Albanian ‘blood feuds’ force families into isolation

December 10, 2013

Shkodër, Albania – Bilal Ademi remembers the day when 70 men in his family were forced into hiding. On May 18, 2010, Ademi’s cousin, a policeman, shot and killed another officer while on duty.

Bilal Ademi gestures while recounting the story of his family’s situation in his home in Mushan, Albania on Nov. 15 2013. Bilal’s cousin, a policeman, shot and killed a fellow officer in a dispute, sparking a blood feud with the victim’s family. (Nick St.Oegger)

The Ademi men are the objects of a “blood feud,” targets of retribution for the killing of Tom Jakini. According to a set of traditional Albanian laws dating back to the 15th century called the “Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini,” the family of the victim has the right to avenge Jakini’s death by killing one of the Ademi men.In Shkodër and surrounding villages in northern Albania, a country nestled on continental Europe’s western Balkan shore on the Adriatic Sea, these conflicts can drive entire families to confine themselves indoors out of fear for their lives. Absent a brokered peace, there is no expiration on vendettas. The Kanun dictates that even male children born into families involved in blood feuds become targets once they reach their teenage years. Women are supposed to be exempt, but in rare instances are not spared.

The Ademi family lives in Mushan, a village that lies half-an-hour’s drive from Shkodër down a single-lane road trodden by cows and sheep coming in from pasture.

Ademi men in 11 families once lived on a shared compound of several small homes and plots of farmland. Since becoming embroiled in a blood feud, they have sent away sons and brothers to distant parts of Albania. Some have fled the country, several to Italy. Now just five men remain under lock and key, self-imposed prisoners in their own homes.

Bilal Ademi, alternatively sitting and rising from a chair at the head of a circle of female relatives, spoke at his home about the anguish that his cousin’s crime has caused the family.

“I can’t express the mental stress we feel sitting still like this, unable to see our sons and daughters, being afraid,” he said.

His cousin, Ramiz Ademi, pleaded guilty to killing Jakini after an argument that began when Jakini arrived late to work. An exchange of insults escalated into a physical altercation before Ademi shot and killed Jakini with his service weapon.

Although Ademi is serving a 21-year prison sentence, his family feels they must stay indoors out of respect for the victim’s family — and because they fear being murdered if members of the Jakini family see them outdoors.

Gjylije Ademi speaks about the family’s situation in their home in Mushan, Albania on Nov. 15 2013. The Ademi women have had to bear the brunt of the physical labor required to support the family economically, but are finding it difficult to continue working as they age. (Nick St.Oegger)

Luljeta Ademi, the wife of Ramiz’s brother, told me how the family has collapsed on itself in poverty and misery. The women are ageing, too weak for physical labor that once supported the family economically. Parents miss their children and agonize over their safety.

How they might recognize their potential killers, the Ademi family cannot say. They have not met any of the Jakinis, who live in a village 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) away.

Blood feuds are not specific to one religious group, however the phenomenon exists almost exclusively in northern Albania. Citizens in the southern part of the country balk at the tradition held by some of their neighbors in the rural, poorer north. Geographically isolated by mountainous terrain, northern villages maintained more autonomy under 46 years of Communist rule and preserved more customary laws of the Kanun. After the regime’s fall in 1991, renewed disputes over land and weakened rule of law led to a resurgence of blood feuds. Free movement and migration became legal and citizens from rural areas flocked to cities, spreading blood feuds to bigger population centers.

The incidence of blood feuds spiked again in 1997 after the collapse of a pyramid scheme led to an uprising that forced the government’s resignation. Many Albanians had invested in government-promoted savings funds. When the funds failed, many were driven into bankruptcy. About 2,000 people died in violence from the resulting anarchy and thousands more fled the country.

The Justice and Peace Commission of Albania, an organization supported by the Roman Catholic charity Caritas France, collects data on blood feuds, lobbies government institutions for reform and runs public awareness campaigns. The organization also provides economic support for families unable to work outside the home.

According to Vladimir Banushi, a project assistant for the commission, a lack of faith in the legal system to prosecute murderers causes families to settle disputes themselves.

Albania’s criminal code provides for harsher sentences for homicides related to blood feuds than other murders. A reform package introduced in 2013 requires that convictions carry no less than 30 years and up to life in prison without the possibility of parole. However, there is a high level of corruption in the country, particularly among law enforcement agencies. In its 2013 progress report, the European commission reviewing Albania’s EU candidacy eligibility found that corruption in the country “remains a particularly serious problem,” identifying law enforcement as one of the troubled institutions.

Operation Dove, a project run by the Italian organization Pope John Paul XXIII, works with families to foster reconciliation. According to Marcello Requirez, coordinator for Operation Dove, “The law is good, but not applied.”

Even when the state does administer justice, Requirez recalls instances where men were murdered by rival families after completing prison terms.

Irena Kraja is the president of a psychological clinic in Shkodër that works with children from families locked in by blood feuds. It is the first such center in northern Albania, where public attitudes toward therapy are generally negative and speaking about relatives killed in blood feuds is often taboo.

The clinic aims to help children overcome stress and trauma associated with isolation, as well as address attitudes toward violence and aggression by teaching them to express their feelings. Altin Nika, a coordinator at the clinic, says children from families involved in blood feuds exhibit symptoms such as social withdrawal and irrational fears.

Kraja explains that the clinic’s work strives to stop violence from carrying on through generations. “Children from these families would inherit the blood feud, growing up in families with this mentality,” Kraja said.

Some government officials deny the existence of blood feuds, saying the phenomenon has died out. They accuse organizations working on the issue of inflating the numbers to obtain financial support for their work. Locals criticize foreign organizations for not resolving disputes.

Still, the Justice and Peace Commission’s analysis of official data on homicides in Shkodër district found there were 45 blood feud-related murders from 2006-2008. In its own investigation, the commission found 138 families self-imposed from blood feuds across the country. Both the Justice and Peace Commission and Operation Dove described a boom in blood feud-related murders in 2012.

Requirez says local media reports on blood feuds are “very influenced by political discourse,” citing the influx of opinion pieces before the Albanian elections in June 2013 and lack of coverage leading up to international meetings pertaining to Albania’s desire to join the European Union. Accession to the EU could prove an economic boon for Albania, where a 2008 estimate found 12.5% of people live below the poverty line and unemployment was over 13% in 2012.

Bilal Ademi’s family once made a living growing corn, watermelon, and beans. One relative worked for a milk farm delivering dairy goods on a horse-drawn wagon around the town. They earned enough to sustain themselves, and before the blood feud started they had just redecorated a living room with new furniture. Now they depend on distant family to support them.

Ademi has applied for government assistance, but says he has not received it because even though he cannot leave the house, he is considered able to work.

Reconciliation is possible but rare, and would require forgiveness from the other family’s most senior men.

Ademi blames the government for not providing his family with adequate security, saying the state does nothing to guarantee his family’s safety.

“Can you live all your life begging from relatives?” he asked.

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