Albania Takes Aim at a Deadly Tradition

Razie Nicola and son Skander with a photo of Fitim Nicola, who was killed after a traffic dispute last year. Skander has vowed to avenge his brother.
Razie Nicola and son Skander with a photo of Fitim Nicola, who was killed after a traffic dispute last year. Skander has vowed to avenge his brother. (By Jonathan Finer -- The Washington Post)
By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 23, 2007

KURCAJ, Albania -- Their simple stone houses stand a hundred paces apart in this hillside village where men ride donkeys sidesaddle on slopes too steep for cars.

The Shima and Allushi families had been good neighbors for generations, sharing meals in times bountiful and lean, and helping run Kurcaj's affairs. Now, they are basically at war.

It began two years ago with a pool game between a man from the Allushi clan and a young Shima boy. When the child acted rudely, the man beat him bloody with a cue. The boy's father then fired what he said was intended to be a warning shot. It pierced a second-floor window in the Allushi home, killing a 12-year-old girl.

That violent exchange, members of both families recounted in interviews, began a blood feud, a centuries-old Albanian custom that is causing increasing concern in government and private social agencies. More than 800 Albanian families are locked in cycles of tit-for-tat killings, according to the Committee of Nationwide Reconciliation, a nonprofit group devoted to mediating such disputes.

"It was an accident, and we have sent representatives to their homes over and over again to apologize and to ask them to cool their anger against us," said Musa Shima, 77, the father of the killer. "But they just won't accept it. They say they want blood."

"A little girl was murdered," said Shaqir Allushi, 48, her father. "It will be avenged."

The blood feud, whose vengeful precepts trace the ancient code of an eye for an eye, has been practiced by communities as diverse as the samurai of feudal Japan and the bootleggers of Appalachian America, where the Hatfields and McCoys warred in the late 19th century. Mafia members in southern Italy still conduct reprisal killings they call vendettas, resulting recently in 60 murders in Naples over just two months.

But perhaps nowhere in the modern world do blood feuds remain as pervasive and damaging as in highland Albania, the poorest corner of Europe's second-poorest country. Often erupting from a minor disagreement or perceived slight, they can force those targeted to sequester themselves in their homes for years.

The Albanian government, which is focused on joining the European Union and has moved to revive a once-moribund economy, has long played down the severity and scope of the feuds. But last year, for the first time, it allocated funds to boost reconciliation efforts and provide teachers for children whose feuding families keep them locked in their homes for safety.

"Rule of law must triumph over kanun," Albania's prime minister, Sali Berisha, said in an interview, using the word for a code of honor. "I can't say we have eradicated it, but there is progress."

But those working to stop the feuds say change has been too slow in coming.

"These things should not happen in a modern society, and they are holding this country back," said Gjin Marku, who chairs the Committee of Nationwide Reconciliation, which trains mediators to resolve blood feuds. Above his desk is a photograph of Mother Teresa of Kolkata, the ethnic Albanian nun who devoted her life to the downtrodden. "There are far more feuds than I can even keep track of."

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