Saturday, June 23, 2012

Blood Feuds

Blood feuds, or gjakmarrja, although rarer than in the past, are still alive and well in Albania.  This is especially true in the northern part of the country where memories are long and forgiveness is rare.  On our recent visit to Thethi, we saw Albania's last remaining kulla e ngujimit, or lock-in tower, a stone structure that has simultaneously become a tourist attraction and a reminder of this still practiced ancient rule of law.  

A kulla e ngujimit  in Thethi
So what exactly are Albanian blood feuds?  To an outsider blood feuds appear to be a barbaric form of vengeful law and order.  In Albania, these vendettas date back to the 15th Century when all aspects of social life were regulated by a strict code of conduct called a Kanuni.  As part of this code, the killing  of one individual requires that the slain man's family seek restitution through the revenge killing of a member of the perpetrator's family. The code kept women and children off limits from being killed but any male relative could be the next potential victim.  This "eye-for-an-eye" mentality creates a never ending cycle of fear, retaliation, and violence.  If one family or clan was always seeking revenge upon another, no one was ever safe.

In order to keep their men safe, families built stone lock-in towers, or kulla e ngujimit.   Towers were essentially windowless with only small downward facing slots allowing minimal light in while providing those inside with the ability to see everyone who approached. Locked inside these sturdy mini-fortresses, men could safely defend themselves from an enemy family seeking revenge.  Because women were exempt from the direct violence, they were able to bring food and other necessities to their locked in male family members without the fear of being caught in the middle of a fire fight.

Earthquakes, neglect, and time have crumbled all but one of the traditional Albanian lock-in-towers.  Their demise, however, has not put an end to the blood feuds. During modern times, houses or even entire city blocks have become makeshift lock-in-towers, where men in feuding families will live for months or even years without stepping foot into the outside world. (It wasn't so long ago that a house along the river in the center of Tirana served this very purpose).  Lock-ins make it impossible for men to go to work or boys to attend school.  Instead, they spend their days waiting for their female relatives to bring them food and the feud to end.

So how does a feud end?  If both sides are mutually agreeable, ceases to the feuds can be reached. Called Besa, or word of honor, they can take the form of a verbal agreement (after all honor is one of the most important aspects of Albanian society), the payment of a restitution of some kind, or even a marriage between the two feuding families.  These uneasy truces could easily be undone, however, with one family needing to scramble back to safety in order to prevent being killed.

Unfortunately, blood feuds have reemerged with vengeance in recent years earning the northern part of Albania the reputation of being like the wild, wild west.  Since the code was maintained through an oral tradition that all but died during the Communist era, today's feuds are bloodier and more random than ever. Long gone are the many parts of the code that provided a perverse set of rules as to who the next victim could or could not be.  Today's feuds may stem from disputes older than the victims themselves.  Disputes over the ownership of land are at the root of many of today's feuds but other wrongs or perceived dishonors can also trigger attacks.  Once the  killing starts it is virtually impossible to break the cycle of violence quickly.  As has been evidenced within the past few weeks alone, women and children are no longer off limits from being victims. Increasingly, young boys are becoming potential victims and being forced to join their older male relatives in temporary safe havens.  Whether the intended targets or collateral damage, the number of children and young women who have been killed in perceived blood feuds is growing.  As innocent bystanders get caught up in the violence, the circle of the blood feud only grows.  

In a country still entrenched in so much poverty and inequality, the existence of blood feuds simply adds to the potential hardships families face.  It amazes me that this way of dealing with conflicts still exists in 2012.  But it does.  Again I am reminded that although Albania is physically located in Europe, in many respects it is a world away from her more urbane neighbors.  

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