Feti Gjici in one of the tunnels. Photograph: Antonio Çakshiri

Feti Gjici in one of the tunnels. Photograph: Antonio Çakshiri

For nearly two decades, Feti Gjici worked on a project that was so secret he was made to lock the plans away in a safe before leaving his office each evening. He never spoke of it to his friends or family.

Gjici was the chief planner of the town of Kukës, in northern Albania, working during the years of the country’s communist regime, led by the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha. The paranoid and isolationist leader was terrified of impending war and built hundreds of thousands of concrete bunkers to defend his population against the threat of invasion.

In Kukës, not far from the border with socialist Yugoslavia, things were taken a step further. Gjici’s task, beginning in the early 1970s and ending only with the collapse of the regime in 1991, was to build an underground replica of Kukës 30 metres below the overground town.

The first plans, in the early 1970s, were for a series of bomb shelters. As the 1980s went on, on the orders of army bosses, Gjici added ever more tunnels and rooms to the subterranean project, including space for a printing press, a hospital and a bakery. Then, electricity and water networks were added. There was to be an army command centre, a police point and a courtroom. The idea was that 10,000 people should be able to live self-sufficiently underground for a period of up to six months.

“Of course, in a time of war, things might run at reduced capacity, but the idea was to replicate the entire city underground,” recalled Gjici, now 72.

Read more: