Paper: Chicago Tribune (IL)Title: An eye for an eye: Blood feuds persist in Albania
Custom of revenge killings causing increasing concern
Date: August 26, 2007
Their simple stone houses stand a hundred paces apart in this hillside village where men ride donkeys sidesaddle on slopes too steep for cars.

The Shima and Allushi families had been good neighbors for generations, sharing meals in times bountiful and lean, and helping run Kurcaj's affairs. Now they are basically at war.
It began two years ago with a pool game between a man from the Allushi clan and a young Shima boy. When the child acted rudely, the man beat him bloody with a cue. The boy's father then fired what he said was intended to be a warning shot. It pierced a second-floor window in the Allushi home, killing a 12-year-old girl.

That violent exchange, members of both families recounted in interviews, began a blood feud, a centuries-old Albanian custom that is causing increasing concern in government and private social agencies. More than 800 Albanian families are locked in cycles of tit-for-tat killings, according to the Committee of Nationwide Reconciliation, a non-profit group devoted to mediating such disputes.

"It was an accident, and we have sent representatives to their homes over and over again to apologize and to ask them to cool their anger against us," said Musa Shima, 77, the father of the killer. "But they just won't accept it. They say they want blood."

"A little girl was murdered," said Shaqir Allushi, 48, her father. "It will be avenged."

The blood feud, whose vengeful precepts trace the ancient code of an eye for an eye, has been practiced by communities as diverse as the samurai of feudal Japan and the bootleggers of Appalachian America, where the Hatfields and McCoys warred in the late 19th Century. Mafia members in southern Italy still conduct reprisal killings they call vendettas, resulting recently in 60 murders in Naples over just two months.

But perhaps nowhere in the modern world do blood feuds remain as pervasive and damaging as in highland Albania, the poorest corner of Europe's second-poorest country. Often erupting from a minor disagreement or perceived slight, they can force those targeted to sequester themselves in their homes for years.

The Albanian government, which is focused on joining the European Union and has moved to revive a once-moribund economy, has long played down the severity and scope of the feuds. But last year, for the first time, it allocated funds to boost reconciliation efforts and provide teachers for children whose feuding families keep them locked in their homes for safety.

"Rule of law must triumph over kanun," said Albania's prime minister, Sali Berisha, using the word for a code of honor. "I can't say we have eradicated it, but there is progress."

'Holding this country back'

But those working to stop the feuds say change has been too slow in coming.

"These things should not happen in a modern society, and they are holding this country back," said Gjin Marku, who heads the Committee of Nationwide Reconciliation, which trains mediators to resolve blood feuds. Above his desk is a photograph of Mother Teresa, the ethnic Albanian nun who devoted her life to the downtrodden. "There are far more feuds than I can even keep track of."

The rules governing Albania's blood feuds have been passed down orally as part of the code known as kanun, which prescribes practices of everyday life. While its more sexist pronouncements have been largely abandoned -- it states that a husband should get a bullet in his dowry for punishing any future infidelity by his wife and describes a woman as "a sack, made to endure" -- those relating to vengeance remain in force in Albania's vast backcountry. Chapter 126 is titled "Blood is paid for with blood" and authorizes retaliation for any killing.

The country's rulers -- from the Ottomans, who reigned here for more than four centuries, to the communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled for 40 years until his death in 1985 -- have long sought to stamp out kanun in favor of their own legal systems. But kanun, which predated the Ottoman arrival here but was not put into print until the early 20th Century, survived in the shadows, re-emerging full-blown with the fall of communism in 1992. Paperback copies of the complete text are now available in kiosks throughout the country.

"Where there is no respectable order, 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 family member of a killer, "even the baby in the cradle," according to one version.

"This is a corruption of kanun, which was intended to bring an end to violence," he said.

Agim Loci, a bodyguard for a Tirana businessman, moonlights as a mediator of blood feuds in his home region near the bustling town of Fushe Kruje, east of Tirana. One of the families he works with, he said, has lost 17 people in recent years to a string of violent feuds.

Looking for vengeance

One recent day, Loci visited the Nicola family in the tiny village of Halil, northeast of Tirana. Last November, Fitim Nicola, 25, was shot dead in the street after a traffic dispute. His killer got 23 years in prison, later reduced to 13 years.

Nicola, who was the only able-bodied man in the house, used to drive a truck around the area, selling lime. Now the truck has been sold, and his brother Skander, 37, who has a heart condition, is unemployed.

"I don't care if they try to stop me or not. I don't care if I get arrested," Skander Nicola said, his voice quavering and tears pooling. "I will kill someone and make it one to one." Caption:
Washington Post photos by Jonathan Finer
Copyright (c) 2007, Chicago Tribune Company. All rights reserved.
Author: Jonathan Finer, The Washington Post Section: News Page: 17 Dateline: KURCAJ, Albania Copyright (c) 2007, Chicago Tribune Company. All rights reserved.