The revival of blood feuds is among the darkest stories to come out of Albania over the past two decades The tradition stems from a 15th century code instituted in Northern Albania by the prince Leke Dukagjini – the Kanun. This set of laws, which evolved over time and were not written down until the 19th century, states that "blood should always be avenged by blood". Noel Malcolm writes:
"What lies at the heart of the blood-feud is a concept alien to the modern mind, and more easily learned about from the plays of Aeschylus than from the works of modern sociologists: the aim is not punishment of a murderer, but satisfaction of the blood of the person murdered -- or, initially, satisfaction of one's own honour when it has been polluted. If retribution were the real aim, then only those personally responsible for the original crime or insult would be potential targets; but instead, honour is cleansed by killing any male member of the family of the original offender, and the spilt blood of that victim then cries out to its own family for purification."
(Noel Malcolm, Kosovo – a Short History)
Under Enver Hoxha's regime, this ancient codex was banned, but it re-surfaced after the fall of communism, in part due to the weakness of institutions in the newly democratic country.
"Where there is no respectable order, the kanun has always filled the vacuum," said Ismet Elezi, 87, a law professor at Tirana University who has studied kanun for more than 50 years. He said the version that emerged after Hoxha is particularly devastating for Albania because it permits retaliation against any [male] family member of a killer, "even the baby in the cradle," according to one common version.
"This is a corruption of kanun, which was intended to bring an end to violence," he said.
Elezi said that modern blood feuds generally proceed as follows: A killing takes place, the victim's family demands blood retribution, then the members of the killer's family take refuge in their homes -- which are considered inviolate under kanun -- for at least 40 days and seek forgiveness. If forgiveness is granted or a life is taken in retaliation, the feud ends. Otherwise, the isolation period can continue indefinitely."
(Jonathan Finer, Washington Post 2007)
The 1997 crisis, in which arms depots were looted of automatic rifles, and roughly 2,000 people were killed, created an ideal environment for blood feuds to escalate further. The population was armed with hundreds of thousands of weapons, the rule of law was practically non-existent, and there were plenty of murders to avenge.
The number of people killed and families involved in blood feuds is hard to keep track of.
"Estimates of fatalities are made difficult by the fact that many blood-feud murders go unreported. As one Albanian clan leader told The New York Times, "People don't want to report killings to the police because then the accused would be protected by the state in prison instead of being available to kill." (Gendercide Watch)
The Committee of Nationwide Reconciliation (CNR) estimates that 6,000 people died in blood feuds in the 17 years after communism. It reports that some 20,000 families were involved in these conflicts, causing thousands of men and boys to seek shelter in their homes (CNR). Mihaela Rodin of Agence France-Presse cited an estimate by Albanian NGOs that the men from 25,000 families in Northern Albania are in hiding (Mihaela Rodin AFP dispatch, 1999). By contrast, an 2004 article by Helen Stone of the NGO, World Vision, suggests that 'only' 2,500 families are in hiding, and that 711 children do not attend school as a result of blood feuds (World Vision). The CNR puts this figure at 1,200 children without schooling (Sunday Times 2008).
Blood feuds aggravate the poverty of families in rural northern Albania. The men in hiding can do nothing to contribute economically, leaving the women as the sole breadwinners. The future for sons who have spent years inside, deprived of schooling looks bleak. Some families have attempted to escape their imprisonment by migrating to the cities. This has caused feuds to spread from the mountainous north to Tirana. Others in hiding dream of emigrating and living in safety outside of Albania, but many cannot obtain a visa or enough money. By 2004, 1,300 were thought to have left the country in order to escape blood feuds (World Vision).
International organisations and the Albanian Government have tried to end blood feuds and improve the situation of those affected. Prime Minister Berisha has vowed to end the practice, saying that the "rule of law must triumph over kanun." The government's Coordinating Council on the Fight against Blood Feuds is headed by no lesser figure than the President. A UNICEF program seeks to provide education for children who are prevented by blood feuds from attending school.
The chairman of the Committee for Nationwide Reconciliation, Gjin Marku, says that many attempts to improve the situation have been ineffective or thwarted by corruption:
"The Albanian government has neither the legal base nor the necessary means and the authority to protect the individuals involved in blood feud. The Albanian state has not been able to protect even the state police people that happened to be involved in blood feud, such as the case of Mr. Pjeter Tabakaj, who was forced to leave his job in the police force and confine himself in his house for more than four years, in the center of the city of Tirana, together with his two sons who have abandoned school. … We observe that the criminal punishment margin, from the lowest to the highest, is very high and allows for abuse and material gain of judges. The International community gave funds to eliminate this tragic phenomenon, but they did not serve the purpose and they have been distributed with no criteria or the needed vigilance"
(Interview with Gjin Marku, Chairman of the Committee for Nationwide Reconciliation)
Marku and his organisation bring about reconciliation between families engaged in blood feuds. The Committee trains volunteers to become mediators who then go to the villages and seek to resolve conflicts. Such "brokers" often face risks themselves. Emin Saphia, a well known mediator, was himself killed in 2004. World Vision estimated that over 1,260 families had been reconciled in treaties of forgiveness as of 2004. Gjin Marku sees such agreements as the only solution:
"Only the reconciliation is the end of a blood feud. If a reconciliation process has not been reached the blood feud might re-emerge, even after 100 years. The need for revenge is not forgotten. The inherited sons and nephews of the clan take it up."