July 1, 2010
In the best tradition of Balkans quarrels, it all began with a mix of strong brandy, fiery tempers and very long memories. One hot summer's night in 2000, Pëllumb Morevataj, a man with a big thirst and a bigger ego, was out drinking in his village in northern Albania , when a friend made a chance remark about how the Morevataj family had backed down in a feud some half a century before. An argument ensued, and an evening that should have ended with nothing worse than bad hangovers all round saw Pëllumb shoot his drinking companion dead.The blood has not stopped flowing ever since.
Ten years later, on the wall above the doorway of her dingy parlour, Pëllumb's sister-in-law, Shkurte, has a gallery of photos of dead relatives, all martyrs to the family honour that was offended that night. In one are Pëllumb's two brothers, killed in revenge by his victim's relatives in 2002. In another is Pëllumb himself, who was shot dead in 2006, although not before he had avenged his brothers' deaths with two more murders.And in a third is his grieving wife, who committed suicide a year later.
'So many deaths from that one night,' sighs Shkurte, a gaunt, dark-haired woman who looks 10 years older than her 38 years.'Pëllumb was a good man, but hot-headed and macho. If he hadn't gone drinking that evening, none of this would ever have happened.' And what, exactly, was the 50-year-old feud about that he took such offence? Shkurte shakes her head.'It all happened so long ago that not even my aunt here really knows what caused it,' she says. A wizened, grey face in the corner, clad in a traditional all-black shawl and scarf, nods in assent.
The multiple body count aside, vendettas like that involving the Morevataj family are not unusual in the more hot-blooded corners of the Mediterranean: similar tales can be heard among the Mafia clans of Sicily and Corsica, and throughout the Balkans from Croatia to Crete.
Yet here in Albania, there is an aspect to such feuds that make them unique - namely, that both sides in the feud claim to be acting entirely within the law. Not the law of 21st-century Europe, but a law that is much older, and in many parts of this ex-Communist state, the only one that is respected.The Kanun, or canon, is a 500-year-old code of conduct covering every aspect of medieval life, from births and marriages to hunting and grazing rights.And amid its edicts on the duties of a village blacksmith, and the penalties for allowing a goat to stray onto a neighbour's land, it lays out detailed procedures for blood feuds, with a chillingly loose definition of an eye-for-an-eye. When someone is killed, revenge can be exacted not just against the killer himself, but all males in his extended clan.
Hence for the Morevataj family, the spilling of Pëllumb's own blood does not draw a line under the affair. Instead, Shkurte's own five sons, aged five to 17, also have a death sentence hanging over them. The only way they can avoid it is to remain within the confines of their shabby breeze-block home, which, under the Kanun, counts as a sanctuary.To step outside their gate would be to show 'disrespect' to the other family, and invite a hitman's bullet.
Freedom will come only when the dead man's clan chooses to forgive them, and given the history of the last 10 years, that may be a long way away.
The threat is greatest for Shkurte's sons Pashk, 17, and Pepa, 15, who, as the eldest males, are most eligible for any tit-for-tat violence. Both have spent most of their lives as virtual prisoners, unable to attend school, unable to socialise with other children, and unable to contemplate any kind of future.'It has been 10 years that I have been isolated like this,' frowns Pashk, a shy, wide-eyed boy who looks, dresses and longs to be just like any other normal European teenager.'I spend the days watching football and cable TV, and I can play a bit in the front yard, but not very much. It is a terrible life, not being able to move around at all.'
The Morevataj blood feud is one of an estimated 10,000 to have erupted in Albania since 1990, following the collapse of what had been one of the world's most closed communist regimes. Under dictator Enver Hoxha - a man so hardline he felt the Soviet Union went soft after Khrushchev denounced Stalin - the Kanun was suppressed as ruthlessly as the Bible. But in the anarchy of the early Nineties, its influence quickly re-emerged, as did countless old grievances that had lain dormant in the Hoxha era, particularly over land that was 'redistributed' during the socialist period. Today's blood feuds, though, can erupt over far more minor things than property or grazing rights: a chance drunken insult, for example, or a glance that lingers on another man's wife too long.
Although the Kanun does not have a chapter marked 'Road Rage', some vendettas have been sparked by someone simply refusing to give way on one of Albania's single-lane highways, be it in a four-wheel drive or horse and cart.
According to some estimates, there are as many as 1,500 families and 800 children currently in isolation in Albania due to blood feuds. The government, which formally applied for EU membership last year, and which wants to project a modern image to EU bureaucrats, insists such figures are exaggerated. But either way, the problem recently attracted the attention of the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Professor Philip Alston , who came to investigate back in February. He concluded that while blood feuds had diminished 'significantly' over recent years, there was a still a 'widespread belief in the justness of collective punishment of innocent family members'. Many people, he added, viewed the courts as either corrupt or ineffective, and even when a killer was sent to prison, there was still a desire for 'restoration of the lost blood'.
Such is the case for Samir Zizo, 23, whose brother Shpetim was sentenced to life imprisonment three years ago for the rape and murder of a 10-year-old. Shpetim was mentally ill, but that has not excused the victims' relatives from seeking retribution against Samir: as an adult of sound mind, he is actually deemed a better prize than his brother. Today he is confined to a squat on an abandoned Soviet-era factory works in the capital,Tirana, where his family has built protective 8ft-high walls to hide him from view. 'We have tried to ask their forgiveness but they have refused,' he says.'Life could not be worse - it would almost be better to be in jail myself.'
The Zizo case is just one of hundreds on the files of Gjin Marku, a professional blood-feud mediator who is the chair of the Committee for National Reconciliation. Based in a peeling tower block in downtown Tirana, his organisation is a reminder of the world that exists beyond the capital's modern exterior, with its brand new airport and smart internet cafés.The committee runs a countrywide network of mediators, whose work is half Jerry Springer, half loss adjuster - consoling warring parties and, where necessary, advising on financial compensation. A former agent of Albania's feared State Intelligence Service, the SHISH, Marku is scarcely the obvious choice for such a sensitive job: peering out from behind a permacloud of thick Balkan tobacco smoke, his steely gaze looks more enforcer than peacemaker.
Yet he considers himself more than qualified for the task. His grandfather, a village elder, was a mediator too, and some of his wife's relatives are currently involved in a blood feud themselves (it began with a murder back in 1953).
'I remember my grandfather with his white horse and white beard and a special seal - he was persecuted by the communists,' says Marku.'But in parts of Albania, people have always viewed the Kanun as a form of self-government.They prefer their own laws rather than those of outsiders.'
The origins of the Kanun, he explains, go back to the 1400s, when a northern Albanian prince called Lekë Dukagjini laid down a set of word of mouth laws to help the area's quarrelsome mountain clans get along peacefully. While not exactly the most progressive of visions - a wife who goes astray, for example, could expect much harsher penalties than a goat - its edicts were cherished in a land often subject to outside rule, be it by the Ottoman Turks or the neighbouring Serbs or Greeks. By the early 20th century, printed copies of the Kanun appeared, ensuring that the vendetta tradition remained alive and well during the interwar reign of Albania's modernising King Zog: rumour has it that he was the target of more than 600 blood feuds, including 55 assassination attempts.
The real problem today, Marku insists, is not the Kanun itself, but the fact that people no longer follow it properly. The book itself emphasises reconciliation, laying out peacemaking rituals in which the warring parties drink glasses of brandy mixed with each other's blood.
But rather like the way some Islamic terrorists justify violence through the Koran, modern-day blood feuders interpret the Kanun selectively, focusing only on the passages that serve their interests.'The purpose of the Kanun is to help the rule of law, not weaken it, but unfortunately there is no longer the clan structure that ensured that it was applied correctly,' Marku tells me.'In one case recently, a young man killed the mother of his brother's murderer. If he was really set on revenge, he should only have killed an adult male. It has become a total mess in every direction.'
It means the Kanun also gets invoked in cases which should never have been deemed matters of honour in the first place. Pal Deliaj and his entire family of 22 people had to leave their village after their nephew, aged 14, accidentally killed a friend when messing about with a hunting rifle.'The entire village agreed it was an accident, and my nephew was jailed for three months anyway, but the other boy's family do not forgive us,' says Deliaj, sipping brandy in the family's new home in a shabby township on the outskirts of Tirana. 'If only the Kanun was interpreted right, we would have had the forgiveness of the other family. I would prefer the rule of law.'
Like many families in more minor blood feuds, the Deliaj clan do not expect a hit man to be lurking outside their gate: their isolation is, to an extent, self-imposed,a way of showing repentance. But if they were seen not to be observing it, the other family would feel entitled, indeed obliged, to take revenge. Not to do so would be to look weak in front of the neighbours, who, as with the chance remark that saw Pëllumb Morevataj reach for his gun, might still be gossiping about it 50 years later.
'The most complicated cases are where the family of the killer shows no tact or there is pressure from the community on the victim's family to act,' says Marku.'The police will try to restrain the family of the victim, but they often come from the same areas as the feuders, and if they get directly involved they will make things worse.'
The Albanian government has taken steps to curb blood feuds, imposing severe penalties for retaliations, and funding the 'Second Chance' schooling programme, where children who are in isolation get home tuition.The five boys in the Morevataj clan have a governess who visits three times per week, and have made good progress. But while some want more state funding for governesses and mediators, others say that simply entrenches recognition of the Kanun, when the real priority should be building up the government justice system. Some mediators, they point out, also take a fat cut of any compensation they negotiate, giving them a vested interest in feuds continuing. Marku, though, insists the government is not doing enough to prevent what it sees as an embarrassing relic. 'Sadly, our authorities want to pretend that the problem does not exist,' he says.
Soon, though, the blood feud dramas that play out up and down the country will be recreated on the big screen, courtesy of top US independent filmmaker Joshua Marston, who last month finished shooting a fictional movie about a family in the middle of a blood feud. The writer and director of the acclaimed 2004 drug smuggling drama Maria Full of Grace, Marston has spent the past two years in Albania researching his subject. Just as his earlier film chronicled the horrors of life as a drug mule, his latest work aims to strip away the romantic myths about honour and revenge and show the real-life impact that blood feuds have on ordinary families.
'What I found interesting was the way this ancient tradition still existed in a modern country,' says Marston, 41, as he drove to a shoot at a farmstead in the mountain-flanked plains outside the northern town of Shkoder. 'It is not so much the feuds themselves that the film focuses on, but the idea of being in forced isolation, and what that is like for a child.They can be stuck indoors because of this code of honour that is hundreds of years old, yet still be playing computer games and watching Big Brother on TV.'
Some of Marston's best insights have come from auditioning for the cast, many of whom are locals who have never acted before.'For every 10 children we auditioned, roughly one or two had some family members involved in a blood feud,' he says, pointing out of the car window to a red-tiled house on the side of the road where a family has been in isolation for three years.'It is not something that is going to go away that easily, as it has been here for hundreds of years. Whereas in the US, for example, the default reaction is to let the courts deal with murder, here there is still an expectation in certain parts of society that the males of the family should take vengeance of their own.'
Marston's film focuses on Mark, a village bread-delivery man whose rounds are interrupted one day when a neighbour, Sokol, blocks a shortcut through a field.
Ownership of the field has been disputed ever since communist times, but suddenly flares up into a quarrel which culminates in Sokol's death. The exact rights and wrongs of the matter are never made clear; in this respect, Marston says, it mirrors many of the feuds he researched, which always proved far more complex than at first glance. Instead, the film focuses on the impact on Mark's son, Nik, 17, and daughter Rudina, 14, who are left in isolation after their father goes on the run from the police. While Nik slowly begins to crack under the pressure of confinement, his sister, who as a girl is not subject to the blood feud, has to take on the job of running her father's delivery business. 'It is both a gender reversal and a coming of age movie - the girl learns how to become a business operator and comes into her own,' says Marston.
Playing the part of Nik is local teenager Tristan Halilaj, who got a feel for his character through visiting the home of another 17 year-old who has spent 15 years of his life in isolation. Pictures of the boy show his complexion noticeably whiter than other Albanians, yet otherwise he was little different.'I thought he would be aggressive,' says Tristan.'But he wasn't - we spent our time talking about girls and Chelsea FC.' However, Refet Abazi, the professional actor who plays the father, Mark, is in no doubt about the sorrow that blood feuds cause. 'Hopefully this film will help stop this kind of thing by showing the real pain that people who are trapped in their homes go through,' he says, staring out over the farm's tobacco fields, where just beyond the front gate, a gravestone marks the victim of yet another feud.
Abazi speaks not from research, but from personal experience. In 1997 his own brother was murdered, and when the chief suspect was arrested and then released without charge, his family came under 'terrible pressure' to take revenge. Eventually, though, they resolved the situation another way - one that was arguably much harder, and which required a patience that has not traditionally come easily in this part of the world. 'My father decided we couldn't take the law into our own hands,' Abazi says.'He said that if justice couldn't be delivered by ourselves, or by the state, God would deliver it instead.' So they simply turned the other cheek.
Blood feuds: the rules
The Kanun - or code - is a 500-year-old text that still dictates how blood feuds are carried out in Albania. Here are some of its more extraordinary 'commandments':
'As soon as a murderer has killed someone, he must inform the family of the victim, in order that there should be no confusion regarding his identity'
'The murderer may move around at night, but at the first light of day he must conceal himself'
'He who decides to ambush must take sufficient food with him to provide for his accomplices'
'An ambusher must fire his gun at men, and not at women, children, livestock, or a house'
'The murderer may not dare to take the victim's weapon. If he commits such a dishonourable act, he incurs two blood feuds'
'The value of a man's life is the same, whether he is handsome or ugly'