Foreign Policy Blogs

Fatos Lubonja and the Albanian gulag

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.

  • Lubonja is a great individual and a great intellectual. He is the best analyst in Albania in my opinion and the most daring to speak out the through in any case.

  • Koloreto Cukali

    Absolutely, one of the few last honest journalists in this country.

  • peteko

    Honestly, this is not what everyone thinks about him in Albania.

    First of all, he was not imprisoned for criticizing Enver Hoxha. His father was a servile communist director in the fields of culture and art.

    When the dictator decided to apply stricter ideological standards in the Albanian arts, he started with a purge of the officials who were in charge of arts, culture and media. Lubonja’s father was a devotee but he was used as a scapegoat to make a point to the rest of the communists and artists.

    Fatos Lubonja was sent to prison because of defending his father’s communist credentials instead of accepting his condemnation by the Party. His father remained a communist even after he was released 20 years later with the advent of democracy.

    Fatos is indeed an independent analyst, which is rare in our country and I respect him for that. What I can’t accept is that he was a dissident, under communism. He was not. He suffered in prison because he was the son of Todi Lubonja, not for any personal example of dissidence.


Nikolaj Nielsen

Nikolaj Nielsen has a Master's of Journalism and Media degree from a program partnership of three European universities - University of Arhus in Denmark, University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and Swansea University in Wales. His work has been published at Reuters AlertNet,, the New Internationalist and others.

Areas of Focus:
Torture; Women and Children; Asylum;