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Albania: Blood Feuds -- Revenge Makes Fear, Isolation A Way Of Life (Part 2)

  • Jolyon Naegele

Perhaps more than any other city in Albania, the northern town of Shkoder has suffered from the upheaval that rocked the country through much of the 20th century. Once a prosperous town with a richly diverse population, Shkoder has been reduced to a battered shell where an influx of immigrants from the country's mountain territories have brought their age-old traditions of feuding and blood vengeance. In this second of a three-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from Shkoder on the failure of the state and society to stem the growing predominance of blood feuds.

Shkoder, Albania; 12 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A century ago, Shkoder, known by its Italian name Scutari, was a gem of a city. It was famed for its Ottoman mansions, tree-lined streets, and immense covered bazaar. It was also home to a rich blend of cultures and religions, with Albanians, Montenegrins, Venetians, and Turks, Catholics, Orthodox Jews, and Muslims all living together.

But Shkoder's prosperity didn't last. It was subjected to a succession of assaults from the Balkan wars of the early 20th century -- which witnessed the city's partial destruction and occupation by Montenegro -- through World Wars I and II, to the communist razing of the bazaar in the 1960s, an earthquake in 1979, and the sporadic unrest of the 1990s.

Moreover, the massive migration of over 600,000 Albanians to Greece and Italy left Shkoder open for a wave of internal migrants from the country's mountain districts, bringing with them their ancient traditions of blood feuds and revenge. These social codes are part of the ancient tradition of the "kanun," unwritten customary laws that have come to take precedence over state laws in northern Albania.

Policeman Ardian Onuzi is one Shkoder resident whose life reflects the changes this city of 80,000 people has undergone in recent years. Onuzi was the first officer to appear on the scene of a double murder in a Shkoder bar in August. The assailant turned out to be Onuzi's step-brother, who he had not seen since he was nine years old. But despite turning over his step-brother to police, Onuzi has since become the target of the two victims' families, who are seeking retribution for the slayings.

Now, armed with a pistol and a Kalashnikov rifle, Onuzi has stayed locked in his ground-floor flat for over a month.

"I'm a realist. I received no threats or warnings. But since the kanun rules this city, Shkoder, I decided to go into isolation for 40 days."

Onuzi says he will have to return to work in order to support his family, whom he has sent into hiding. He says he hopes the victims' relatives will understand that he has had no contact with the assailant or his family for some 22 years.

Seeking advice, Onuzi contacted the All-National Albanian Reconciliation Mission, an organization that works to intervene in such blood feuds. Onuzi said mission representatives recommended that he follow the rules of the kanun and remain at home until the families of the victims are convinced that he is only a step-brother on his mother's side.

If he had shared the same father as the murderer, the consequences would have been far worse. Some interpretations of the kanun say that all male relatives of a murderer can be targets of what Albanians call "gjakmarrja," or blood vengeance. According to the kanun, "blood is paid for with blood."

But many Albanians -- like the reconciliation mission's Smail Guri, whose nephews were the two men killed in the attack -- say the postcommunist chaos of the past 10 years have let this former principle of honor spin out of control.

"In fact, young men have little idea of what the kanun is all about. Depending on circumstances, the kanun can be helpful or harmful. The kanun does not correspond to reality and has become totally twisted."

Reconciliation between feuding families can sometimes be as simple as a vow from one family not to pursue revenge. In other cases, resolution of a feud can be bought. The going rate is about $1,000 -- usually paid in cash over coffee, with the banknotes slipped under the saucer so as not to cause offense. But in some cases, neither a family's word nor its money is enough to satisfy the need for revenge.

Emin Spahia, chairman of the reconciliation mission, calls the return of tribal law and blood vengeance "the clearest case in which the state is not functioning."

"The absence of state control is the main reason. There are two reasons to push a family into a blood feud. First of all anger, and secondly local opinion pushing the family to take revenge. When the state functions properly, following a murder there is only anger over the loss of a close relative but not the need for revenge. And public opinion has no influence."

Spahia says murders now account for more than 70 percent of all the deaths of young men in the Shkoder area. The problem had gotten so bad that one section of the city -- "Lagjia e Gjakut," or "neighborhood of blood" -- is solely occupied by people living in self-imposed isolation due to blood feuds. But the number of families living in this small, well-guarded neighborhood has dropped this year from 50 to 18.

Spahia credits the work of the reconciliation mission with the decline. Still, he says, much work remains to be done in Shkoder -- where even the local theater director and municipal council chairman lives in isolation and is forced to conduct his duties from his apartment.

"What can you say about a society in which you have intellectuals, personalities like the chairman of the municipal council, commune chairman all living in isolation? Plenty of kids are being raised in such stress and tension."

A recent study highlights the waning influence of state laws nationwide in the decade following the collapse of communism. Between the 1930s and the late 1950s, the percentage of murders involving blood vengeance and revenge dropped from 42 percent to just one percent. Between 1965 and 1990, there was only one case of a blood-vengeance murder.

But pent-up antagonisms spilled over with communism's collapse. Between 1991 and 1995, nearly 10 percent of murders in the country involved revenge. The figures soared even higher during the 1997 anarchy. According to the Ministry for Public Order, nearly 30 percent of murders in Albania that year stemmed from blood feuds and revenge.

Part of the problem, some experts say, is that Albanian legislation currently treats blood vengeance as a lesser crime than murder. Many murders committed in the name of blood vengeance, in other words, may only be invoking family honor and the kanun as a way of escaping stricter punishment.

Politicians trade accusations over who is to blame for the situation. Democratic Party Chairman and former President Sali Berisha says the ruling Socialists are to blame for being soft on crime and abolishing the death penalty, which he says would act as a more effective deterrent against murder. Berisha says that since 1997, when the Socialists came to power, there have been arrests in only 20 percent of the country's 3,000 murder cases. Such lax standards, he says, only contribute to the ease of revenge killings.

"In some way, governments and organized crime [even] encourage [blood] revenge and the vendetta -- which was an old, unhappy Albanian tradition."

But Albania's current president, Socialist Rexhep Meidani, insists state laws are adequate and are being applied throughout Albania: "There was a misconception of law, of the new legal system. But I believe that now we see that a lot of efforts have been done by different groups -- groups of reconciliation -- helping to avoid this phenomenon of revenge."

Meidani says that with cooperative efforts between the government and groups like the All-National Albanian Reconciliation Mission, the phenomenon of blood vengeance will eventually be eradicated.

Spahia says his reconciliation mission is working with the German government to enact a common law in northern Albania where the kanun is still strong. Under the new rule, responsibility for a murder would lie solely with the killer and not his family. He says his group will work to build close contacts with every tribe, family, commune, and village in the region in order to assure that the law is broadly enforced.

This effort will be followed next summer with a national convention outside Shkoder at which a declaration is due to be issued limiting, if not ending, the conduct of blood feuds. But some Albanians say that issuing such a declaration without also bolstering state legislation is short-sighted. As long as the police fail to catch murderers and bring them to justice, they say, the public will continue to take the law into its own hands.