Albania – Ancient blood feuds are stronger than ever

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Albania, with ambitions to achieve membership of the EU, has made a radical break with its communist past, but blood feuds, one of its most deep-rooted customs, are still very much alive.

These laws – known as Kanun – demand an eye for an eye, including assassination, creating an endless spiral of violence between warring families.

Just an insult or some breach in marital morals may justify bloodshed under the ancestral code of Kanun, which has governed rural life in Albania for five centuries and still holds sway, particularly in the mountainous north.

Traditionally, any male old enough to wield a hunting rifle is considered of age to be the executioner or victim of retributive bloodletting. Under Kanun, one man’s crime against another draws in extended family, and tit-for-tat vendettas can sentence innocent family members to an early grave, or a lifetime of hiding indoors, with generations sentenced to the crimes of their forbearers.

Former communist Albania leader Enver Hoxha effectively stopped the practice of Kanun with hard repression and a very strong state police. However, after the fall of communism some communities have tried to rediscover the old traditions, but some of their parts have been lost, leading to fears of misinterpretation.

A grey area

Notably, the current Albanian Penal Code does not contain any provisions from the Kanun that deal with blood feuds, and no acknowledgment of this code is made in the contemporary Albanian legal system. In 2014 about 3,000 Albanian families were estimated to be involved in blood feuds and since the fall of Communism in the early 1990’s deaths are estimated to be over 10,000 people from Kanun vendettas since that time.

An organisation has risen to address the complexities to finding peaceful and amicable resolution between families claiming rights to kill under Kanun code – the All-National Albanian Reconciliation Mission, created in 1991, mediates between families find peaceful resolutions to blood disputes.

In order for full reconciliation to occur, the senior male members of the clans must come to an agreement that is then needed to be backed by the womenfolk of the family. The merits of the original catalyst of the feud may or not be known as vendettas can be centuries old. When the Kanun was first designed, it did not provide for endless escalation between clans. On the contrary, from the outset it left room for mediation, through the council of the elders where a promise of safety (besa) could be granted to some members of a clan. But tradition has withered away and what often remains is solely the idea of vengeance – a fact that the All-Albanian Reconciliation Mission recognises as a critical barrier for it to achieve success in its mediation efforts.

The higher you go up in the mountains of northern highlands of Albania the further back into the past you travel. The more the spirit of vengeance contaminates each new generation, the more the Kanun loses its original value.