Albanian Migration to Italy


In the final days of 1989, as communism faltered throughout Eastern Europe, Albania was facing upheavals too. The country had been isolated for decades, maintaining an antagonistic stance not only with the West but also against the fellow travelers in Soviet Union, China, and Yugoslavia.

The collapse of the communist regime there would trigger the largest population movement seen in Europe since the Second World War. In 1990, hundreds of men, women, and children sought asylum in Western embassies in Tirana, and many were resettled through a UN-brokered plan. However, what began as a trickle soon became a flood. By early 1991, tens of thousands of people were converging on the Albanian Adriatic littoral, hijacking boats and vessels to cross to southern Italy.

Amidst this febrile environment, Albania held its first free elections in 46 years in March 1991. However, many doubted that the new democractic government would bring any meaningful change. More maritime exoduses followed, culminating in the voyage of the Vlora in August 1991.

The Vlora had recently returned from a trip to Cuba, carrying a cargo of sugar. Crowds broke into the dock and forced the captain to sail to Italy. Fearing for his life, he complied, setting out with only the boat’s supplementary motor (Vlora was in docks to repair its primary motor), and without radar. The boat had a capacity of around 3,000, but it carried nearly 20,000 people on that voyage. Its destination was the port of Brindisi, where thousands of Albanian refugees had successfully disembarked in March. This time, however, the Italian authorities ordered the ship to turn away and set course for Bari.

In her biting memoir of the end of communism in Albania, “Free: Coming of Age at the End of History,” Lea Ypi remembers:

“On the screen of the small colour television we had recently bought, I saw the dozens of men who had managed to climb to the tops of the masts, half naked, with sweat dripping down their necks, their faces dirty and badly shaven, their hair grown long at the back, in mullet fashion. Standing there precariously, struggling to hold on, they looked like the self-proclaimed generals of an army that had lost its morale before the battle had even started. They waved their arms senselessly at the television cameras, shouting, “Amico, let us exit!,” “Let us disembark!,” “We are hungry, amico!,” “We need water!” Above them hovered two or three helicopters. Under them, on the deck, swayed a sea of people: thousands of men, women, and children, scorched from the heat, injured from waiting in close quarters, pushing one another, wailing, desperately attempting to leave the boat. Squeezed inside the cabins, other passengers perched on the windows, gestured or shouted instructions to those on the deck, encouraging them to dive into the water. Some followed the advice and were arrested. Others managed to escape. The rest continued to scream: that they had consumed the last lumps of sugar from the cargo hold several hours before, that many people were severely dehydrated and were drinking sea water, that there were pregnant women on board.

…. A journey of about seven hours lasted thirty-six. When the disembarkation orders finally arrived, the crowds were forced into buses and locked in a disused stadium, guarded by police. Those who tried to leave were arrested and beaten. Packaged food and bottles of water were dropped by helicopter. Inside, men, women, and children fought to reach the supplies. Some people had brought knives with them and started to use them to stab other people to get their way.”


The Italian government’s policy was deportation by all means. It argued that since Albania was no longer a communist state, the arrivals were economic migrants rather than asylum seekers. It requisitioned private ferries to transport them back to Albania.

The entire saga, dubbed the “Albanian Invasion” by the Italian press, was vividly chronicled in photo accounts of the day, reflecting changing attitudes in Italy.

A day before the first wave of immigrants arrived on March 6, 1991, the Milanese paper Il Giorno featured a picture of an Albanian couple in Brindisi celebrating their son’s first birthday. In the photo, the family was smiling, composed, and well-dressed – just like any ordinary Italian family, a picture of seamless integration. Yet, the accompanying headlines warned, “The Albanian Wave Does Not Stop, as Thousands of Refugees Wait in the Ports of Durres and Vlore.”

Two days later, Il Giorno would carry a photo by AP photographer Massimo Sambucetti of Albanians jumping ashore from a ship that reached Brindisi after running a blockade. That picture would be on the front page of almost every Italian daily, as well as many international papers.

Then came the Vlora, with its overloaded crowd of migrants. “Invasion,” thundered many papers, reaching for Dante’s Divine Comedy and its images of damnation and Charon’s ferries teeming with condemned souls in a boat to Hell. The photo (first photo, topmost) by Luca Turi was one among many that underscored those allusions.

The day after the Vlora arrived in Bari, Sambucetti would capture an iconic image of an Italian policeman in riot gear standing guard over an exhausted, half-naked Albanian lying at his feet. Sambucetti recalled that day:

I was in my hotel room, transmitting the pictures of the Vlora, which had just been brought to me by our Bari stringer Luca Turi, and that showed thousands of refugees just disembarked and waiting on the quays of the harbor. All of a sudden, a rattle coming from upstairs shook the building. I rushed out of my room to check what was causing all that noise and saw dozens, maybe hundreds, of policemen in anti-riot gear running down the stairs.
“Where are you going?” I shout. “There is a revolt in the stadium!” A policeman answered me. I just had the time to grab my cameras, queue a couple of pictures in the Leafax and run to the stadium

[Leafax enabled Sambucetti to transmit around a dozen pictures over analog telephone lines — a black-and-white image taking 10 minutes and a color one about 30 minutes].  

Sambucetti’s picture (above) would be featured around the world. British newspaper Independent’s headlineabove it read: “Incompetence and Brutality.” Italy’s president, Francesco Cossiga, denounced it, arguing that the photo misrepresented Italy as an unwelcoming country. The AP photos would be the finalists for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for spot news coverage and Sambucetti won the 1992 Baia Chia Photojournalism Award.


The crisis dragged on, with Italy pressuring the Albanian government to put its ports under military control and halting passenger trains to stop the flow of emigrants. Italy also offered financial aid to Albania to take back the immigrants. Undocumented immigration continued on a smaller scale, using the cover of night and speedboats organized by criminal gangs. Approximately 800,000 people are estimated to have left Albania between 1989 and 2001, which was twenty percent of the population, and about half went to Italy.

Over time, the immigrants assimilated well into Italian society. However, as debates over African and Levantine migration into Europe grew, the Albanian integration was held up as an exception rather than the rule. Justifications followed on how the Albanians already knew Italian as a second or third language, as they intercepted Italian TV channels even during the Cold War, and how even though they were Muslim, they were not very attached to religion.

The images of that “invasion” summer were largely forgotten. “In March, they said we were all victims. They accepted us. In August, they looked at us as if we were some kind of menace, like we were about to eat their children, one neighbor told Lea Ypi.

As for Luca Turi’s photos, during later bouts of migrantion crises, they were reused to accompany various fake news stories about contemporary refugee populations (Africans, Muslims, Syrians), shared not only by fringe groups but also by far-right parties and politicians.

For Ypi, integration was inevitable:

“The West had spent decades criticizing the East for its closed borders, funding campaigns to demand freedom of movement, condemning the immorality of states committed to restricting the right to exit. Our exiles used to be received as heroes. Now they were treated like criminals.

Perhaps freedom of movement had never really mattered. It was easy to defend it when someone else was doing the dirty work of imprisonment. But what value does the right to exit have if there is no right to enter? Were borders and walls reprehensible only when they served to keep people in, as opposed to keeping them out? The border guards, the patrol boats, the detention and repression of immigrants that were pioneered in southern Europe for the first time in those years would become standard practice over the coming decades. The West, initially unprepared for the arrival of thousands of people wanting a different future, would soon perfect a system for excluding the most vulnerable and attracting the more skilled, all the while defending borders to “protect our way of life.” And yet, those who sought to emigrate did so because they were attracted to that way of life. Far from posing a threat to the system, they were its most ardent supporters.



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The Flood | Giorgio Lotti


In November 1966, when the River Arno broke and flooded Florence, it was undeniably one of the most damaging natural disasters in Western Europe. Over a hundred-people died – and millions of masterpieces were destroyed. “The world nearly lost the Renaissance city,” the Guardian wrote somberly.

The Tuscan capital was the city of the Medicis, Machiavelli, and Savonarola, where Michelangelo, Leonardo and Botticelli lived and worked. In this wet autumn, it was to welcome a third of its annual rainfall in just two days. The waters reached over 6.7 metres around the Basilica of Santa Croce, where Giotto had painted frescos; inside Cimabue’s crucifix from 13th century was destroyed. Completely flooded was the Biblioteca Nazionale, on low ground facing the Arno, where eight million documents, books, and manuscripts had been deposited, many of them for safety since the Second World War. In Piazza del Duomo, baptistery doors by Ghiberti, the ironically named “Gates of Paradise”, were flung open by the floodwaters, which also ripped off its bronze panels off their frames and carried them 500 meters.

The efforts to restore Florence began almost immediately. The so-called angeli del fango, the mud angels – many of them young artists and students – came to the mud-soaked city to carry out the flood damaged masterpieces. Picasso donated a painting to raise funds, and a short film by Franco Zeffirelli and narrated by Richard Burton raise $20 million. But the amount of works affected was so staggering, the restorations so time-consuming, and the Italian bureaucracy so glacial that a significant portion remains unrestored. Giorgio Vasari’s five-panel “Last Supper” which was underwater for more than 12 hours was restored fully only in 2016, and a great number of books and art remain locked in warehouses waiting to be repaired.


The photo above — taken by Giorgio Lotti, a photojournalist with the notable Italian illustrated news magazine Epoca – shows the Florentine city transformed into Venice. Lotti would later be more famous as the man who took one of the most widely reprinted photos in the world – a snap which was used by Zhou Enlai as one of his official portraits. Lotti was in Beijing for an event with the Italian embassy to which he brought a camera despite being told not to do so. While Zhou was greeting the visitors, he asked the Chinese premier (in French) to pose for a photo. Lotti was not impressed by the first photo but he took another as Zhou’s assistant informed Zhou that they were waiting for him in the room and he looked away from the camera to look into the room. Later, the Chinese ambassador would ask Lotti for a copy of this second shot at Zhou’s explicit request.





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Ethiopian Soldier – Eisenstadt


In December 1934, a border dispute between Abyssinia and the Italian Somaliland led to a small war. Haile Selassie, the emperor of Abyssinia, sought the help from the League of Nations. The League — dominated by European powers — responded by banning arms sales to both Italy and Abyssinia, a move which harmed the latter greatly.

Instead, the League, an international body founded after the First World War to arbitrate international disputes, reverted back into settling disputes a la Concert of Europe: Britain and France, both worn out by war and depression, secretly agreed to give Abyssinia to Italy.

Emboldened, Italy sent a 400,000-strong army into Abyssinia even as the League re-elected the Italian Marquis Alberto Theodoli, as chairman of the Permanent Mandates Commission, an important League body. That winter, however, the opinion turned as the Italians bombarded villages, used poison gas and attacked Red Cross hospitals.

While it was a conflict fought mostly out of the world’s eyes, photography played a significant part. The uneven terms of the conflict were made clear in the photos of Alfred Eisenstadt, working for Berliner Illustriete Zeitung, who saw the poor benighted country before the Italian army arrived. Meanwhile, Mussolini’s Italy attempted to use Abyssinia’s own poverty as a justification for an invasion. Reprinted were postcards and photos of nude locals, to lend credence to the narrative that Italy was “intervening only to bring law and order to a backwards, warlord-ridden, and slave trading land,” as Susan Pedersen notes in The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire, her excellent account of diplomacy in the interwar years.

Eisenstadt’s pictures proved more powerful. His picture of the bare feet of an Abyssinian soldier was reprinted around the world but censored in Italy. In fact, the worldwide sales of his photo enabled Jewish Eisenstadt to emigrate from Germany. Although later to be often miscaptioned as the feet of a slain soldier, mud-caked feet wrapped in dirty WWI-era puttees belonged to a soldier participating in a rifle practice.

Public opinion did turn against Italy, but it was too late: the Italian conquest was nearly complete. The League voted for economic sanctions onto Italy in May 1936 but by this time, Italy had already walked out of the League Council. Following Japan and Germany, which withdrew from the League in 1933 rather than to submit to its decisions, Italy left the League in 1937. Fascist Italy was now inexorably allied with Germany and Japan and contours of a global conflict were slowly settling.

(For Japan’s withdraw from the League, here; to follow the future career of Haile Selassie, here).

Silician Mafia, Letizia Battaglia

(continued from a previous post)


As the Italian state unraveled in ever-widening gyre of political choas, that other threat to law and order was again resurgent in the south.  In Sicily, the Commission — a central organization of mafiosos — was resurrected. Several competing factions were now preparing to fight and claim territories for protection rackets.

At the center of this was Letizia Battaglia, a journalist and photographer for L’Ora newspaper in Palermo. For eighteen years, she documented mafia murders of judges, politicians, police, and members of rival families. She would find herself at the scene of four or five different murders in a single day. Here, she remembers taking the photo above (link)

They murdered Nerina, a young prostitute who had started drug-dealing independently from the mafia cartel, and her two male friends. Allegedly, she had disobeyed the mafia’s code of honour. Naturally, the killers were never found.

It was 1982, and I entered this little room in Palermo against the will of the police. They did not want me – a photographer and a woman – at the crime scene. When I realised there was a woman among the victims, I started shaking. More than usual, I mean. I was overcome by nausea and could hardly stand. I only had a few seconds to take a couple of pictures: there were men shouting at me to work fast.

It isn’t easy to be a good photographer when you’re faced with the corpses of people who were alive and kicking only minutes before. In those situations, I would often get all the technical things wrong. But I did my job, I photographed, trying to keep the image in focus and the exposure correct.

Since Nerina, who is slumped in the armchair, had been the main target, I found myself thinking about her. In that small room, her still body was at everybody’s mercy, more objectified than ever. My contact with her lasted only a few moments and was filtered through the lens of a cheap camera. But I saw her alone, lost in an eternity of silence. In that short time, I started to love her. I find women beautiful and courageous, and I love photographing them. They hold so many dreams inside themselves.

It was just one of 600,000 photos she took of mafia crimes; throughout her career, Battaglia received many death threats, but continued on. Her “Archive of Blood”, as she called it, grew and grew as the mafia activity spread. Judge Cesare Terranova, a member of the Anti-Mafia Parliamentary Commission, was killed in an ambush in 1979. Battaglia remembers: “This was one of the most important men in Sicilian politics. When he was killed, I said nothing worse could happen. Nothing. It was not true.” [Photo below, graphic].

The Italian state, which had unscrupulous connections with the mafia, was slow and reluctant to respond, even when the mafia detonated a half-ton of explosives under the highway in May 1992 to assassinate a judge (who was a close friend of Battaglia). The next year, Giulio Andreotti, who had been prime minister of Italy seven times, was indicted for corruption.He had flatly denied ever meeting or having any dealings with the mafia, but among Battaglia’s archives were photographs of Andreotti and other Christian Democrat party leaders with Nino Salvo, a powerful Mafia figures who was believed to have been a principal link between the Mafia and Andreotti.


Battaglia has recently published a book “Anthology” which recounts these haunting years. (Amazon).

Mussolini’s Demise

During the last days of the Second World War in Italy, Benito Mussolini attempted to escape the advancing Allied Army by hiding in a German convoy headed toward the Alps. Partisans stopped and searched the convoy at a small village on Lake Como; in the back of a truck, they found a private suspiciously wearing a general’s pants under his overcoat. It was, of course, Mussolini.

The partisans took him prisoner and he was later joined by his mistress, Clara Petacci. The council of partisan leaders, lead by the Communists, secretly decided to execute Mussolini and 15 leading Fascists. They were executed on April 29, 1945, and their bodies were brought back to Milan, where the fascist dictator’s meteoric rise to power began two decades ago; the bodies were hung from an Esso gas station in the Piazzale Loreto, the scene where Mussolini’s own fascists executed fifteen partisans (the so-called Martyrs of Piazzale Loreto) the previous year.

The photos of Mussolini’s gruesome demise was widely reproduced and sold to many Allied soldiers. Meanwhile in Berlin, Hitler heard how Mussolini was executed and vowed he would not let this happen to him. The end was near and Gotterdammerung was about to begin. (See an extremely gruesome picture of Mussolini’s defaced (literally) body here).


Mussolini’s body was buried in a secret grave, but fascists found the body and removed it a year later. A small trunk containing the remains moved from a local convent to a monastery to a police constabulary until it was finally returned to Mussolini’s widow in 1957, and was buried at Predappio, Il Duce’s birthplace.

The Elderly Butcher Boy of Fascism

Even today, Italy has one of the least free presses in Western world. Although press-censorships were not created with the Fascist state Benito Mussolini forged, Mussolini’s Ministry of Popular Culture — which administrates everything that appeared in newspapers, radio, printed works, theatre, cinema or any form of art — did cast a long shadow. In a move worthy of today’s language bastions, it banned usage of non-Italian words; the ministry’s lackeys were posted to publishing houses to immediately oversee what is being printed, and there were public bonfires of forbidden books. However, noting Italian efficiency, all actions were more Kafkaesque than Orwellian.

In a hierarchical system where the government appointed directors and editors and distributed printing paper, self-censorship was easily accomplished by individuals currying favor with the regime. Although many international publications, writers and photographers were left untouched by censors before the war, the beginning of the WWII changed the landscape.

Working for Time and Life magazines, Carl Mydans arrived in Rome in May 1940. Tensions were high; Mussolini was thought to be on the brink of declaring war on the Allies (although in reality he delayed another month). At the public events, Mydans was repeatedly prevented from taking pictures by Blackshirts who blocked his cameras. He remembers the events that happened next: “On May 9, Mussolini appeared at the Victor Emmanuel II monument to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the founding of the Italian Empire. A circle of security men barred me from the ceremony. But as Mussolini was departing, he strutted right past me. The security men were compelled to applaud as he went by, and I was able to make one quick frame between their shoulders. The picture appeared across a page of LIFE several weeks later with the caption, “The Elderly Butcher Boy of Fascism”. The photo, which appeared in LIFE on June 24th, caused the responsible staffers of TIME and LIFE being immediately expelled from Italy. Rather than sending a new bureau staff, they closed down the Rome Bureau, writing “In the face of wartime censorship there was no chance in Italy for TIME’s kind of reporting.”