Letter from Albania: The brutal custom of blood feuds (Part 1)

Agim Loci flashed a smile, and then a revolver, the barrel of which I’d noticed peeking out from beneath his red shirt. “In case of problems,” he said.

We sat drinking coffee in the Tirana International Hotel.

Loci was on and off his cell phone, having already brandished a pile of licenses the size of a blackjack shoe for my inspection, among them: a weapon’s permit, a government ID (he was a bodyguard for the justice department) and a card identifying him as an official missionary for Albania’s Committee for Nationwide Reconciliation (CNR).

I was interested in the last one.

A contact in Tirana had introduced me to Loci the day before, after I mentioned that I wanted to visit some Albanian families currently living in hiding because they were caught in the murderous, “eye for an eye” cycle of gjakmarrja, or a blood feud.

CNR was a nonprofit organization of a dozen coordinators and scores of volunteers countrywide aimed at eradicating blood feuds by brokering peace between warring Albanian families.

Some 1,600 families in Albania today were in hiding because of blood feuds, though some estimates put the figure much higher. There were families that had not been out of their homes for fives years or more, instead relying on a network of friends and distant relatives to deliver food, supplies and a little money.

More alarming was the estimate that more than 1,000 Albanian children could not go to school because of blood feuds, forced instead to remain in hiding with their families.

World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization that monitored Albania, said more than 5,000 had been killed in blood feuds since 1992.

CNR managed to reconcile about 50 feuds a year. But it also tracked 100 to 150 new ones annually.

For the traveler in Albania, all this just confirmed the foreignness of the place and seemed a damning indictment of the political and judicial institutions of a country currently being groomed by the west for eventual inclusion in the European Union and NATO, the latter having formally offered Albania membership this spring.

“It’s lack of justice that brings on these blood feuds,” CNR’s Director Gjin Marku told me. “Albanians don’t believe in justice. They believe justice is corrupted, and the state is also corrupted.”
I sat in Marku’s office, which doubled as the CNR’s headquarters: a two-room affair six floors above a shop that looked to traffic in hocked watches, tucked away down a nondescript Tirana alleyway.

A picture of Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian whose parents were from Kosovo, dominated a bookshelf over his right shoulder. Marku sat and smoked.

“The blood feud notion in Albania is directly stemming from the idea of preserving life,” he said, reaching over to drop ash into a potted palm near his desk.

“Blood keeps you alive. Blood is the main fuel of life. It is the main material for love. It comes from your heart. And it is directly related to every person. The notion of a blood feud is really ‘blood taking’, so in a way this is all about blood.”

The small Albanian flag on his desk, dark red with its frightening eagles flashing serpents’ tongues, looked a little more menacing for Marku’s words.

Blood feuds were sanctioned under the the 15th century Code of Lekë Dukagjini, a code of law that served as a blueprint for social conduct, governing everything from how to treat strangers and arrange marriages to how to pay taxes and settle property disputes.

The kanun, as the code was called in Albanian, justified bloodshed for any reproach on an individual’s honor; in some parts of the country, calling an Albanian man a liar in front of other men was grounds to be killed.

One of kanun’s main tenants was simple enough: blood must be paid for with blood.

But there were always strict rules governing that precept, namely that only the killer could be targeted in a blood feud.

When kanun began reasserting itself in Albanian life after the fall of communism — the dictator Enver Hoxha had prohibited blood feuds, and the iron grip of his regime left little room for following an ancient code of law — blood feuds emerged as something altogether different and more destructive.

As applied today, the family members of the killer, including women and children, were also targeted in blood feuds, according to Ismet Elezi, a law professor at Tirana University who was recognized to be Albania’s foremost scholar on kanun.

The result: Whole families confined to their homes, the one place a murder cannot be avenged under kanun.

For a feud to end, a family had to decide not to seek revenge. That’s where the CNR came in: volunteers, acting at first on behalf of families in hiding who want forgiveness, performed a type of grassroots shuttle diplomacy, going back and forth between the families concerned until some deal could be reached.

Reconciling was not cheap. Families could pay thousands of dollars to buy forgiveness from their avengers. And for any of this to happen, enough time had to have elapsed.

It was difficult to correctly apply kanun in modern Albania, Marku said. Society was shifting. “Today we don’t have the same hierarchy in the family for kanun to serve at its best,” he said. “Kanun was developed as a code of law, but one of tribal traditions rather than political ones. Still, Albanians have this deep respect for kanun.”

While talking to Marku, a man, Pal Della, from the northern town of Puka, entered the office and in conversation told me he had stolen away from his home to meet with Marku because his family wanted to buy its way out of hiding. They’d been confined to their home for five years. Della rarely left his house.

“When I go out, I must be careful,” he said.

It was Marku who introduced me to Agim Loci, a CNR coordinator in charge of greater Tirana, where 114 families were thought to be in hiding.

“He can take you to meet some families,” Marku said.

I agreed to meet him the next day.

Yesterday: One man whose legacy still haunts Albania
Tomorrow: The brutal custom of Albanian blood feuds (Part 2)