WE RECEIVED THE NEWS of Uncle John's death in a letter that came in a small envelope with a black stripe handpainted across the upper left corner. All letters from Albania are opened and read by the censors, and this one, from a cousin, said several kind things about the authorities.

The cousin wrote of the party's thoughtfulness in allowing the body of Uncle John to be buried in the cemetery of his ancestors, "next" to a 300-year-old church of the Virgin Mary. The church, I knew, was no longer standing. The local party organization had long ago decided that it needed the stones and ceramic tiles to build a public bath. But the cemetery (minus the crosses marking the graves, which had been removed along with all other symbols of religious belief throughout Albania) was still there and received the remains of Uncle John.

Uncle John died a victim of one of the world's cruelest systems of political repression -- the little-publicized Albanian "gulag archipelago," in which 40,000 persons in a population of 2.8 million are held in harsh, inhuman conditions for alleged political offenses.

He was 93 at the time of his death in 1982, and had spent the last 32 years of his life being punished for having been a leading personality in the Greek community in southern Albania when the communists took control after 1944. In 1950, the communist party organization in his home town declared him a "kulak" (rich peasant); the regional prosecutor charged him with failure to pay tax on property confiscated four years earlier, and sent him to prison for eight years. After his release, he was transferred to "internal exile" in northern Albania, where he worked under guard in a labor brigade.

The gulag's population is diverse; it includes ethnic Greeks from the south; Albanian Catholics from along the Yugoslav border regions, and Albanian Moslems from throughout the country. Their "crimes" include alleged agitation against the state, illegally practicing religion, pre- World War II "anti-revolutionary" activity, and a host of other offenses such as "Titoism," "pro-Soviet revisionism," and "economic crimes" (such as keeping small amounts of food produced by state farms to supplement children's diets).

As a Greek who escaped from Albania in 1952, I am most familiar with the plight of the Greek minority, from which many inhabitants of the gulag are recruited. Of the 40,000 political prisoners in Albania, probably 15,000 are Greeks who reside mostly in the south, between the Adriatic seaport of Vlore and the Greek border.

Since the late '40s, the Albanian authorities have sought to eradicate ethnic Greeks as a distinct minority -- first by intimidating, imprisoning and executing prominent leaders and later by encouraging intermarriage with Moslems and providing economic incentives to leave Greek communities.

Albania claims that there are now no more than 50,000 Greeks living in the country. Greek officials claim that it is more like 400,000. A more realistic estimate would be 250,000 people. These individuals are repeatedly subjected to trumped-up charges.

In 1979, for example, Christos Belos from Korce was arrested and condemned to 25 years in prison for the "political crime" of refusing to drink a toast to Hoxha's health. Belos appealed and his sentence was later reduced to 20 years.

Another example of what the regime views as a "political crime" by Greeks living within Albania's borders is that of Lazos Zikos from the tiny hamlet of Longo. He was arrested in 1980 for displaying "too much enthusiasm" during a dance performance by a Greek folklore group and is still in prison.

Among the persecuted have been at least 23 close relatives. They include Uncle John; my older brother Gregory (executed at 24 in 1953 as a Greek "spy"); and numerous cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews, most of whom have been imprisoned and tortured and now live in remote exile.

But Greeks are only one segment of the persecuted.

The man behind this repression is a paranoid political survivor by the name of Enver Hoxha, 76, a former school teacher who has led the Albanian communist party since 1941, and Albania since 1945. His declared ambition is the creation of the first truly socialist system on earth. Towards this end, he has conducted an unrelenting power struggle at the top and a massive campaign to wipe out every vestige of non-socialist customs and beliefs.

The history of communist rule in Albania is a history of recurring purges, mass arrests and campaigns of "ideological purification." In 1948, when President Josip Broz Tito in neighboring Yugoslavia broke with Stalinism, the Albanian party was purged of "Titoites and revisionists"; in 1960, top leaders were executed as "modern revisionists and Khrushchevites"; in 1977, attention was turned to the "pro-Chinese elements" and in December 1981 Hoxha's prime minister of 28 years, Mehmet Shehu, "committed suicide" and then was denounced as an agent of the KGB, the CIA and the Yugoslav secret service.

Shehu, an old revolutionary who had distinguished himself as a commanding officer of a brigade in the Spanish Civil War, apparently was the victim of a long-standing personal feud going back to when Hoxha imprisoned Shehu briefly in 1946.

None of this brutal history deterred Hoxha from making the preposterous statements at his last major public appearance in 1982 that "there are no political prisoners in Albania," and "there is absolute freedom of the press ."

It was an astonishing claim, considering the information I have obtained from Greek and Yugoslav officials, escaped inmates of the Albanian prison system, and documents on file with the Greek ministry of defense and its intelligence service, which list prisoners by name and place of internment.

Seventeen escapees reached Greece in 1983 and provided verifiable evidence. Nine other escapees, including five Greeks who came out between May and October 1984, confirm that the situation has not improved despite signs that the traditionally isolationist Albanian government is finally following the path of other communist countries in opening up to Western trade and modest cultural exchanges. The regime last August received a visit from West German conservative politician Franz-Josef Strauss.

These international overtures have been accompanied by stepped-up police activities against possible "enemies." A Greek forester walking on the Greek side of the border was shot by an Albania border guard Sept. 16, and a French skin diver was slain by a bullet fired by a coastal guard a few months earliers.

The Albanian gulag consists of three categories of institutions: six major prisons for political crimes, containing 4,300 prisoners, some of whom are named and others identified only by number; nine prisons holding some 9,700 inmates serving lesser sentences; 14 new prison institutions with 18,000 inmates, in which inmates serve "heavy prison terms" combined with hard labor. Finally, there are thousands in internal exile: Greeks from the south who have been sent to Moslem parts of the north, and Moslem villagers who have been relocated to formerly Greek villages.

There is almost a rough and ready "justice" in Albania's permanent purges, with today's persecutors becoming tomorrow's persecuted. The story of communist functionary Zisis Karvelas is a case in point. As prosecutor general for the Sarande district in the south, Karvelas was responsible for jailing several hundred "class enemies."

Among those he sent to prison was his mother, who had hidden two kilos of olive oil, produced in her basement (an illegal act), and used some of it to fry eggs for her politically powerful son. Karvelas saw in his mother's action "anti-regime" behavior -- and an opportunity for a promotion. He argued in court that his mother's action with the olive oil undermined the "whole effort by the party to create a socialist consciousness" and demanded the "application of the law." She was imprisoned for two months, and for months after her conviction party organizations of Sarandes were praising Zisis Karvelas as a "model communist."

But when the party line changed in 1961, Karvelas was arrested and imprisoned as a "pro-Soviet modern revisionist." Soon after that he died from torture and malnutrition.

Similarly, Col. Evangelos V. Tzomakas from the southern village of Grashdan had every reason to be happy with his station in the Albanian regime. An officer on the Albanian general staff who participated in the wartime anti-German resistance, he could not prove his non-involvement in a "plot with Greece, the U.S. Sixth Fleet and Soviet revisionism" aimed at the overthrow of the regime. He spent 10 years in prison and died in 1963 of tuberculosis, three days after he was set free for "health reasons."

The most notorious of all Albanian prisons is located in the small mountain town of Burrel north of Tirana, the capital. It contains 400 political prisoners, some of whom have been behind bars since 1948 and have not been affected by amnesty. Many of them serve life terms. Several have died as a result of tortures during the early years of the regime and others have been executed in its courtyard. All prisoners of Burrel are there for "political crimes."

The Burrel jail is a castle-like remnant of the Ottoman Empire, with thick stone walls and a few iron-barred windows, most of which have no glass panels. During sub- freezing weather the prisoners huddle together in small unheated rooms to keep warm. Water seeps through the thick stone wall and drips down in puddles to the cell floor even during summer months, according to a former inmate.

Visitors to the Burrel and Martanesh prisons have seen on remote corners of the prison courtyard several ugly-looking cubicles, one meter square and two meters high. They are constructed with heavy boards, tied together with bolts, but with wide cracks between them. This contraption, nicknamed beroutsa (a cloak, in Albanian slang) by the inmates, holds the prisoners in total isolation, and there is no space to lie down. The wide cracks between the boards provide ventilation, but also let in the freezing winter cold or savage summer heat.

By time-honored Albanian tradition, it was considered beneath Albanian dignity to imprison women. Even when women protested food shortages in the 1948-55 period, they were ignored. Albanian folk songs refer to "prisons built for brave men, not for women." Since 1960, however, the Hoxha prison system no longer discriminates because of sex, ethnic origin or religion.

When Albanian men were silenced with heavy sentences in the 1950s, women picked up the mantle of dissidence. Evdoxia K., who is still alive in Albania, denounced the regime for "starving us to death" and publicly stated that it was "preferable to work for the old-time local landlord than to starve." She was hauled down to a police station in the Sarande district and beaten by a sadistic security official who left the marks of his two silver rings all over her face until she agreed to appear before the "offended people," recant her glorification of the past and "praise the party." Women who protest living conditions now, however, are not treated as leniently. Many end up in Burrel with long jail sentences.

(The bully who spoiled Evdoxia's good looks in cruel fury is the late T. Klemos, who later was shot dead while torturing a prisoner who managed to grab his gun.)

Religious persecution has been harsh in the Greek Orthodox Christian communities. In 1967, a Rev. Papathodoris was imprisoned for eight years for refusing to be publicly shaven and defrocked when Enver Hoxha declared Albania "the first atheist state in the world." Papathodoris was the only one among 42 priests who strenuously and publicly objected to the humiliation of being denied his God and his beard. He died in prison.

One young man was imprisoned for failing to inform the authorities of the escape of his younger brother to Greece. The latter, guilt- ridden for causing the imprisonment of his brother, returned to Albania via Italy to prove that his brother knew nothing of his plans, and to take care of his 86-year-old mother. He was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison with heavy labor for the crime of escaping. Under torture, he finally agreed to falsely "confess" that his brother had indeed helped him escape -- resulting in a longer sentence for the brother.

The Albanian gulag even has a political prison for "senior citizens." It is Prison 309 located in the northern town of Spac, where some 300 elder prisoners are held. Formerly affluent people and intellectuals, they are viewed by the regime as dangerous "walking historians." The prisoners of Spac can hardly be considered a threat to the regime since, at best, they have only a few years to live. Apparently they know too much about past, including Hoxha's.

They know of his early bourgeois life style, his alleged love affairs with the Konti sisters (daughters of a wealthy Greek merchant who lived in Tirana until 1945) and the story of how Hoxha received a royal commission from the regime of the late King Zog to study law in France.

Albanian authorities apparently attempt to separate political offenders according to the crime they have supposedly committed: pro- Soviet "revisionists" in Prison 313 outside Tirana; "economic offenders" in Vlore prison; and "class enemies" in Spac, together with the gulag's senior citizens.

Prison 313 houses more than 200 army officers linked to the 1975 "plot" in which former minister of defense and politboro member Beqir Baluku were executed for collusion with the Soviet "social imperialists,'according to recent escapees.

Somehow the spirit of the Albanian political prisoners has not been broken. Several years ago, I learned from a highly-placed Greek intelligence source of an unprecedented prison uprising -- never, to my knowledge, reported until now.

It took place in Prison 303 near Martanesh in five days in May 1973, after authorities placed eight inmates in isolation for pleading that they were too weak to march to work. They claimed they were hungry, weak and sick, and requested to be left alone for a day to regain their strength.

When the authorities refused, a prisoner identified as A.E. Pal raised an iron bar (the tool assigned to him for moving boulders) and struck prison guard Medi Njogu, killing him instantly. Pal then struck a second guard, a security corporal, seriously wounding him, but was overpowered and arrested on the spot. No prisoners were marched to work that day. Instead they milled around in the prison courtyard still holding tools, including axes and shovels.

By mid-afternoon, the prisoners spontaneously began to shout slogans against the regime, and raised the Albanian flag after tearing off its red star, a symbol added by the communist regime. Some slogans were painted on prison walls, including one demanding a visit by a United Nations representative to hear their grievances.

The next day the entire prison population reassembled in the courtyard and repeated the slogans of the previous day, including the demand for a U.N. representative. On the third day, the prison was surrounded by 400 soldiers brought from the Tirana garrison, led by Gen. Kasem Kaci, the chief of police. To Gen. Kaci's appeal to surrender, the prisoners repeated their demand for a U.N. representative and added a request to meet with the minister of interior.

The stalemate continued all day. Gen. Kaci, however, did take some action: He cut off all water and food supplies to the prisoners. On May 25, Kaci was joined by the deputy minister of interior, Fecor Shehu. He repeated the "advice" of the chief of police that the prisoners surrender or be shot. The prisoners responded in unison: "vdeqje a liri" (freedom or death). Finally, the prisoners agreed to surrender after receiving a vague promise of immunity. But when they marched out in pairs through a back door, they were immediately handcuffed and thrown into isolation cells.

The next day, Kaci announced over the loudspeakers the executions of prisoners A.E. Pal, Skender Daja, Dervish Beiko and Liri Pasha (a 35-year-old woman). Approximately 80 other prisoners have not been heard of since the revolt, and are presumed dead. It is the first known and adequately documented prisoners' revolt in Albania in recent years.

During the past year, political terror has acquired a new impetus. Massive purges and arrests involving followers of the late Prime Minister Mehmet Shehu are still underway. People have disappeared during the middle of the night and execution of "enemies" reportedly have taken place in Vlore, Gjirokaster and Tirana. Among those rumored executed are Kadri Hazbiu, defense minister, and Fecor Shehu, interior minister -- the man who put down the 1973 prison riot.