Volume 13 Number 4
Twenty Years in Albanian Labour Camps
01 August 2000

The leader of Albania's Muslims, Haxhi Hafiz Sabri Koci tells Paul Williams how he kept his faith in prison.

When Haxhi Hafiz Sabri Koci entered the Albanian prison labour camp system, the youngest of his six children was just six years old. When Sabri Koci saw him again he was a grown man of 27. 'When they released me I didn't know my children,' says the Mufti (Chief Imam) of Albania, without bitterness. 'My family could never afford to visit me, as I was always held too far away from where they lived.'

A frail man of 79 with a ready twinkle in his eye, he gave my companion and me a warm welcome in his modest office in the centre of Tirana, capital of Albania. His face is lined and worn and his fingers damaged and distorted from the years of hard labour in the mines. While we talked, tea and dates were brought in. The dates, it emerged, had been brought back from a recent visit to Kuwait. As we left he insisted that we take them all with us.

He was born of a poor family in a village near Shkoder in the north of Albania. His father had spent much of his working life in Greece and died before Sabri Koci was one year old. It was a struggle for his mother and grandparents to keep him at the local school, which was attached to the mosque. A teacher there, noting his clear voice and his eagerness, enlisted him to serve in the acts of worship. The Mayor of Shkoder, who occasionally visited the mosque, spotted the exceptional intelligence of the ten-year-old and convinced his mother to let him continue his education in Shkoder at the expense of the mayor and two local merchants. Although he was eager to learn, Sabri Koci admits that it was not easy as a village boy to be suddenly transplanted to a strange city.

To make some contribution to the costs of his education, the young scholar learned the trade of an electrician, a skill which stood him in good stead in his years in the labour camps. Shkoder, which in those days had 30 mosques, was a centre of Muslim learning. His education was not of the formal college variety, but at the feet of a succession of scholarly imams. He learned Arabic and became a Hafiz: one who is able to recite the whole of the Koran by heart.

By 1966 Enver Hoxha's Communist government, increasingly influenced by the Chinese model, was beginning to intensify its campaign against all forms of religion. All were persecuted, whether Muslim or Christian. Harassment intensified for Imam Koci when he suddenly found himself being ordered to move from place to place. As his family were in Shkoder, he eventually asked if he could move back there. 'You can go to Shkoder,' the authorities told him, 'if you promise not to speak about religion.' They also said he could no longer wear an imam's robes. 'I decided to follow my own path,' he says simply.

The result of such defiance was swift in coming. A series of charges was fabricated against him. These ranged from 'economic sabotage' to 'national betrayal'. He told the tribunal that he didn't need an advocate as they had already decided he was guilty. He was sentenced to 22 years of prison with hard labour. His family home, which provided shelter for his wife, six children and his parents-in-law, was confiscated by the state along with all his books and possessions. His wife was required to do heavy agricultural labour and his children were barred from attending school.

'It was hard beyond your imagination,' he says. Initially they tried to beat him into submission. For some days, he confesses, he felt totally disorientated and bewildered. 'But you learn to cope. I developed systems so that everything my faith required me to do, I was able to fulfil. Wherever I worked, I made it my first priority to find a hidden place.' His face breaks into a smile. 'It's not hard to find an excuse to be on your own in the rock galleries of a mine.'

When asked how he coped for all those years he replies, 'From the Creator of the world I had a sense of great energy being given to me and a sense of purpose for my life. This source continued to strengthen me through all the different jobs I was given (besides being in the mines he worked as a plumber and welder) right to the last day before I was released.'

While in prison he tried to record some of his thoughts and insights, writing them in Arabic in case they were discovered. He hid them in a small box in the ground. One day a guard discovered the container. The precious writings were destroyed, but without the guards being able to read the contents.

Sometimes over the long years of different camp regimes, there were periods when prisoners were given a free day when visits were allowed. He found this hard, as his family were never able to visit him. But he made friends and a sense of solidarity grew with Christian priests who were similarly persecuted. 'Nobody can tell, except those of us who have been in prison, what life was like for so many Albanians,' he reflects. 'But we had God's help and knew that he would eventually bring down the perpetrators of all these evils.'

His release came in 1986 when he had served 20 years and four months of his sentence. He was re-united with his family, but his mother had died. Things slowly began to improve. In 1990 religious freedom was restored. The following year he was elected Mufti by the Muslim Council of Albania.

He still keeps warm and close relations with his Greek Orthodox and Catholic 'brothers'. He says the different faiths all make up one body. 'In God's sight we are not divided. We serve him in different ways. As religious leaders our duty is to love others as ourselves--and that includes honouring each other.' When the Pope visited Tirana in 1992 Sabri Koci met him and, along with thousands of other Muslims, took part in the great rally in Skanderbeg Square. 'There was no one who didn't come,' he recalls. He remembers, too, attending the re-opening of the historic Catholic church in Lac, which had been destroyed under the Hoxha regime. Thousands of Muslims flocked to witness the ceremony along with the Catholics. 'I go to the Cathedral often,' he adds.

To illustrate the closeness of the relationship, he recalls how he had once playfully asked the Catholic Archbishop, 'Do you think it took more strength out of Jesus to cure people's illnesses and raise the dead, or to cope with those who misunderstood him or wanted to argue against him?'

For the Mufti, the Muslim faith encompasses tolerance. 'We have to learn to live with each other--in many cases even the animals do that,' he says. He does not insist on purdah for women. 'Of course they should dress modestly, but if men are tempted they can protect themselves by closing their eyes.'

He feels that freedom, particularly that which derives from economic opportunity and well-being, has not fully arrived in Albania yet. What is his message to Albania and the world? 'It is to keep the heart patient in order to face life. Everything is done in the knowledge of God. So in all our difficulties we can ask God's help. If you believe that everything comes from God you can never be defeated. You will always win in the end.'
Paul Williams


mashallah he is such a beautiful person allah send him to heaven inshallah
daimin murat, 27 March 2007