KUKES, Albania — If you’d like to walk for miles in concrete burrows built to defend an isolationist totalitarian regime that nobody wanted to attack, Kukes in northeastern Albania is the place for you.
The small Balkan country’s post World War II communist dictatorship reveled in massive defensive works; the countryside is still littered with the crumbling remains of 175,000 concrete mini-bunkers — again built to stop imaginary invaders. But Kukes’ tunnels take the prize.
Dug from the 1970s to the early 1990s — just in time for the communist regime’s collapse — the underground network was meant to house the town’s entire population of 16,000 for up to six months in case of war. Equipped with amenities running from a prosecutor’s office to a maternity clinic, it was Albania’s biggest fortification project with tunnels extending for up to seven kilometers (4 miles).
Now, local authorities hope to turn it into a tourist attraction, with the help of European Union funding. By the end of the year, they say, a multi-room command center and a long tunnel leading to it from the town hall should be accessible.
Post-communist Albania remains one of Europe’s poorest countries. Tourism is a major earner, generating 17% of GDP in 2021, while arrivals increased 33% in 2022 to reach some 7.5 million people.
Tourists would be particularly welcome in Kukes, a town 150 kilometers (90 miles) northeast of the capital Tirana, close to the Kosovo border. It’s Albania’s poorest area, despite its mineral riches and striking mountain scenery, from which most of the young people emigrate — many heading abroad.
Kukes Mayor Safet Gjici said potential tourists would be offered gastronomical experiences as well as the tunnel experience.
“Such a museum town will show the local values of the population and attract visitors, bring money for the town hall and employment for the people,” he said.
Older local residents have vivid memories of the complex, which was built largely with mass local labor and was only used once in a civil defense drill, in the late 1980s, which sent the entire Kukes population underground.
An alarm bell rang at night. The town’s mayor and party leader met at a tunnel entrance below their offices and walked four kilometers to reach the command center.
Armida Alikaj, who was 10 years old at the time, said her father calmly woke her up and each got a backpack with clothes, food and blankets, to go to the tunnels with “the smell of the earth” and slogans and numbers painted in white lime on the doors.
“I was not afraid because we were told they were built for us,” she said. “But the siren’s noise was horrible.”
Kukes is a relatively new town of Soviet-style white brick five-story flats built from scratch — with the tunnel warren — to house some 16,000 people after the old town was swallowed up in 1978 by an artificial lake designed to fuel a hydropower plant.
Each apartment building’s residents had their defined place in the tunnels with good air circulation and water supply.
There was also a bread factory, a school, a hospital, a maternity home, prosecutor’s office, police station, radio station, printing house for the communist propaganda, as well as classrooms for children and spaces for men and women to undergo training in shooting and other military skills.
Albania’s communist dictator Enver Hoxha cut ties with neighboring Yugoslavia in 1949, with the Soviet Union in 1961 and with China in 1978. His fear of invasion led the regime to spend about 5% of its annual budget on the military.
Retired army officer Haxhi Cenaj, 81, says he spent hours underground in the 37-room Kukes command center as military leaders plotted their strategy, preparing for a Yugoslavian attack that never came.
Until he retired in 1995, Cenaj was a major leading a small infantry unit assigned to protect the center.
His son, Afrim, who now takes care of a small part of the tunnels, points out the lights on the cold walls, the concrete tables and lavatories. Small groups of bats cluster on ceilings.
“Many British, Swiss, Dutch, or French (people) come to Kukes only to see the tunnels,” he said.
Bukurosh Onuzi, a tourist expert in charge of the museum project, said there is “much interest in the complex, especially from foreigners but also from (Albanian) youngsters who have no knowledge, no information or have not lived under communism.”
Cenaj, the former army major, says he fondly remembers his time spent underground.
“We tried scenarios, provocations. We planned there would be a war, likely an air attack, and trained how to survive,” he said. “I would prefer to have (the underground network) ready still. Who knows what is happening with (the) wars around.”