The story of Albania is full of brave Sons of Eagles, but there are also many Daughters who have sacrificed everything for their country and people. In particular, there are some amazing tales from the 20th Century, unfortunately colored by the politics of the past.
As time passes, many of the stories of these heroic woman—all young girls in the flower of youth from the tormented days of World War II—are fading fast. Here are a few that deserve to be retold so that they are never forgotten: Zonjë Çurre, Nimete Progonati, and Musine Kokalari.
Albanian patriot Zonjë Çurre was born and raised in the village of Tragjas, Vlora, not far from the ancient port of Orikum. For generations the people of Tragjas were famed for their bravery and daring in war, as the fortresses of Gjon Boçari and Sofes Castle attest.
The women were as hardy as the men, proven again when they stood with their brothers and husbands in support of Albanian independence against the Ottomans in 1912, in the Balkan Wars of 1913-1914, and against Italy in the Vlora War of 1920. Zonjë was not yet 20 when the Italians returned—this time in thrall to the Fascists of Mussolini—and again seized Vlorë and soon after all Albania.
When the National Liberation Front called for volunteers, Tragjas supplied many men and some 40 women to fight for freedom. Ten would never return except in songs memorizing their sacrifices. In a society and world where women were relegated to subservience, three Tragjasi women—Hanko Muço, Aferdita Thanasi & Inajete Ramadani—participated in the Anti-Fascist Women's Congress of Albania in Berat.
Young Zonjë had a hard life early on, working with her brothers & sisters to support the family. After the Fascist invasion, Zonjë and the other young people of her village responded by joining LANÇ; soon she was named youth leader. Zonjë was known for her generosity, sharing a loaf of bread with the Partisans, knitting sweaters & socks for them, and guiding them along the local trails.
But this wasn’t enough. When the Battle of Drashovica broke out against the Nazis in September 1943, brave Zonjë was seen at the forefront of the attack with her machine gun, pressing the successful attack. Her mother had worried, seeing her beloved daughter heading off to fight. Zonjë reassured her with the heroic words: “I am not alone, no, mother. I also have two friends. Two strong friends.” Zonjë pulled 2 bombs from her jacket.
During the Battle of Drashovica the women of Tragjas carried food and ammunition to their men while helping the wounded move to the partisan hospitals. That winter—infamous for its harshness—they carried sacks of bread into the mountains, to the cave of Kavasall where some 170 partisans were sheltered; they also took food and supplies to the wounded soldiers at the Ramica hospital.
In the dead of that winter in early 1944, as the Partisans took heavy losses, Zonjë—now a squad leader in the 5th Assault Brigade—crossed the Shengjergji Pass east of Dukat thru deep snow towards the mountain of Lungara with her soldiers.
Sadly, many of them did not survive the awful weather, despite her efforts to carry them out of the mountains herself. With frozen bleeding feet she and three others emerged from the drifts into Targas, collapsing. Zonjë was carried to the hospital, but when she revived the brave Daughter of the Eagles refused to stay put, even though her legs were swollen and her feet were heavily damaged by the cold.
“I have come to stay with my war comrades, to fight with them, to take part in every action and to take revenge on the enemy and the traitors. I do not forget the messages of Hazbi, Lilo and Kujtim that they told me when I parted from them on the snowy Dukat mountain. I do not forget the sufferings, their bare and swollen feet, their swollen and bloody hands, their young and wet faces, green from the sufferings of the road. I do not forget the wounds of my friends and the blood that flowed on my shoulders, in the Pass of Shëngjergji. No comrade commissar, I want to fight at all costs!”
As the year progressed, the tide of war turned as the Partisans surged into central Albania, driving the Nazis from the valley of the Shkumbin where they had their military headquarters in Elbasan. Now second-in-command of a company, young Zonjë was leading the attack near Gurabardhë on 22 July 1944 when she was killed in action. She was memorialized in a poem by her commander: “Flame like lightning / In the forefront of the war you fought often / You were not afraid of the bullets.” Zonjë Çurre was declared a Martyr of the Fatherland and awarded the title People's Heroine.
This is Nimete Progonati, decorated with the Medal of Bravery, the Medal of Liberation, the Medal of Remembrance, and a Hero of the People. She gave her life for Albania on her 15th birthday, fighting alongside her beloved comrades on 26 July 1944 at the Battle of Sinj Debar.
The fiery young girl was born in the village of Luzat near Tepelenë with a sharp mind and gift for speaking and inspiring her neighbors to action. Nimetja came from a poor but patriotic family; her father Isufi fought against the Greek in the Balkan Wars; against the Italians garrisoning Tepelena; as a supporter of Fan Noli at the battles of Brari Bridge & Tujan Stairs; as an anti-Zogist in the Fier Uprising of 1935; and against the Fascists as a member of Et’hem Gjinushi's partisans, which became the 5th Company, 5th Battalion, 5th Assault Brigade (B5S). Nimetja and her uncles also served in B5S; the family lost 3 members.
Young Nimetja expressed herself in poetry, writing with passion about the struggle against Fascism. At the tender age of 13 she stood up before a visiting National Liberation Front (LANÇ) recruiter & proclaimed: “I love the Partisans very much. Ah, if they accept me too, I very much want to go to the mountains and fight with them.” An avid student, she had a dream of growing up to be a teacher when peace would finally come to Albania. She taught her illiterate comrades how to read and write in their spare time. She entertained them with her singing and recital of patriotic poetry.
Yet she was fierce in battle, honored by her commander for capturing a Ballist at the Battle of Çarshova in May 1944. At first, she was deemed too young to join the fight, but she begged commander Et’hem Gjinushi: “Comrade Commander! Take me with you.” He replied, “You are very small. Grow up some Nimete.” Yet brave Nimetja was adamant, “However small I am, I have a brave heart, I support my friends & I do my part!”
No eyes were dry the day she died. The unit commissar said: “Today we lost a warrior, a brave woman, a girl who is not afraid of death, the little poetess, the good singer, the jockey girl, who in her free time entertained us, relaxed us, and made us laugh. Give tribute to her humble life.” Her Commander Shevqet Peçi wrote Nimetja’s mother: "You must be proud of your daughter who fought heroically giving her life for the high interests of the people and the homeland."
When Commander Peçi’s letter reached Nimetja’s mother Fatimeja, she insisted on going to the front to replace her daughter; this act of dedication was prevented due to her age, health & family needs. The village of Luzat sent 65 boys and girls in total to fight for LANÇ. Twelve never returned, and for this the Fascists burned and looted Luzat, killing innocent civilians. But this did not end the patriotic fervor. Many memoirs, stories, poems, songs & TV documentaries have been made about the young hero from Luzati.
This is a photo of Musine Kokalari, my personal favorite of the brave women of Albania. She was both fanatically anti-Fascist & anti-Communist. This photo hangs in the dreaded House of Leaves, a museum in the heart of Tirana dedicated to the notorious atrocities committed by Enver Hoxha’s Communist Sigurimi Secret Police. It is from her 1946 show-trial on charges of being an Enemy of the People. At that trial the indomitable young woman, a talented author and poet just coming into her own, stood defiantly to spit these noble words at her false accusers: “I don’t need to be a communist to love my country. I love my country even tho I am not a communist. I love its progress. You boast that you have won the war, and now that you are the winner you want to extinguish those who you call political opponents. I think differently than you but I love my country. You are punishing me for my ideals!”
Musine did not die like the other young women in this article, yet she watched as her beloved brothers were executed by Hoxha’s minions, her family crushed, their wealth stolen. She did not fall on the field of battle, but her defiance and fortitude earned her 18 years in the infamous prison at Burrel, followed by another 18 years as a street-sweeper in an internment camp. Denied the ability to ever write again, the scoundrels even declined to provide her a hospital bed as she succumbed to cancer.
Gjirokastër has not forgotten its talented, brave daughter, despite the sad fact that she lived out her days—from 1946 onward—in most miserable circumstances. From that star-crossed year, when her childhood neighbor and former classmate Enver Hoxha (a distant cousin who corresponded with Musine while she was in college in Italy, in the months before the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini invaded Albania to kick off World War II) sentenced her to imprisonment, Kokalari never again was permitted to publish her writing. This denied her the talent that she was born to fulfill, that which she gave to her native culture with all her heart in the 2 1/2 decades allotted her before fate—and Stalinist Communism—silenced her forever.
Her poetry encapsulates the melodic tenor of her native Gjirokastër dialect, which is best enjoyed by hearing rather than reading. But I have taken the trouble to translate one of her poems into English, a poem which describes not just a seaside-scene—so beautiful along the Ionian seaboard of southern Albanian—but one which also speaks to the Albanian who is trapped in Hoxha’s Land of the Eagles, looking out at the freedom that is across the waters… so undeniably close, so achingly far away.
This article was written by Mike Joseph known on instagram as @an_american_in_albania whose profile is dedicated to the Albanian history and culture and where you'll find more stories about Albanian important historical characters.