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Albania's Deadly Family Feuds Defy Limitation


SHKODRA, Albania — Isa Haruni wakes up each morning wondering if this day will be his last. He and his 75 male relatives are potential targets in a 7-year-old blood feud sparked by a killing committed by a cousin.

"Every day, I kiss my children before I leave home thinking I might not have another chance," says the merchant, his broad shoulders slumping and dark eyes twitching.

Haruni, 42, and his relatives aren't the only potential victims. Under decades of communist rule, deadly family feuds were rare in Albania, but communism is history, and nearly everyone in Albania has a gun. Old debts are being settled, and new blood is being shed.

The code of revenge, known as Kanun, was first laid down nearly 600 years ago by a northern Albanian prince: If a man kills another, a male member of the victim's family must respond in kind.

As it did in similar lands around the world, the blood feud became a popular form of justice in a highly armed, tribal society where government authority was weak and a man's honor was everything. Whole families were wiped out by feuds that sometimes lasted for generations.

Now, although most Albanians continue to reject Kanun, the practice has been revived in Albania, fed by the chaos and armed insurrection that have unsettled the country since the late 1990s.

Authorities have sought unsuccessfully to track down military and police weapons that spread through the population after looting during months of unrest in 1997.

Some private groups are working to reduce bloodletting.

One is campaigning to modify the rules of Kanun so that only a killer would be targeted instead of all the males in his extended family

Headed by Emin Spahija, the Peace Missionaries Union is concentrating on the district of Malesija e Madhe (Great Highland), where about 120 families are said to be engaged in feuds. Spahija meets with hundreds of villagers every week, cajoling them to pledge adherence to limited feuding.

South of that district, in Shkodra, with a population of about 170,000, more than 500 families--about 2,000 people--are feuding. In one neighborhood alone, 118 children reportedly have been left without fathers as a result of revenge killings.

One death is too many for other anti-feud groups, which consider Spahija's initiative an attempt to legitimize Kanun.

"This move is unconstitutional," asserts Rasim Gjoka, a philosopher who works full-time for the Foundation for Conflict Resolution, a nongovernmental group that seeks to reconcile participants in feuds. "What it says is you're allowed to kill this man, but not this other one."

Spahija considers his idea pragmatic.

"Allowing thousands of men to live their lives freely and not be held responsible for crimes committed by their relatives, whom they probably don't even know, is an end that justifies the means," he argues.

Haruni's ordeal began Jan. 21, 1995, when his drunk cousin gunned down a 33-year-old man who had slapped and insulted him. The killing widowed a 20-year-old woman and orphaned a 2-month-old son.

After the killing, 75 males of Haruni's extended family began what he calls "voluntary house arrest" to keep safe from attacks. Haruni's second son spent the first two years of his life inside the family house.

According to Kanun, women, children and livestock should not be targets in feuds, but few seem to respect it these days. Recently an 11-year-old boy was killed in Shkodra in revenge for a crime committed by his adult cousin.

After three years, Haruni's relatives were offered a one-year truce by the victim's family, which guaranteed that for 12 months no one would be killed. But the family refused to extend the truce, and Haruni's daily flirt with death began.

"After their refusal, we decided to go out," he says. "If none of us would work, we would not survive anyway, because there was no food for the family."

Haruni doubts he will see an end to blood feuds in his lifetime. He's not sure his children will either.

"What can you expect of my sons who spent three years in one room surrounded by men with guns?" he asks. "My youngest son, at the age of 5, can already load and unload the rifle faster than I can."

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