Tue, Jul 19, 2016 - Page 13 News List

Living in fear: Youth trapped by Albania’s vendetta

Blood feuds between families in the country’s mountainous north dating back to the 15th century spares no male in a family

By Briseida Mema and Nicolas Gaudichet  /  Shkodra, AFP

Albert, an 11-year old Albanian boy, standing at the entrance of his home near the town of Shkodra last month.

Photo: AFP

They lead a life clouded by misery, often robbed of the opportunity of going to school — and the fear of being killed is a daily reality.

These are the children living under the shadow of the so-called Gjakmarrja vendetta.

AFP met several youngsters living in dread of falling victim to Albania’s blood tradition — feuds between families in the mountainous north dating back to the 15th century that spare no male in a family capable of holding a weapon.

The boys spoke out about their plight close to Shkodra — a town 90 km north of the capital Tirana on the border with Montenegro.

Klevis, 13, said he wants to be a doctor while his brother Albert, 11, aspires to be Albania’s justice minister.

Marcel, 13, wants to be a singer and Taulant (not his real name), 13, dreams of being a footballer. But despite their lofty ambitions, none of them is able to go to school, join football clubs or learn music. Their families are “bloodied”, explained Klevis, trapped in the cycle of death and vengeance which is their heritage.

Klevis, Albert and Marcel are part of the same extended family forced to hide in their spartan homes, awaiting attack by so-called “Gjakes” — an unknown assassin. They could be attacked tomorrow, or never — simply because they are all related to a man who killed another person in a dispute about a stream in 2010.

“[They] could be the killers of tomorrow,” said Gjin Marku, who promotes reconciliation between families for local organizations. The Gjakmarrja, or blood feud, has its origins in the 15th century “Kanun,” or social code, set up to regulate everyday life in medieval Albania.

It has detailed rules for blood feuds which state that when someone is killed, the victim’s family can take revenge not only against the killer himself but all males of the extended clan.

The families of those involved in a blood feud live “in the knowledge that they will be killed or they must kill,” said the mayor of Shkodra, Voltana Ademi.

But Marku doesn’t hold the Kanun code responsible for their plight, instead laying the blame at the door of the country’s authorities.

“When the institutions don’t work, when the judicial system is failing, these people aren’t finding solutions to their problems,” he said.

‘DAMAGE ALBANIA’S IMAGE’

Albania is particularly susceptible to traditional vendetta culture after its authoritarian, one-party state gave way to near anarchy in the 1990s.

That sowed the seeds for the spread of “Gjakmarrja” feuds as a means of settling disputes. The government ombudsman responsible for tackling blood feuds, Igli Totozani, agrees that crimes stemming from them are not just “a question of tradition.”

The authorities are reluctant to publicize numbers of those affected by blood feuds for fear of tarnishing Albania’s reputation as it continues in its bid to join the EU.

“Where the state is absent, vendetta replaces it,” said Totozani. “We damage Albania’s image by acting as if the problem doesn’t exist.”

An estimated 66 families with 157 people including 44 children remain in hiding, according to an official report on the issue published in April.

Some 57 of the families live in or around Shkodra and complaints to police or officials are rare, said the report. Marku, the expert involved in defusing blood feud violence, says there has been a steady decline in the phenomenon but estimated that some 190 children are still affected — with as many as 80 deprived adequate schooling because of it.

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