Albania's deadly tradition of blood feuds as pervasive as ever


The EU is anxious that Albania stamps out the kanun, the exacting of revenge, before it can be seriously assessed as an EU applicant

I AM on Corfu’s northeast coast, looking across the straits at the Albanian coastline. Two articles in The Irish Times of June 15th jump off the page: Conor Lally’s “Finglas- based Hyland gang are the chief suspects for 12 gun murders” and Courtney Brooks’s “Immigrants meet gardaí about ways of cracking cultural barriers”.

Different cultures, different behaviours. Two months ago, Albania lodged its formal application for EU membership and suddenly the two ends of Europe fall into place: when Albania is enfolded into the EU, it will bring with it the concept of the kanun, or blood-feud, which seems to be an ineradicable element in Albanian social culture.

How will gardaí deal with a way of life and death that is intensely cultural, permeating a mindset which has known the kanun for at least five centuries?

Leading Albanian novelist Ismail Kadaré has described its origins and current practices in Broken April (Vintage Books). It is a chilling as well as a gripping read – how the kanun affects every aspect of life from the cradle to the grave.

With existing deaths for “family dishonour” among Muslims throughout Europe, whose perpetrators regard themselves as obeying a law higher than that of the host country, the EU is especially anxious that Albania stamps out the blood feud before it can be seriously assessed as an EU applicant.

Albania has established the Committee of Nationwide Reconciliation to address the phenomenon, but its pervasiveness, especially in remote rural areas in the north of the country, where tribal customs still predominate over national laws, makes it almost impossible to suppress entirely.

As a team of Serbian sociologists reported in 2004, “it is difficult to comprehend the character, mentality and pattern of behaviour of Albanians without taking into account the kanun. Not only is it far from being eradicated but, down to the present day, its norms continue to regulate many of the Albanians’ daily life matters.”

Although the kanun does not appear in any part of the Albanian constitution, it is an integral part of Albanian life (and death) and MPs are at the forefront of finding ways to minimise its impact.

Outlawed under Enver Hoxha’s communist regime, it has found new acceptance not only in Albania but in Albanian enclaves in Kosovo and Montenegro.

Recent legislation imposes stiff penalties not only for feud-related killings but for the very existence of a feud, in a desperate attempt to end the practice, but local traditions weigh much more heavily than laws passed in Tirana.

Reconciliation seems to have a much greater potential, since it is locally based, with the besa or temporary suspension of the feud becoming the preferred solution, since it is itself embedded in the code. As one MP put it, “people don’t trust justice and that’s why they return to the kanun. They lack confidence in their problems being solved by legal means.”

The kanun, or code, principally governs the revenge that must be exacted by one family when one of its members has been killed by another. Traditionally, a blood- feud would be initiated over dishonour by one family to another or in a dispute over land ownership.

Not unlike an Italian vendetta, it requires that if I kill you, your family must kill me. Then one of my family must avenge me and so on ad infinitum. More seriously, the kanun has taken on a new lease of life with the advent of drugs gangs operating under cover of the kanun.

From 1998-2003, official figures put the number of feud- related deaths at 330; today it is approximately 10 per cent or less of all murders in the country. In one southern town, 28 deaths have been directly identified with a single blood-feud over a seven- year period.

The only place where a potential feud victim is safe is in his own home. Some of those living in fear have not left the immediate environs of their homes for over 50 years. It is officially reckoned that more than 1,000 families throughout Albania are living in isolation for fear of feud reprisals – that is a drop of more than 50 per cent in four years, due to the reconciliation process.

The children of these families are home-educated, their numbers estimated variously at between 200 and 800 across the country.

Many years ago, the late Paul Adamidi-Frascheri, chamberlain to King Zog and son of Zog’s minister for education, explained to me the rigorous rules which even extend to hospitality: if someone you are supposed to kill comes to your house, you must give him bed and board for as long as he wants to stay and you may not touch a hair of his head.

But, as Paul explained with what I can only describe as a mixture of relish and sang-froid: “My dear chap, as soon as he left my property, I simply blew his head off.” So much for a Cambridge education.

This week Club Mediterranée announced that it has dropped its plan for a resort near Albania’s southern provincial capital, Saranda, due to disputes over land ownership. I wonder why.