Luan Mersini, a political prisoner, executed in 1968, was preserved in a lab, and was found thirty years later among other cadavers
By Afrim Imaj
The central character of this extraordinary narration is seventy-year-old Lavdosh Mersini, from Çeprat of Laberia in Albania.
Lavdosh, after many painful attempts to find the remains of his brother, who was executed by a phony communist court, was able to locate them in the anatomy room of Tirana Medical Facility. Just as Lavdosh began to lose hope of ever finding his brother’s remains, when every effort seemed wasted, pure chance would grant him unexpected success. His legs took him to where Luan’s body resided, appearing as he did when he was twenty-five years old.
“At first I couldn’t believe my eyes,” said Lavdosh. “It seemed like a dream; like something from those ancient ballads. I had to restrain myself. It was not easy. I stretched my neck and looked him straight in the eye. It was him. Yes, Luan! His eyes longed to tell me something; they were the only things that could talk; everything else, from his head to his feet, was frozen and ice-like. Only his eyesight offered life, warmth, and memories. They were weary and looked far into the horizon, reminiscent of the days when he was in jail, asking about his mother, Hairie. I took my first steps toward him. Was I drawing close to my brother, or close to a ghost? I stretched out to embrace and kiss him, a brother yearning to embrace a brother. He looked young, very young, identical to the day we parted 30 years ago. It was Luan, just the way he had looked that very day, with the same eyes, dark eyebrows, forehead, and full-sized, straight body. Only his hair had been trimmed. A bullet hole on the edge of his nose was mute testimony of the brutal actions of those who had decided his tragic end. He was in formalin, a lot of formalin, which kept his well-built body intact.”
Lavdosh had to restrain himself, to rise above his painful shock. He had to bring Luan back home, to remote Çeprat, to be among his brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, friends, and acquaintances, who would rejoice. But first there would be the journey: long, tiring, and deeply moving…
After you have knocked on the door of her apartment somewhere on the outskirts of Durrës city, Lavdosh’s sister, Burbuqe, relates an account that sends chills down the spine. She says: “Luan, like Kostandin (1 ), came back after thirty years. Have you heard the legend of Kostandin? Indeed you have, and I too, though I don’t think you have experienced it. I don’t know who else had that destiny. Luan’s return after thirty years was like that of Kostandin. Yes, yes!
While I kissed him, cold though he was, I recalled the ancient legend. The legend of the long wait for the knight leaping over whole mountains to fulfill a promise he had made to his mother. Though Luan had died, he had not perished, and did not have a grave – just like Kostandin! But Luan was not really like Kostandin, because he did not meet his mournful mother, and did not see her fade away, grief-stricken over him…”
She has to force herself to hold back her grief, to stop the tears rolling down her cheeks. Her husband, familiar with the situation, continues the conversation to give her time to compose herself. He begins, “The communists arrested Luan for refusing to collaborate with State Security. They trumped up a case against him – abuse of public funds – during the construction of social and cultural works in the agriculture cooperative. They fixed a shortfall of public funds amounting to 50,000 leks so they could execute him at night with a firearm.”
The husband falls silent, allowing Burbuqe to resume the conversation. He takes out a pile of papers, discolored by the long, somber passage of time. The papers feature the court’s verdict.
The sister of the young martyr goes on thoughtfully, “All of a sudden, they took him from the village where he worked, unjustly handcuffed, and transported him to the prison cells in Vlora. On the way there he met his brother, and confidently handed him the watch for safekeeping. Afterwards we could see him only with the approval of the interrogator. His courage never let him down. He never begged for mercy. The only thing he asked for was cigarettes. His only concern was Mother, who was his first and final worry. He remained that way until October 24, 1 968, the day the communists executed him.” That was all Burbuqe could say. However, she was certain that her older brother, Lavdosh, knew more. He still lived at the same address, the place where Luan became separated from his heartbroken mother so many years before.
Thirty years after his brother’s execution, Lavdosh Mersini still sees the image of Luan making a brave stand against the communist court. “Luan asked the communist judge to look him straight in the eye,” says Lavdosh. Each time he tries to visualize his brother’s image he remembers Luan fearlessly challenging the false accusations of the State Security people. It is this memory that initiates the conversation…
“After the secret investigations, they took him to court and accused him of misuse of public funds,” says Lavdosh. “They rounded up an amount of 50,000 leks in the offices of the State Security. They served it and legalized it in court through the prosecutor, Sotir Spiro, and the judge, Irakli Bozgo. According to them, Luan had inflicted economic damage on the state, an act that would cost him his life. At the time, no one thought it would result in a deadly decision. What’s more, witnesses summoned to the court strongly opposed the accusation. The first person who opposed the charge was the key witness, the chairman of the agricultural cooperative of Mavrova, Telo Dana. He disputed all the evidence used by the interrogator and spoke courageously about Luan’s good manners. This backlash enraged the communist judge, who arrogantly ousted the main witness from the courtroom. The same thing happened to the next witness, Maliq Hoxha, controller of the cooperative. They ignored his testimony by forcing him out. At that moment, with a powerful and fiery look, Luan rose to his feet on the podium. ‘Don’t put pressure on innocent people!’ he said. ‘Cut it short! Do what you have decided to do! I will face you to the end; I will boldly prove your lies. You don’t possess valor. You don’t have the courage to look me straight in the eye; you work behind the scenes, in the dark, with lies and false accusations.’ Luan, in shackles, wanted to continue, but his speech was cut short by the voice of the prosecutor. ‘You will get paid for it by bullet, Luan Mersini! You will be rewarded by hanging.”
This is all he can recall from his brother’s trial in Pasha’s house, in the Vlora town center. What would come later was obvious at that time. Luan’s fate was predetermined.
The first to receive the grave news was the eldest brother, Bardhyl. He recalls, “When we took his winter clothes to prison, we were told he had been executed.” It was a cold October day in 1 968, when, on his mother’s request, Bardhyl left the house to take food and winter clothing to his brother in the Vlora prison. As he was knocking at the prison door to explain his reason for being there, the officer on duty told him the dreadful news. “Don’t you yet know Luan has been executed?” He heard enough to feel weak in his knees.
“I fell on the floor, out cold, and could not remember who brought me back to my feet,” says Bardhyl. “I remember how they splashed water onto my face and made me regain consciousness, and the kicks of the officer on the bag filled with clothes and food, which were spread everywhere under his small window. At that moment I thought of our mother. How would I tell her? I left for the village in a state of confusion. I had to hold back my tears. It had been Luan’s wish during our last meeting not to shed tears for him. It appeared that he had foreseen his tragedy.”
Beyond this act of communist barbarism, Bardhyl Mersini wants to evoke and to give respect to the virtuous life of his brother. Caught in his memory is impish Luan who graduated high school with firstclass honors, but “bad biography.” He was the son of a kulak, and an obstructionist policy was used to prevent him from attending the university. Heart-to-heart talks about movies and sports with Luan are still very vivid memories to Bardhyl.
Bardhyl says, “Unique was Luan’s interest in having his hair western style, dressing nicely, and wearing fashionable ties. Right after graduation he started life in a hurry. He rolled up his sleeves and worked ten to twelve hours a day in construction. ‘We have to be ahead of others,’ he used to say to us. With the earned income, he raised us to our feet until we built three houses for three brothers. After work he had another personality. He washed, dressed, and went to Vlora, mostly when there was a soccer match. Movies were his passion. He knew almost all famous actors, and tried to make other young people like them. He was lively and active in his social life, open for help to anyone who knew him. In a few years after school, he was admired by all, a fact that caught the eye of the State Security. They wanted to benefit from his sociability, and used his political “defect”, son of a kulak, to put pressure on him. They asked for his collaboration to obtain information about groups in Vlora that were interested in fleeing the country. Though he understood the consequences, he strongly opposed collaboration. He told us, State Security would not easily forget his denial. It was for that reason why the fatal drama took its toll…”
Burbuqe’s husband details another aspect of Luan’s life, something he will never forget. He recalls, “Mother Hairie refused to give Luan’s suit to the police.
The security men came accompanied by a dozen police officers. They searched every inch of the house to find and take all his belongings, from books, notebooks, papers, clothes, to nightwear. When they got hold of his new suit, custom made that year for his wedding, mother Hairie stormed upon them. ‘You may take my life but not the suit of my son,’ she said, and grabbed it from their hands. The police frowned for a moment; but, convinced she would not let it go, they left. She kept the suit by her bed stand until the day she died.”
Mother Hairie lived for only a couple of days after Luan’s execution. She died at fifty-five years old, with profound agony that she would never know where her son’s remains rested.
According to a former employee of the forensic medical lab, a woman who did not wish to be identified, “They embalmed the body of the young man from Vlora at night.” She had tried since then to deliver the news to Luan’s family. Lavdosh confirms this fact. He got the message from an acquaintance of hers in Vlora, while he was searching for his brother’s remains in Soda Forest, Mezini Well, Olive Plantlet Plantation, Old Beach, and many other places. Her story, connected through work with the cadaver forensic hospital laboratory, does not end here. Something very unusual about this case rooted in her memory. Everything is related to the moment of arrival of Luan’s lifeless body.
She remembers, “It was somewhere in the end of 1 968. I remember it well because the anatomy faculty was badly in need of cadavers. Following an order from a high ranking communist authority, a group of experts was created in haste with three to four medical doctors and state investigators to search some local prisons.
Their prey was primarily from the contingents of political prisoners, convicted or sentenced to death. One day, early in the morning, the expedition had just arrived from the city of Vlora. I heard one specialist informing the person in charge that in Vlora they had scented prey, “first-rate material”, for which they had agreed with the Department of the Interior Ministry to make it part of the laboratory. Furthermore, I learned it was about a young man, twentyfive years old, who had been sentenced to death on economic abuse charges. In the evening of the next day, they informed us that the body was brought in. By coincidence, I saw him the moment they took the body out of the truck. He was a handsome
young man with a muscular body. The people who processed him said it was one of the rare cases which would last for a long time in the lab. When I saw the paperwork that came with him, I found the way to send, indirectly, word to his family.”
ONE DEAD AMONG THE LIVING
What happened to 25-year-old Luan Mersini from Çeprat of Vlora?
They shot him at night, and immediately transported his body to Tirana, the capital. For many hours, and in complete secrecy, medical doctors worked on it. After they embalmed him they placed him in the anatomy lab of Tirana Medical Facility with just basic paperwork. The next day he was placed on the podium of the laboratory, and ever since he had silently ‘argued’ with the lab coats. Generations of physicians would practice on his body. The dead would coexist with the living for thirty years, until the day ‘the silent professor’ would abandon his ‘unwilling profession’ to return home.
TRANSLATED FROM ALBANIAN
BY HILDA M. XHEPA
(1) In the famous Arbëresh song, Kostandin e Garendina, a mother reminds her son, now in his grave, of his besa (besa – is a sacred promise and obligation to keep one’s given word). She summons him to arise in order to fulfill his promise – to bring her daughter back from a foreign land:
Kostandin i biri im, ,
ku ëë besa çë më dhee,
të më sillje Garendinën,
Garendinën t‘it motër?
Besa jote ëë nën dhee!
Kostandin, my son
where is the besa you gave to me,
you would bring Garendina back to me,
Garendina, your sister?
Your besa is under the earth!
Kostantin rises from the dead, fulfills his promise, and returns to the grave.