How an Albanian arms dump transformed into 'Fish City'

Labinot-Fushë (Albania) (AFP) –


In darkened tunnels once stuffed with weapons, there are now hundreds of blue barrels filled with anchovies resting in litres of brine, a surreal repurposing of Albania's Cold War past.

Murals, statues, architectural oddities and historical relics greet visitors to Fish City, a complex snuggled into gentle hills in Labinot-Fushe 60 kilometres (40 miles) south of the capital Tirana.

Jim Morrison and Winston Churchill rub shoulders, the stretched face of a Salvador Dali masterpiece is lovingly recreated alongside Pablo Picasso's Guernica.

Before reaching any of that, Marlon Brando and Al Pacino in full Godfather mode have to be negotiated.

The sprawling complex also houses a daycare, a children's playground, cinema, fine-dining restaurant and a 50-metre tower called "chicken island".

Somewhere in all of this, there is a seafood processing plant employing some 1,500 people, most of them women who shell shrimp and fillet anchovies at incredible speed before ramming them into boxes, jars and bags for export.

- One million weapons -

The company, Rozafa, exported 32 million euros ($38 million) of seafood last year, a major turnaround for a site that just six years ago stood derelict.

"In these places, there was nothing but ruins, it looked like Hiroshima after the bomb," says owner Gjergj Luca, who built his city on the ruins of the base, but preserved the tunnels.

They were constructed by communist dictator Enver Hoxha whose paranoia led him to isolate the country even from communist comrades in Moscow, Beijing and the former Yugoslavia.

He built up an unrivalled hoard of weaponry that stood idle for years in thousands of tunnels and bunkers following his death in 1985.

During a rebellion more than a decade later, crowds ransacked arms dumps across the country, getting their hands on roughly one million weapons, from machine guns and cannons to armoured vehicles.

Some of Hoxha's tunnels and bunkers have since been transformed into cafes, shelters for homeless people, warehouses and most imaginatively, Fish City.

The complex is now redolent of 19th century utopian socialist projects in Britain and France, with Luca saying it is his "dream" to serve the community, not only with jobs but also with access to art and history.

"My dreams and my work have been transformed into a state of mind, a desire and a motivation for all of us," says Luca, a former actor and son of Albanian screen legend Ndrek Luca, whose picture hangs alongside Pacino and Brando.

- 'City of Kalashnikovs' -

Business is going well for Luca, whose firm is the main employer in the area, paying the women roughly 20 euros a day for their work, the average salary for Albania.

He is working on transforming another military installation in the nearby town of Gramsh -- formerly known as the "city of Kalashnikovs" -- into another fish plant.

"Today we don't need weapons to fight. Jobs and a better economic and social life is our real fight," he says.

These complexes bind together Albania's past and present, with the walls of the old barracks at Gramsh bearing communist slogans like "One hand on the pickaxe, the other on the rifle" or "Workers go from victory to victory".

The Labinot-Fushe tunnels hark back to an even more distant era with a giant, gaudy sculpture of medieval national hero Skanderbeg sitting atop one of the entrances.

"You don't know where you're going in and where you're going out," laughs anchovy packer Vjollca Kaculli, neatly encapsulating the Fish City experience.