Letter from Albania: The brutal custom of blood feuds (Part 2)

When Agim Loci was 23, a good friend of his tried to rape a girl in their hometown of Fruhe Kruje.

The girl’s two brothers thwarted the attack at the last moment. But the matter did not stop there: The girl’s family wanted revenge. Loci did something surprising: He took his friend, tied him up and made him stand in a field before the girl’s entire family.

“I said, ‘If you want to kill him, kill him. But then his family will come and kill one of you’,” Loci recalled.

“Of course, nobody was going to kill him then.”

Loci told me this story in a taxi that inched through choking traffic heading out of Tirana.

We were going to meet with a few families living under the shadow of blood feuds, and I had asked him how he had gotten started as a volunteer peacemaker for the Albania’s Committee for Nationwide Reconciliation (CNR), which mediated between feuding families in order to broker peace without violence.

There were at least 1,600 families in Albania today thought to be in hiding because of blood feuds.

That incident in the field had been 14 years ago, but that was the first blood feud he resolved, Loci said. He’d resolved more than a dozen in recent years, and since he was in charge of a roster of CNR volunteers throughout greater Tirana, he’d probably had a hand in many more truces.

He was currently handling seven feuds, three of which were close to reconciling.

Loci was not a tall man, but he was powerful, someone you’d want clearing the way ahead of you on an end zone run. His day job was as a bodyguard and and I would come to see how his profession colored his work with Albanian families.

In the end, he was just protecting people.

Loci received no payment for his work with families, save for a small gift they’d give him when a feud ended.

He said he was setting an example for his three children. “I want my children to have the respect for life my father gave me.”
The afternoon spent with Loci
in Tirana’s outer suburbs was bookended by hope and despair.

Hope came first. It took the shape of Haziz Aruci.

Aruci, 56, was the patriarch of a family in Fushe Kruje. He sat at a round table in a noisy, second floor bar and told how a member of another family in town had murdered his nephew last year.

After some consideration and consultations with Loci, Aruci had decided not to seek revenge.

“We don’t want to look to much into it,” he said. “We want peace.”

Had the other family been in hiding since killing his nephew?

“Ha! Yes!” he said. “But you know what? We didn’t tell them to hide, or that we would kill!”

Loci and Aruci talked about finalizing plans for a video-taped ceremony during which all parties concerned would be present to shake hands, drink coffee (and maybe a little raki) and sign a formal statement that the feud was over.

“To have this peace in hand feels good,” Loci said. “It’s not the first time, but it feels good. The good thing about this is they’ll be no more violence.”

An end to violence seemed something that Tirana’s suburbs in particular needed.

There were one to two revenge killings a month here, Loci said. There were thought to be 40 families in Fushe Kruje alone who were hiding.

That fact was evidence of how blood feuds had molded to modern realities in Albania: A practice traditionally relegated to the tribal lands in the north of the country had migrated south to the capital – and beyond – with the peasants who had migrated here after communism, looking for better opportunities.

The Albanian government for years had been downplaying the extent of these blood feuds, preferring to say that they existed only in isolated pockets in the north.

But it seemed like the government no longer believed this. For the first time leaders pledged money last year — more than $100,000 – to the CNR to help with increased reconciliation efforts and to get more teachers and textbooks to the children kept out of school because of these blood feuds.

Leaders had also begun making bolder statements about blood feuds.

“Rule of law must triumph over kanun,” Prime Minister Sali Berisha told the Washington Post last year, using the Albanian word for the country’s ancient code of conduct. “I can’t say we have eradicated it, but there is progress.”

The CNR was poised to double the feuds it reconciled this year. Already to date, volunteers had brokered peace in 60 cases, compared with the 50 it managed in all last year. .

Earlier this year, the government amended the country’s criminal code to make blood feuds illegal and punishable with three years in jail.

But despite this good news, it still took a long time to get families to decide to end their feuds peacefully – usually more than a year of steady back-and-forth by people like Loci.

“It’s frustrating, because it takes time,” Loci told me. “You always have to wait.”

The Puci family knew that fact all too well.

Mr. Puci (who did not want his first name published), his wife and seven others, including five children ages 5 to 17, had not left their property since January.

It was a complicated story.

Four years ago, a member of the Ferhati family down the street stabbed Mr. Puci’s two brothers to death in front of their wives and children. The Pucis waited for justice. The killer was never caught. So, in January, Mr. Puci’s 76-year-old father killed a Ferhati brother and sister. He was now serving a long jail sentence, and the Ferhati family had vowed revenge.

(It’s worth noting here that the majority of blood feuds in Albania still stem from property disputes, even ridiculously trivial ones. When blood was first shed in the Ferhati-Puci feud, it was over ownership of a space as wide as a kitchen table, which ran between the two families’ markets. In the left picture, the Puci family market now sits empty.)

On the day of my visit, there was a funeral for one of Mr. Puci’s extended relatives. He was not going.

“The other family will be watching everything we do,” he said. “They’ll know when somebody’s getting married, or when somebody’s died and they’ll wait for their chance.”

The Puci’s home spoke of isolation.

The curtain’s were all drawn, blocking the afternoon sun.

Mr. Puci, 52, had been a construction worker. He was missing four fingers on his right hand; reaching out to greet me, I shook only stubbs.

The Pucis contacted Loci in January. Since then, Loci had been going between the two houses. He was not bringing good news this afternoon.

“It’s too soon,” Loci told Mr. Puci.

We were in the living room. Mrs. Puci served coffee and homemade brandy, and took a seat in
a blue plastic chair against a white wall.

Loci explained that the Ferhati family believed that not enough time had elapsed since the January killing to consider reconciling. The head of the Ferhati house was in favor of settling, but there were still some brothers living abroad that were vowing to avenge the killing.

Loci had even had a drink with an acquaintance of the Ferhati family recently who concluded the same thing.

The kanun in some parts of the country stipulated that families had to wait a year before asking for forgiveness. “Kanun must be respected,” Loci told Mr. Puci. “It is too soon.”

The conversation turned emotional.

“My view is that it’s not too soon,” Mr. Puci said. “For four years my brothers have been under the ground and now this family has started to know how we felt for four years.”

“We fear that there are no limits anymore,” Mr. Puci said. “If this family is going to kill, they’re going to kill five. They’re going to kill six. There are no limits. The families will just be at war.”

A silence claimed the room.

Somewhere in the house, a television was on and I heard the applause of a raucous game show that seemed to mock the discussion.

I got up to use the bathroom, and noticed, in one bedroom, a 10-year-old boy asleep, in the middle of the afternoon.

Our talk appeared to have peaked. The news was delivered. We sat, toasted and drank.

Mr. Puci seemed resigned.

But across the room, Mrs. Puci’s forehead was furrowed in despair, and I regarded the Susan Sontag streak of gray in her brunette hair that made her look older than she probably was. Her head canted, and she looked at her knees and avoided eye contact in that way you do knowing the eyes of others will only reflect your situation back at you.

At one point she said, “We have nowhere to go.”

I asked Mr. Puci whether he regretted his father’s actions, given the situation he was now in.

“We regret killing the woman,” he said. “It was an accident. She was dressed like a man.”

“So, you don’t regret the revenge in general?”

“We wouldn’t regret it otherwise,” Mr. Puci said.

I thought a lot about that statement on my way back to Tirana.

Mr. Puci had at one point begged for peace. “Please, no more killing, that is our request.”

Yet he could not condemn the act that was behind his family’s isolation. He seemed to say: It was still the right thing to do.

That afternoon, the Puci family had asked me what I would have done.

It was easy to see blood feuds as barbarous, an affront to modernity. I’d like to say the question had an easy answer.

But I saw the Pucis up close.

I thought of my mother and father. I thought of my brother.

A simple answer would be a lie.

So many of the world’s problems were rooted in the goddamn inability to let a bad act go unpunished. The Pucis asked a question that distilled that reality down to one human decision. As I thought about my own family, I wasn’t so sure whether that inability was itself inexcusable, or rather just the Hobbesian reality in all of us that we might deny until faced with defending, at any cost, what we love.

Would I avenge a murder in my family? Honestly, maybe.

Maybe what we were talking about was the human code of conduct, as applied at its basest level.

I had put the same question to Gjin Marku, the RNC director. If someone killed his wife or daughter, would he seek revenge?

He thought only briefly.

“I would take justice into my own hands if the state cannot give it to me,” he said.

None of this made Albania less contradictory to me, but in a strange way I felt I understood the country better for it. I saw a place in which tradition and modernity exerted equal pull and to get on here, you needed to balance a respect for both.

That night in Tirana I had dinner with a local journalist named Lorena Kollobani, and I talked about this.

I noted how odd it was that kanun provided not only the justification for revenge but the fundamental tenants of hospitality and friendship — not to mention the tradition of besa, a strict keeping of one’s word – that no doubt was behind much of the friendliness I had encountered.

“Albanians are like that,” Kollobani said. “We are generous and ruthless.”

Yesterday: The brutal custom of blood feuds (Part 1)
Tomorrow: What’s being done to improve Albania’s environment