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Albania: Blood Feuds -- Forgotten Rules Imperil Everyone (Part 3)

  • Jolyon Naegele

According to Albania's ancient social code or "kanun," one person may kill another to avenge an earlier murder. This principle of "gjakmarrja," or blood vengeance, has seen a popular revival in the relative chaos of postcommunist Albania. But such "blood for blood" killings, once strictly guided by the rules of the kanun and tight-knit tribal communities, are now conducted with little respect for or understanding of the kanun code. In the last of a three-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from the northern Albanian town of Koplik that even women and children are becoming the victims of blood vengeance.

Koplik, Albania; 12 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Koplik, a busy mountain town of some 3,000 inhabitants, lies between the banks of Lake Shkoder and the foot of a wild and nearly inaccessible mountain district running along the Montenegrin border.

It is in a part of Albania where the laws of the Albanian state take second place to the Kanun of Lek Dukagjini, a traditional oral code transcribed only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Part of the kanun code is the right to avenge one killing with another. But as Albania's ancient traditions are forgotten and the country's once-tight social structure collapses, the kanun is increasingly vulnerable to loose interpretation. Once only a murderer could be targeted for revenge. But now entire families can bear responsibility for the action of a single member.

The Kurtis are one such family. Musa Kurti is a retired fisherman and the head of a 15-member household that includes three adult sons. The entire family has been housebound for a year -- living in self-imposed isolation out of fear for their lives.

A year ago, Musa's nephew, Gjevahir, shot and killed a man in the course of an argument. Gjevahir fled and has never been caught. Musa says the family of the dead man would be satisfied with Gjevahir's death alone. But in his absence, they have extended their wrath to include his entire family -- including his five grandchildren.

Musa Kurti says Albanian law plays no factor in his current dilemma. Even if his nephew were tried and put in jail, he says, the dead man's family would continue to seek revenge according to the principle of "gjakmarrja", or "blood for blood." Kurti calls the situation "absurd": "Until now, no law has existed in Albania. So we've had to abide by the code of Lek Dukagjini, something we never knew or had anything to do with. We have to obey the code and remain in isolation after such a killing takes place."

Kurti says he knows the basic rules of the kanun but has never actually read it. Albania's ancient oral codes -- which were only fully transcribed by the early 20th century -- fell out of use during the country's communist rule. Now, in the chaos that has followed the collapse of communism, many Albanians -- particularly those in the north, where links remain strong to the country's tribal past -- have returned to the kanun. But few have actually read the codes or have a clear understanding of how they should be used.

Ismet Elezi is a law professor in the Albanian capital Tirana. He says that despite the kanun's rich history -- possibly dating back some 2,000 years -- the transcribed versions are not always an accurate reflection of the original social codes:

"Naturally, the oral tradition of the kanun was far richer [than the written versions] and too many things are missing or were changed or modified over the years from century to century. The first written version of the kanun was in the 19th century, while the Kanun of Laberia [in southwestern Albania] was only transcribed in the 1950s."

Elezi says the kanun has been adjusted over time to take into account technological and political changes, such as the development of firearms and the imposition of communist rule. But he adds the transcriptions often resulted in certain exaggerations, especially in reference to the role of the church. A non-religious code that was used by Muslims and Christians alike, the kanun in the 20th century was adapted in some versions to include rules from the Roman Catholic Church.

Albania's best-known contemporary writer, Ismail Kadare, used the kanun as the central theme of his acclaimed novel "Broken April," written in the 1970s, when blood feuds were a thing of the past. ("Broken April" has been adapted for film three times, most recently in "Behind the Sun" by Brazilian director Walter Salles.)

Kadare says the resurgence of blood vengeance in Albania is less a return to the ways of the kanun than an angry reaction to the former communist regime: "[Blood vengeance] is a caricature of the kanun, a stigmatization of it. We don't have the real face of the kanun. Reaction to the communist form of communication resulted in the revival of the kanun as a form of nostalgia."

Law professor Elezi says the failure of the government to provide a legitimate alternative to the kanun has contributed in large part to the return of blood vengeance: "Instead of revering the kanun as a cultural monument, [the people] are using it as a judicial act. Instead of applauding its historical value, they are actually applying it."

In northern Albania, few clan and tribal leaders are well-versed in the kanun, despite its popularity. The result, Elezi says, are families who take broad liberties in their interpretation of the kanun's codes.

Formerly, when a killer fled before his victim's relatives could seek revenge, only the male members of his family could be held responsible in his stead -- and then only for a limited time, usually a week. Now, Elezi says, entire families can suffer the consequences of an absent relative's action, and for months and years at a time: "If the damaged party cannot find the murderer they have to resolve the blood feud in a certain way. The only party they can deal with is the killer's family, so that's why they target them."

For the Kurti family in Koplik, this has meant a drastic change in their way of life. When Musa checked into the local hospital for an operation, his wife, Bade, was forced to stand guard by his bedside for 10 days to make sure he wasn't attacked. And any work done outside the house -- even in the garden -- is now be done by the Kurti women. For safety reasons, the men must remain inside.

Bade Kurti cares for the family's animals, does the shopping, chops wood and does the chores usually divided among several men. Her voice is tired and sad as she describes her family's plight: "It's very hard, terribly hard. We have five grandchildren here. Two of them used to go to school, but now they have to stay home. There are 15 people living in this house all day long and we have only a tiny income. It's hard."

Musa Kurti says one of his adult sons returned home from Italy, where he was working, fearing his life might be in danger even there. Blood vengeance killings of Albanians have been heard of as far away as Canada and the United States. Musa says the family's children, who range in age from one to 13, are also not considered safe.

"Even though the Kanun of Lek Dukagjini doesn't apply to revenge against children, we have had murders here in northern Albania in which children -- even those who are 10, 11, 12 years old -- have been killed for blood vengeance.

Emin Spahia is the chairman of the national mission tasked with helping families involved in blood feuds seek reconciliation alternatives. He says the kanun clearly exempts women and children from isolation, but says it so rarely read that women and children are now being targeted more and more.

"This situation concerning blood vengeance has deteriorated. Recently, young women and children, even an 11-year-old, were murdered. It's said they were killed as part of a blood feud. But this doesn't make sense. So it is no longer the kanun that is involved in this story. The values of the kanun have nothing to do with what is going on. What is going on now is nothing more than crime."

Spahia says the Kurtis are just one of about 70 families living in self-imposed isolation in the district. An estimated 2,800 families are believed be suffering similar fates throughout the country. Spahia says in the case of the Kurtis, he believes the capture of the murderer would considerably contribute to the ability of the two families to reach an agreement. But he adds he is "confident" the family's suffering will end soon.

For now, however, the Kurtis continue to live in fear and isolation. "We wish we could just live like everyone else and go out and enjoy life," Musa Kurti says. "But we can't and it's very difficult for us."