Blood for blood

Thousands of families in Albania are estimated to still be caught in a string of blood feuds. Living in constant fear, the prospect of serving jail terms instead is not a way of saving themselves from vendettas.

In the last eighteen years, thousands of people have become victims of blood feuds that were put on hold during previous years. The former Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha ruled the country for nearly half a century with an iron fist. When his rule ended, and communism collapsed, the blood feud reemerged as a result of the breakdown in law and order.

“After the 1990s there was a breakdown in law in Albania. The government was not able to punish criminals and so the ancient law of vendettas came back,” said Gjin Marku, Chairman of the Committee of Nationwide Reconciliation. “We try to organize mediation between families, but it’s not always easy. Right now I have a case where a man tried to kill his neighbor over a land dispute. Instead he ended up injuring the man’s wife.”

Llesh Prenga had to move his family to the village of Lezhe in Albania’s northern mountains because he was afraid his former neighbor would seek revenge.

Five years on Llesh is still afraid. Permanent fear is something his family lives with. He has given his children strict instructions to always stay indoors.

“I never go outside. I feel afraid when I go to school, I feel like somebody is following me. I try not to have contact with strangers. During school break, I stay inside the classroom and don’t play outside with the other children,” said daughter Liljana.

The world of his children is all but confined to two small rooms. They’ve nothing to do except homework – and sometimes watch the TV when the signal’s available.

“I come home straight after school. I’m really afraid. I don’t have a lot of friends because I try to avoid strangers. I’m afraid the man who my father wounded will come back and kill me. I think he could do this and I have terrible nightmares where I dream he’s killed my father and mother,” said Llesh’s other daughter Donika.

Llesh Prenga accepts his fate – and that of his children. It’s a fate sealed by the Kanun, an Albanian code that has been passed on for more than 500 years and which he and his neighbors follow. According to the Kanun, blood must be paid with blood.

“I was forced to use a gun against my neighbor after he insulted my family. Afterwards I handed myself over to the police and I served 53 months in jail. Even after getting out of jail, we still haven’t resolved the conflict with the other family,”
Llesha said.

Albanian lawyers are trying hard today to establish the rule of law and do away with the Kanun. Punishment for killing due to blood feud is severe.

“Our criminal code says that if you kill somebody in the situation of blood feud you are going to have 25 years of imprisonment,” explained lawyer Genci Terpo.

It is not easy to change a culture and tradition that has existed for almost five centuries – especially in the remote villages of Albania’s north, where the ancient blood feud still holds sway.