A group of eight communist-era political prisoners who have been on strike for 23 days vowed on Sunday to fast to death if the government keeps ignoring their demand for faster reparations.“We will fast to death and will not let the sacrifice of our two friends who set themselves on fire pass in vain,” 81-year-old Lavdosh Beqo told Balkan Insight while sitting under a makeshift tent in the Paris Commune neighborhood of Tirana.
Beqo was referring to Gjergj Ndreca and Lirak Bejko, who set themselves on fire last week in protest against the government’s refusal to negotiate over their demands for faster payments of reparations to Communist-era political prisoners.
A third ex-prisoner, who was not part of the strike, tried to set himself on fire on Friday, but was stopped by police in the last moment.
The tent, which is made of plastic sheets laid against the wall of a former artist’s studio, was drenched from Saturday’s downpour in the capital. The mattresses lining the floor were soaking wet, while the eight strikers lay down and tried tuning in to the latest news on TV.
Beqo, who has dual Albanian and French citizenship, has been visited often by the French embassy doctor, who on Saturday convinced him to go back on to his medication, after refusing it for two days in protest.
The Communist Party ruled Albania with an iron fist for nearly half a century, imprisoning tens of thousands of people under appalling conditions in a network of prisons and concentration camps.
The strike, which began on September 25, aims to pressure the centre-right government of Prime Minister Sali Berisha into action over a 2007 law, which grants former political prisoners 2000 lek (€14) for every day they spent in prison during the Communist regime.
The law said that the reparations would be paid out in eight tranches with one installment paid per year. However, in the past five years only one segment has been payed out.
Several strikers have quit the protest over the past week, citing their deteriorating health and pleas from family members to return home.
Since Bejko’s self-immolation on Wednesday two dozen police officers have sealed off the tent, providing only limited access to the strike for family members and reporters alike, usually under the cops’ watchful gaze.
On Sunday they allowed three journalists and a photographer, including this reporter, to visit the strikers’ tent.
Earlier on Sunday, 50 journalists protested in front of the Prime Minister’s office, denouncing the lack of access to the strike and the government’s refusal to hear the strikers’ demands.
Berisha’s has refused to consider the strikers’ requests, saying the protest has been manipulated by the opposition and pointing out that his government has already paid out some compensation.
However, recalling the backbreaking work in the in the copper mines in the infamous Spac concentration camp, 72-year-old Ramazan Spahiu said the government could never repay them for their suffering.
“We will continue this strike till the end and we are ready for the ultimate sacrifice,” he maintained.