Since they were born, nine-year-old Nikolin and his older brother Amarildo, 12, have never left their house in Albania. They do not play outside, nor do they go to school.
The boys are imprisoned because of a blood feud, or vendetta, with neighbors that has made them fear for their lives.
Their uncle killed a neighbor in a 1993 dispute and, although he was jailed for 25 years, the victim’s family — living only a dozen meters away — has vowed to avenge the death.
Albanians still respect the tradition of vendetta, which dates back to the 15th century and spares no male in a family, including babies.
The brutal custom is widely followed in the poor mountainous regions in the north of the country, but also in some villages and towns in other regions.
Nikolin and Amarildo spend most of their lives in a cold, somber room at their home in Mazrek, a village about 150km north of the capital, Tirana.
They are surrounded by photographs of dead relatives on the walls, their small window covered with iron bars.
The bitter feud has already led to some casualties and the two youngsters, entangled through no fault of their own, could be next.
“Outside, we are facing death,” Amarildo whispers.
He says he dreams of having a ball and playing with his only friend, the brother that shares his fate.
The boys’ mother, Vjollca, recently committed suicide, unable to stand her family’s captive life any more. She was 29.
“I found her hanged in the barn,” Amarildo says, his voice choking as he fights back tears.
The rival family gave them three days to mourn and bury her, promising not to kill them during that time.
The boys’ only link with the outside world is their teacher, Liljana Luani, who comes twice a month to teach them to read and write.
“The children of vendetta are condemned to death,” says Luani, who has asked the Albanian authorities to bring an end to what she calls an “unacceptable crime for a country that wants to integrate into Europe.”
Almost 600 Albanian children were unable to start the new school year last month, hiding at home from vendetta threats, which sometimes now extend to women and girls, said Gjin Marku, who monitors the problem for a local organization.
Police say there have been 225 victims of blood feuds in Albania in the past 14 years, but activist groups estimate the real number could be much higher.
“In Albania, vendetta was developed due to a weak judiciary system that pushed people to settle scores on their own,” sociologist Suela Dani says.
During the communist era in Albania, from the end of World War II until 1992, a strict application of the death penalty in cases of vendetta allowed the regime to suppress it.
Since communism fell, the maximum punishment has been life imprisonment, but a lack of confidence in the justice system has led to an escalation in blood feuds.
Dani says “all the state structures” must make a real commitment to ending the ruthless practice, which can derail the lives not just of those targeted, but also of those seeking vengeance.
When his uncle was killed, Alfred Vekaj, 17, swore he would get even.
“Every morning on my way to school I saw a man from the family that had killed my uncle and one day I hid my grandmother’s gun in my school bag,” he says. “I did not want to kill him, just prevent him from passing in front of my school.”
However, Vekaj fired a shot, missed his target and killed a passerby.
“At least I am alive,” he said from his prison cell in Kavaja, the city where he is serving an eight-year sentence.