a drive that inspires anyone who meets him.
After meeting him I read his book, The Second Sentence in which he recalls those terrifying moments of his trial and his ordeal to survive. When the judge handed him a 23 year sentence, he felt relief. Relief that at the very least he would live. It didn’t matter if he was innocent. It only mattered that he could still feel, breathe in the air, exhale and hope for a miracle. A striking read.