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Blood feuds scar Albanian society

Blood feuds are increasing in the mountains of Albania

(swissinfo.ch)

The Swiss interchurch organisation HEKS is sponsoring a project to help stop violent blood feuds in Albania.

Blood feuds have a long history, based on Albania's ancient laws governing conduct, known as the Kanun. Feuding is a traditional way of avenging conflicts between families in the mountains of northern Albania, and once one male member of a family has been killed, all adult males in both families are sworn to kill one another.

Blood feuds were almost unheard of during Albania's 50 years of Communism, but they have reappeared in the last 10 years, as Albania undergoes a difficult transition to democracy. Albanian newspapers have estimated that hundreds of people have been killed in blood feuds.

HEKS, together with its local partner 'Useful to Albanian Women' (UAW), led by Fabiola Laco Egro, now have a project to help stop the feuds. Laco Egro believes the difficult social and economic conditions in Albania are partly to blame for the increased violence.

"In a way these feuds have started again because people have lost faith in the state," Fabiola Laco Egro told swissinfo. "So they are turning to their own forms of justice."

Rasim Gjoka, an Albanian sociologist who has carried out research into the blood feud phenomenon, agrees that growing poverty and unemployment over the last decade have contributed to the violence, especially in rural Albania.

"The process of privatisation (of former collective farms) has been a big problem." Gjoka told swissinfo. "Disputes over land are a big cause of conflict between Albanian families."

Traumatised children

Laco Egro and UAW were originally asked for help in northern Albania by women's groups, who were especially concerned about the effect the violence was having on children.

"In the original Kanun, women and children were exempt from revenge killings," Laco Egro explained. "But now it seems women and children are being killed too. What we are seeing are whole families locked in the home all day long. They won't go out for fear of being killed."

Laco Egro came across one case in the village of Koplik, in which a family of 22 people had been living under siege for several years.

"There were 12 children in this family," she sighed. "Six family members had already been killed. The children were completely traumatised. Their days were spent simply watching their fathers cleaning their guns, and listening to endless conversations about revenge. They never went out."

"And, the local authorities just don't intervene," she continued. "The police station was only 100 metres from this house."

Television useful

The first step in the HEKS UAW campaign was to produce a powerful television commercial, which is being broadcast right across northern Albania.

It shows a small boy barring the doors of the family home, followed by snapshots of some of the real young victims who are locked in the home. "Blerta wants to be a teacher, and Bardhi wants to play football" the film explains. "You can't lock up their dreams."

Once the film had been aired several times, the project followed it up with televised lessons for the children.

"Television is a really useful tool," explained Laco Egro. "All through the years of communism it was every Albanian's dream to own a television. Now you find a nice TV in every home, even in the poorest rural areas. It is our window to the outside world, so we can see what's happening in the west."

Laco Egro applied to the Albanian ministry of education for financial support for the televised lessons, but was turned down.

"They told us we should encourage the children to get out of the house and into the classrooms," she said. "The problem is they don't really want to admit that thousands of Albanian children are not going to school."

Respect for local tradition

Instead, HEKS provided financial support, and encouraged the next step in the campaign, which involved local teachers and social workers visiting the affected families.

"Only women though," stressed Laco Egro. "If we had sent in men, they might have been seen as potential killers."

"They talk primarily to the children," she explained. "About issues like civil society, about forgiveness and so on. But bit by bit the mothers become involved too."

And sociologist Gjoka, whose Foundation for Conflict Resolution tries to mediate in blood feuds, says that respecting local tradition is also crucial in order to gain the trust of feuding families."

"It's clear that using positive aspects of local culture is very important in bringing about reconciliation," said Gjoka. "Things like honour, dignity, faith and so on need to be discussed. And it's vital to involve the women of the village, they have a huge role to play."

Gjoka points however that violent conflict is on the increase all over Albania, and that blood feuding is just one element.

"There is violence and killing all around the country, in the south as well," Gjoka explained. "But," he continued, "in our experience the blood feud conflicts in the north are the hardest to resolve."

Women are the key

Laco Egro is putting her faith in women. "All over the world women are more peaceful than men," she said, "they are not dealing with guns, they are dealing with children, and the home."

Laco Egro points out that following the failure of the 1997 pyramid investment scheme, angry Albanians looted the country's arsenals, taking out millions of machine guns.

"It's thought there are seven million machine guns in the homes of Albania," she explained. "In a population of three and half million. And once the men got those guns, of course they felt more powerful."

"But even in northern Albania, where the women are supposed to be obedient, really they are in charge," Laco Egro continued. "That's because they are doing everything and the men are doing nothing, except staying at home, smoking, and thinking about killing."

"But underneath all that, they respect the opinions of their wives," she said. "So I think that, by working with the women, we can persuade the men to put down their guns and start working."

by Imogen Foulkes in Albania


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