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Albanian tanks rid beaches of ‘nightmare’ Cold War bunkers

Seman — Albania has wheeled in old tanks to rid its beaches of huge bunkers left over from the Cold War, when its paranoid communist regime feared an attack that never came.

Built in the 1960s, the concrete domes now pose a threat to the safety of the people they were meant to protect under the isolationist regime of late communist dictator Enver Hoxha.

"We have been forced to use T-59 tanks to remove from the beaches the very heavy fortifications damaged over time," says Sotir Zarka, mayor of the coastal municipality of Seman, some 120 kilometres (70 miles) south of Tirana.

"The bunkers have become a real nightmare for those who want to spend a few days on vacation here," says bar owner Petrit Ylli, pointing to his almost empty establishment.

At least five holidaymakers, including two children and a 25-year-old woman, drowned last summer in whirlpools created by streams around the bunkers which are covered by slime, cracked and damaged by erosion.

"In such conditions, they are a big danger to tourists. There have often been accidents," Zarka says.

The irony is not lost on Besnik Lasku, a former soldier charged with getting rid of the bunkers he once helped to put in place.

"The bunkers were meant to be able to resist everything, but the fortifications failed in their one and only battle — against the sea," says Lasku. "They were once a symbol of power, but nowadays those bunkers are only a testament to lost pride. Along at least two kilometres (1.2 miles) of the beach in Seman, the army is tasked with removing some 200 bunkers, all with sniper holes directed towards an enemy that never came.”

The removal of the bunkers began at the beginning of July 2009, and expectations that the T-59s, a Chinese version of a Soviet-era tank, could quickly complete the operation have failed to materialise.

Only seven bunkers were removed in the first two weeks.

"At this rate, the beach at Seman won’t be ready before 2010," Mayor Zarka laments. "Our goal was to remove four bunkers a day, but we haven’t even managed to take out one" on that basis.

On the beach at Seman, the difficulty of the task is clear.

Groups of men shout instructions at each other over the din of a T-59 engine, using gloves to attach cables for hauling the bunkers up from the shoreline.

The rusty tanks have been adapted for the operation, with their 12.7-millimetre barrels removed. They let off a thick cloud of smoke and groan under the strain.

"Because of the water and sand, the weight of a bunker is doubled, and cables are often broken, jeopardising the workers’ lives," says Qemal Dervishi, 50, one of four tank drivers on the spot. "Once they are pulled out of the water, the bunkers are broken up so that their transportation is easier."

But even that is a challenge.

"Specialists needed two years to make an ‘ideal bunker’ from concrete and iron that would be very strong and from which bullets would ricochet," the soldier says.

The first model of the bunkers was built in 1968 under the strict supervision of Hoxha.

Eight years later, Albania’s landscape was covered by some 700,000 bunkers connected by a network of thousands of tunnels.

The bunkers, constructed when Albania was obsessed about an attack by NATO or the Warsaw Pact, were designed to resist an invasion by an army of several million, according to officials.

Following the fall of communism in the early 1990s, Albanians were forced to live with them, as their destruction was very expensive at around 800 euros (1,130 dollars) each.

Almost 20 years later, the Balkan country formally joined the NATO military alliance in April.

Some Albanians have tried to remove them on their own, but their efforts usually end in vain, leaving them resigned to living with the structures they refer to as "mushrooms.”

Some have converted them into sheds, toilets or even "zero-star hotels" for lovers, as they sometimes call the bunkers.

Briseida Mema/AFP/Expatica