Albania Takes Aim at a Deadly Tradition

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."

The rules governing Albania's blood feuds have been passed down orally as part of the code known as kanun, which prescribes practices of everyday life. While its more sexist pronouncements have been largely abandoned -- it states, for example, that a husband should receive a bullet in his dowry for punishing any future infidelity by his wife and describes a woman as "a sack, made to endure" -- those relating to vengeance remain in force in Albania's vast backcountry. Chapter 126 is titled "Blood is paid for with blood" and authorizes retaliation for any killing.

The country's rulers -- from the Ottomans, who reigned here for more than four centuries, to the communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled for 40 years until his death in 1985 -- have long sought to stamp out kanun in favor of their own legal systems. But kanun, which predated the Ottoman arrival here but was not put into print until the early 20th century, survived in the shadows, reemerging full-blown with the fall of communism in 1992. Paperback copies of the complete text are now available in kiosks throughout the country.

"Where there is no respectable order, kanun has always filled the vacuum," said Ismet Elezi, 87, a law professor at Tirana University who has studied kanun for more than 50 years. He said the version that emerged after Hoxha is particularly devastating for Albania because it permits retaliation against any family member of a killer, "even the baby in the cradle," according to one common version.

"This is a corruption of kanun, which was intended to bring an end to violence," he said.

Elezi said that modern blood feuds generally proceed as follows: A killing takes place, the victim's family demands blood retribution, then the members of the killer's family take refuge in their homes -- which are considered inviolate under kanun -- for at least 40 days and seek forgiveness. If forgiveness is granted or a life is taken in retaliation, the feud ends. Otherwise, the isolation period can continue indefinitely.

In recent years, as more of Albania's highlanders have come to more developed areas in search of jobs, feuds have emerged in Tirana, the capital, and in other cities. One such family, whose members asked that their last name not be used because they have been in hiding since 2002, lives on the top floor of a dilapidated apartment complex south of downtown Tirana.

Peter, 47, has two sons, Justin, 19, and Altin, 16, skinny youths who are several shades paler than the average Albanian. Ever since an uncle killed a neighbor in a dispute over severed power lines five years ago, the three have remained holed up at home, they said, venturing out only once, in an abortive effort to reach Greece. They stay away from the two-room apartment's lone window for fear of being shot.

"It is like jail, or even worse, because we didn't do anything," said Altin, who, unable to attend school, is learning Italian from television and English from a textbook purchased by his mother, the family's sole breadwinner. The old rules of feuds exempt women, although the family fears that their rivals won't respect that limit.

Peter has long sought to arrange for his family to leave the country. He keeps an orange binder with copies of letters written in recent years to aid groups and Albanian and foreign officials, along with receipts that show the mail was received. "We are in danger, and we are menaced from the family of the victim," reads a dispatch dated June 19, 2003, to the U.S. Embassy in Tirana. "Please help us save this family and [give] us the possibility to go abroad." None of the letters was answered, he said.

To remedy such situations, Marku, the reconciliation committee chairman, has taken to the countryside with a team of volunteers and government employees, attempting to mediate. It can be a dangerous business. In the northern city of Shkoder, considered the capital of the regions that follow kanun, a renowned mediator was himself murdered in 2004.

"There are no words to describe the way that children who are isolated feel and how much it hurts their development," said Mexhat Poja, 58, a government education official in Shkoder, a city of about 100,000 people.

With aid from UNICEF and a $100,000 grant from the Albanian government, Poja and others have provided textbooks and trained 32 teachers to home-school more than 60 children in the city who are housebound because of feuds. Last year, he organized an exhibition featuring art done by the children. Among the works displayed were a painting of a bird in a cage and another of a child breaking a rifle over his knee. But some feuds prove simply irreconcilable, crippling the ability of poor families to make ends meet.

Agim Loci, a bodyguard for a Tirana businessman, moonlights as a mediator of blood feuds in his home region near the bustling town of Fushe Kruje, east of Tirana. One of the families he works with, he said, has lost 17 people in recent years to a string of violent feuds.

"We meet with both sides and try to persuade them they are better off forgiving and moving on," he said. "Then we get them to sign an agreement and videotape it, just to be sure."

One recent day, Loci visited the Nicola family in the tiny village of Halil, northeast of Tirana. Last November, Fitim Nicola, 25, was shot dead in the street after a traffic dispute. His killer was sentenced to 23 years in prison, later reduced to 13 years.

Nicola, who was the only able-bodied man in the house, used to drive a truck around the area, selling lime. Now the truck has been sold, and his brother Skander, 37, who has a heart condition, is unemployed.

"I don't care if they try to stop me or not. I don't care if I get arrested," Skander Nicola said, his voice quavering and tears pooling as he sat on his living room sofa. "I will kill someone and make it one to one."

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