Over 30 years ago, Lazer Lekani faked his own death to escape Communist Albania. Now the Surfside Businessman praises his new homeland as…
“A Country To Die For”
In a small town in Communist controlled Albania, a small boy would sit in his room each night quietly listing to a radio using a makeshift antenna he had carefully run to the top of his house.
He knew the danger of staying up each night listening to broadcasts from throughout Europe and beyond. If he got caught, his father and maybe more of his family would be exiled to the mineral fields for 25 years.
Lazer Lekani was 10 years old in 1977 and knew in his heart that there had to be a better place beyond the barbed wire boarder surrounding his country. He just couldn’t believe that the rest of the world had to deal with the oppression and atrocities that he lived through every day.
Then over the homemade antenna, Lazer picked up “Voice of America,” which became his window of truth for years to come.
As the young of 14, he began to put together an elaborate plan to escape the Communist bondage – a plan that would rival the best suspense movie or novel.
Today, Lazer and his wife and three children own a business in Surfside Beach, Lazer’s Pizza on U.S. 17 Business.
His journey from that small town in Albania to the Grand Strand is filled with amazing struggles, terror and finally joy.
Lazer appreciates every day that he lives and breaths as a free American, calling his adopted home “a country to die for”.
After seeing so many terrible things in his young life, Lazer decided at the age of 14 to come up with a plan to escape Albania. He knew that it couldn’t be done on a whim.
The boarder guards would definitely shoot him if he got caught trying to leave and if he managed to pull off the feat, the government would take revenge on his family left behind.
Lazer said he would spend days staring across the mountains to neighboring Yugoslavia and often he would question the government’s actions with friends.
“I wasn’t one to hide my emotions even though I knew I should”, he said.
With everyone always under the watchful eye of the military and secret intelligence police, it wasn’t long before he realized his every move was being scrutinized, even as a teenager.
A friend tipped him off that a neighbor across the street was keeping him under surveillance. The neighbor was wondering why his light was on late at night and why he kept staring across the border.
As part of his plan, he began to take notes of friends with local army and town leaders, listening to their stories and keeping careful mental notes of the habits and routines of the local military. For two years he actually served in the military, again noting their capabilities and how they handled escapees.
When he returned home, he would visit a friend who lived atop a mountain overlooking the Adriaticea. He made sure his neighbor assigned to watch him knew that he actually had a friend who lived up the mountain.
But most of the time, instead of visiting his friend, Lazer would actually sit on the high perch watching the Albanian gunboats patrol the waters offshore. After several months, he knew their exact routines and whn they would pass certain points along the coast.
By the time he turned 21, Lazer knew it was time to make his escape from Albania.
A friend had invited him to visit his in-laws who lived within 10 miles of the boarder. To get that close to the barbed wire separating Albania and Yugoslavia, he had to get special permission from the military, a process that took about two weeks. With the special permission, the military would be alerted that he was someplace other than his hometown.
When they arrived for the visit, his friend pointed out a large tree with branches hanging over the boarder fence. I would be very easy to climb the tree, drop into the next country and be home free. But Lazer couldn’t do it.
“If i had done that , they would have taken my friend, his family and maybe my family and either killed them or sent them to prison” he said. “I couldn’t live with myself knowing my freedom cost them so much”.
So instead, he put together his elaborate plan to escape the country with the least possible consequences for everyone. He knew that if it was obvious he had escaped, everyone left behind would suffer, so he had to get away without anyone suspecting he had escaped – at least for a while.
His plan was to swim out into the Adriatic Sea,, out of Albanian waters, and then move parallel to the shore until he crossed the border.
It was not unusual in Albania for people to be killed, especially by military or secret intelligence, so Lazer decided to fake his own death.
“I used turtle blood and scattered it all over my house, even putting bloody hand prints everywhere,” he said. “I left the door open so that it looked like someone had taken my body away”.
He knew that his family would be devastated by the news of his death, but he couldn’t tell anyone of his plan.
Using pieces of an old rubber inner tube, he fashioned some swim fins and secured them tightly to his wrists. He knew he would need the extra help in plow through the waters of the sea. He also carried with him an inner tube to cling to when he got tired.
Under the cover of darkness he jumped into the Adriatic Sea at 9 pm on July 15, 1989. From his months of observations, he knew this would give him time to get some distance off shore before the gun boats made their rounds.
When the Navy boats approached, he remembered their big lights could only be used for a minute or so or else they would burn out. Whenever the lights would come near him he would be as still as possible, ducking under the water until the boats moved on. He had to play this cat and mouse game for hours, heading out to sea.
As daylight approached, his body grew weary and he wished he had brought along water to drink, especially as the July sun rose higher in the sky. As the hours dragged on, he grew more tired. The dehydration and fatigue began to cause him to hallucinate.
He decided to just hang on to the inner tube and put everything else in God’s hands.. Finally about 5 p.m. the net day, some fishing boats approached. He wasn’t sure if he had drifted back into Albanian territory or if these were Yugoslavian vessels.
They turned out to be Yugoslavian fisherman who rescued him and took him to shore in the neighboring small country of Montenegro. He had made it to freedom.
Lazer said he found out later that the Albanians had looked for him for about three months before calling off the search.
As a political refugee, he was housed in a prison, but he is quick to point out that everyone treated him well and took good care of him.
He was allowed to contact the United States embassy and was eventually sponsored by the Catholic Church to come to America.
His first residence in his new country was in Grand Rapids, Mich.
After he took a three month course to learn English, he wound u working in a restaurant in Boston; starting as a busboy and working his way up to be a chef.
“I always wanted to own my own business and America gave me the opportunity”,. Laser said. “I would never have had this chance in Albania”.
Five years after leaving Albania, Lazer became an American citizen.
“I am an adopted sone of America,” he said. “as a political refugee, I was a person with no home, but a lot of ambition. America gave me a home”.
When the Communist regime collapsed in Albania, Lazer returned to his homeland to see his family again. While there he met Valbona, who later became Mrs. Lekani.
The tow returned to America and Valbona agreed to help Lazer follow his dream of owning a restaurant. They set up business in Ware, Mass.
Lazer proudly points out that when Valbona took the American citizenship test in 2005, she aced it getting all 110 questions correct.
They had vacationed in Myrtle Beach and decided they wanted to move to the area.
So they pulled up stakes and headed to South Carolina.
“We found this place here in Sufrfside Beach and knew this was where we wanted to be”, Lazer said.
“Everyone with the town has been so helpful in helping us get open”,
As to hes struggle to get to this point in life, Lazer said every American should know how special this country is.
“Communism is an ideology of evil”, he said. “Americans need to realize how wonderful it is to live in this great country and how America has helped the rest of the world”.
Story by Tom O’dare
Myrtle Beach Herald October 4, 2013