Albanians view antique communist-era spyware in 'House of Leaves'

TIRANA (Reuters) - In the days of communist Albania’s near-total isolation, Saimir Maloku used his technical knowhow to gain illicit glimpses of the outside world. Unluckily for him, as he and his father watched forbidden Italian television, the regime was watching him.

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Maloku was jailed for nine years in 1976 after the secret police bugged his home. Four decades on, he can visit a unique Tirana museum and see for himself the kind of listening devices that betrayed him.

At the Museum of Surveillance, created in the former headquarters of the feared Sigurimi security service, Albanians can now inspect some of the spying paraphernalia used by dictator Enver Hoxha’s totalitarian state as well as the files kept on many of them.

“Until now nothing had been done to show how Albanians were spied upon and kept in check, so this is a good step to illustrate the history of spying we were the victims of,” Maloku, now 71, told Reuters.

Visiting the museum, Maloku told the story of how he had wanted to help his paralyzed father by broadening his television viewing beyond the drab daily four hours of Albanian state broadcasts.

An electronic engineer, he built a device he called “the can” to convert UHF signals from Italy’s RAI television so they could be viewed on an Albanian set.

“The can opened a window into the West for the Albanians. I made them free of charge for my friends, but later learned some of them had denounced me,” Maloku said.

The Sigurimi planted a listening device in a wall to gather evidence against him.

The same model of device - once attached to a broomstick to spy on the Italian embassy in Tirana - is on display in another museum depicting the work of the communist-era interior ministry.

In the age of the smartphone, both Maloku’s and the Sigurimi’s electronic gizmos now look quaintly crude - but they did their jobs, and Maloku went to prison convicted of hostile “agitation and propaganda”. He remembers singing Rolling Stones and Beatles songs in his underground cell to preserve his sanity.

Before the collapse of Albanian communism in 1990, the building that now houses the Museum of Surveillance was known as the “House of Leaves” - a pun referring to both its ivy-clad walls and the “leaves” of secret police files kept on citizens. During World War Two it was used by the Gestapo of the occupying Nazi forces.

Editing by Andrew Roche