After years of scouring documents, tapes and then the slopes of a mountain above Tirana, Jovan Plaku found the remains of 13 people in a forest where he believes his father was executed by Albania’s former communist regime.
A decade later, the 45-year-old is hoping to finally get answers about whether his father is among those found after Albania launched a landmark effort to identify the victims.
The dead found on Dajti mountain are among more than 5,000 executed during the communist era. The fate and final whereabouts of many remain unknown, nearly three decades after the fall of communism in 1991.
The victims of the killings were political opponents, religious believers or regular citizens reported for “treason”, “espionage” or “sabotage” against the paranoid regime of dictator Enver Hoxha.
In the period since communism’s collapse, Albania has been reluctant to open up this dark chapter of history.
So the search for the missing has been left to the tireless efforts of ordinary people like Plaku.
His father Koco Plaku, an engineer, was sentenced to death in a closed-door trial two years after he was arrested in 1975.
The son was nine months old at the time and his mother was forced to divorce to avoid deportation.
Determined to piece the story together, Plaku later managed to find photos of his father’s trial, sketches scribbled during the proceedings and a 72-hour interrogation tape.
It was then he learned that his father had been convicted of “sabotage” and “espionage” over fishing hooks given to him by a Russian friend — a gift that aroused suspicion after Tirana cut ties with Moscow.
He interviewed dozens of people, even coming face-to-face with his father’s executioner.
The “small and stocky man” had become a judo coach, said Plaku. He said he did not remember anything.
Eventually, Plaku pinpointed Dajti mountain as the likely site of his father’s killing.
Together with another man looking for a missing father, he spent months digging on the mountainside before finding human remains, some of which were buried only 60 centimeters (two feet) deep.
The bones have been sitting in a morgue for 10 years, waiting to be identified.
Now the process is finally under way after the launch in November of a project with the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP).
Plaku, alongside around 30 others, provided DNA samples to see if there was any match with his father.
He is hoping to finally “close this chapter” of his life with a quiet moment, a cigarette and the chance to lay flowers on the site where his father would have been shot with a bullet to the back of the neck on June 28, 1977.
“I still tremble when I remember the moment” of uncovering the human remains, he says.
The ICMP project comes several years after files from the regime’s despised secret police, the Sigurimi, were first opened to the public.
The director of the archives Gentiana Sula, who herself has a disappeared grandparent, said she knows well how the past can turn into an obsession for relatives who want to undo the stigma heaped on loved ones by an odious regime.
“They want to clarify their fate,” she explained.
Luigj Ndou, from ICMP, also warned how the past can haunt a country which tries to ignore it.
“This is not about the dead, this is about the living,” he said.
“This is about returning the dignity of all of those who were killed only because they thought differently.”
With 400,000 euros ($450,000) given by international donors, the ICMP project remains small in scope, focusing first on two locations.
But it is an important first step, Ndou says, adding that the political will to continue is essential.
‘The Party knows’
“Why was it so easy to kill someone and yet it is so difficult to find his body?” asks 63-year-old Elena Sallaku, sitting in a small apartment she shares with her twin sister and widowed mother.
The family has spent a decade looking for answers about their father, Xhavit.
The twins also gave DNA samples to the Dajti search team although they doubt their father was among those exhumed.
An engineer trained in the Soviet Union, Xhavit was executed in the summer of 1977 at age 46.
When his wife Irina, now 86, asked why he was taken, police said only: “The Party knows why.”
With their heads bent, the twins and their mother had to reply with “Long live the Party”, Elena recalls.
After years abroad, the women returned to Albania in 2007, with Irina determined to find her husband’s remains and to be buried next to him.
Upon returning, Elena found documents about her father in the archives, including one signed by a former judge who is now a professor of law.
The 67-year-old told AFP that he does not remember where the execution took place, a detail never mentioned in documents from the time.
He added that he was a young judge in a system where “nobody could refuse an order”.
But he recalls the last words of one of the two men who were executed on his watch: “Long live the Party! Do not hurt my daughters!”.