(a story by Nick St.Oegger)
When standing on the wall of Rozafa castle in Shkoder, watching the sun set over lake Skadar, it’s hard to imagine that in some of the houses below men and boys are hiding in fear of their lives. Yet, in northern Albania, particularly in the district of Shkoder, the practice of the blood feud still casts a shadow over the otherwise serene landscape.
While illegal under Albanian law, the practice is sanctioned under a centuries old set of customary laws known as the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini. Originally codified around the time of the 15th century Ottoman invasion, the Kanun provided a means for occupied Albanians to exert control over themselves.
In a blood feud family members of someone who is murdered take it upon themselves to avenge the death, by killing the murderer or a male member of his family. It was suppressed during the 1946-1991 communist period, but has seen resurgence since the chaotic shift to democracy.
Originally the Kanun prescribed strict guidelines for conduct during blood feuds, but rules have been distorted in modern times. While only male family members at least 15 years of age are supposed to be targets, cases of women and children being threatened or killed have occurred in recent years.
Motivated by fear, as well as respect for the victim’s family, men of the murderer’s family stay locked inside their houses, sometimes for years. Women are forced to become the breadwinners for the family, often taking on multiple jobs and working in their fields to make ends meet. Without the men able to contribute financially, many families go into economic ruin. Young boys often do not attend school for fear of being attacked, and are forced to sit at home deprived of an education.
The problem is partially symptomatic of dysfunction in the legal and judicial systems of the country. Mistrust of the government and its entities, due to a longstanding history of corruption, is rampant amongst Albanians. However, even when a murderer is arrested and sentenced for a crime, the feud is not necessarily over. Many feel that blood is the only price that can be paid to settle the debt, leaving innocent family members at risk for a crime their relative has already been punished for.
Some NGOs around the Shkoder region attempt to study the phenomenon of blood feuds and help families currently embroiled in conflict. The Justice and Peace Commission of Albania, who published a large study on blood feuds in 2009, is one such organization. They maintain contact with families in hiding, provide them with assistance such as food or clothing, and in some cases offer to help in mediation or securing asylum for those trying to flee the country. Most importantly, they stress the need for the teaching of forgiveness and tolerance, in the hopes of changing the mindset that helps perpetuate this centuries old problem.
While the government has passed more severe laws for blood feud related crimes, it has historically downplayed the issue. The new government of socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama has promised wide reforms to tackle many of Albania’s current social issues, but it remains to be seen if he will address blood feuds directly. Although the occurrence of blood feuds isn’t as prevalent as it once was, it is nonetheless an issue that will need to be addressed for Albania’s aspirations to enter the European Union.