Tyranny of a blood feud
By Arben Celi
Visiting an Albanian family forced to live inside their walls because of a blood feud always borders on the surreal. A Reuters story of a girl armed with a hunting rifle ferrying supplies for her isolated family in her minivan was made straight into a movie and its Albanian director credited Reuters television for the idea.
There was no action in this one. The three kids had grown up inside their leaky house without ever knowing what the world outside was like. I had been trying for two months to get in touch with a teacher to help me take pictures of a family in northern Albania that had lived inside their house for the last 10 years because of a blood feud.
The teacher is one of the few people allowed into the house twice or three times a week to help the two sons and the daughter keep abreast of the curriculum. I thought she made things harder for me until I met the family myself on Friday. The mother and the 19-year-old daughter grew fearful seeing me and barely concealed their opposition when I took out the camera. But they trusted Liljana, the teacher, and did not throw me out after we made it clear we meant no harm to them. The little kids also warmed to me.
They loved to be hugged and the presence of a stranger was welcome entertainment. Zef is twelve, Marsela is nine and Marsel, the younger, is seven. Marsela and Marsel were born while the family had been confined inside their home and have not seen much of the world, a few meters beyond their walls.
I was told the family had locked themselves up 10 years ago because a relative had killed someone by accident. They have many problems, the teacher said. No one wished to say more.
They hide inside their home because the aggrieved family has imposed on them the harsh rule of the Kanun, a 15th Century Balkan code that gives the killed man’s family the right to kill the man who pulled the trigger in retribution. But a modern-day interpretation of the Kanun — after Albania toppled communism which almost stamped out the feuds — means not just males from the offending family but even children and women might not be spared. Some have been gunned down.
Children and women are considered untouchable under the medieval code that many use to justify the killings, which has increased over the past two decades since the fall of communism. No one is considered safe nowadays unless the aggrieved family does not expressly pledge to honor their freedom and spare them. The government, which has been unsuccessfully trying to stamp out the phenomenon, provides the family with a subsidy of 22 euro a month and visits by the teachers for the children.
Liljana had apparently not made it clear enough a photographer would be visiting and she asked me not to show their faces. The mother refused to reveal their family name and give any more details about why they feared retaliation from the aggrieved family. The children went around barefoot or with torn socks over a floor that appeared to be rough concrete. They did not talk much and paused to stare for a long time when spoken to.
Next to the children’s sleeping room, the family kept the cow in a separate room strewn with manure. All of them took great care of the cow, and cleaned, fed and patted it as if it was one of their own. It seemed to me they treated the cow as if it was not just a gift from but Santa Claus himself. The kids went into the cow’s manure-covered room as they would into a playground. There was also a haystack in the yard for the cow.
Except for the cow, they only other entertainment the children got came from a TV and digital platform donated by a television crew who took pity on their plight. They also ventured a few meters outside the fence around the house to collect wood for their fire. My stay inside lasted no more than 20 minutes because the more pictures I snapped the more the mother freaked out, became stressed and almost shouted questions in desperation. Why doesn’t the government take measures to stop the blood feuds? She also worried about her children because they suffered from allergies and rheumatism, courtesy of the leaks and humidity in their dwellings.
It was one of those moments when one feels powerless at not being able to change things instantly. The least you can do is part with whatever banknotes you find in your wallet and tell the world about their existence. Back in Tirana, I was told the last foreign-made film about the victims of the Kanun was about a 17-year-old boy sending text messages and playing video games in captivity in the 21st century because of 15th century rules.
Liljana also called to thank me about the pictures and added she had forgotten to tell me the children received help at home with their lessons thanks to a government-sponsored project.