Thursday, 30 September 2010

Continuing the Gjirokastra theme

The poem below, 'In The Citadel', refers to one of the odder remnants of the Cold War: a 'captured' USAAF Lockheed jet fighter which is still on display in the citadel of the southern Albanian city of Gjirokastra. There's a picture of it here (not taken by me). There are various conflicting stories about how it got there - these range from it having been shot down by either the Albanian air force or anti-aircraft fire (which would have been difficult, seeing as Albania had no ground-based air defences at the time) to it having landed at Tirana airport following a navigational error by the pilot.
What does seem to be certain is that, in December 1957, the pilot, Howard J Curran, strayed into Albanian airspace twice. According to the American version of the story, he was taking the Lockheed T-33 from Chateauroux airbase in France to Naples in Italy when, thanks to a combination of bad weather and instrument failure, he arrived over Albania by mistake. Running out of fuel, he searched for a nearby airfield and spotted what was, in fact, the as-yet incomplete Tirana International Airport. Once on the ground, he was promptly arrested and taken away for interrogation. In yet another version of the story, his arrival was greeted by a chain-gang cheering political prisoners who were working on the airport's new runway at the time and assumed that the plane heralded a full-scale American invasion of the country and therefore the end of Enver Hoxha's totalitarian regime.
Several accounts of this 'incident' claim that what became of Curran is 'unknown' (the implication being that, rather like Michael Caine in the film version of The Ipcress File, he was held prisoner by the Albanians and brainwashed) but his release and return to the USA via Yugoslavia was reported in Life magazine in January 1958 (see here). His aeroplane, meanwhile, was kept by the Albanians - on the pretext that it had lost a tyre on landing and they couldn't replace it - and taken to Gjirokastra citadel to become part of Hoxha's 'trophy cabinet' of captured military equipment (a selection of Italian howitzers and a tank from the Second World War - all of which are also still on display in the citadel).
Whether Curran really had made some grievous errors or not is a matter of debate. Tirana is a long way from Naples, Curran himself was an extremely experienced pilot - a Second World War and Korean War 'flying ace' - and, of course, America wouldn't have been keen to admit that it was flying reconnaissance missions over Albania at the time. That said, the coasts of Albania and western Italy follow nearly parallel bearings, and if he was flying without instruments, Curran might well have mistaken the one for the other.
Either way, the Lockheed remains at Gjirokastra (although most of its moveable parts had been removed by the time I saw it in 2006), an unlikely memorial to the Cold War.
Howard Curran himself died in August last year and his obituary, including a short version of the Albanian 'interlude', is posted here.
One reason for posting this and the poem below is that Gjirokastra was also the birthplace of Albanian writer Ismail Kadare (see post re: his recent Lerici Pea Prize). Kadare's most famous novel, The General of the Dead Army, was inspired by a statue of 'Mother Albania' in the Military Museum inside Gjirokastra citadel (it shows Albania sending both the Nazis and the Italians packing, their arms weighed down by skulls), while one of his most lyrical, Chronicle in Stone, offers a child's eye view of the city during the Second World War - and, as a results, gives an illuminating insight into the follies and horrors of war in general.
Gjirokastra was also the birthplace of Enver Hoxha, and although the plinth where a gigantic statue of the 'heroic leader' once tood now lies empty and looks, from the citadel walls, like a redundant heliport, the house where he was born has been turned into an 'ethnic museum'. The Kadare family house, meanwhile, has yet to be 'museum-ified', possibly because, as the Albanian who took me to Gjirokastra phlegmatically observed, "we won't know what we think of him until he dies".

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