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In remote Albania, living by an honor code

Tribal culture is slowly eroding, but in Shala Valley, a remote region cut off in winter, the 15th century Kanun endures in some form.

September 28, 2008|Elena Becatoros | Associated Press

THETH, ALBANIA — The "Accursed Mountains" tower high above the Shala Valley, snow clinging to their summits even in the summer. Their jagged peaks hide one of Europe's most remote areas, where tribal culture lives on even as the modern world encroaches.

For about half the year, Shala, a protected national park, is cut off by heavy snowfall that blocks access to the two rock-strewn dirt tracks snaking through the mountains. The only way in or out is a seven-hour trek by foot to the nearest road, if the snow is not too deep.

Here a rapidly vanishing way of life lingers in the traditions of the Kanun, the code of 15th-century prince Lek Dukagjin. But fewer and fewer locals are willing to endure the harsh winter in Theth, a Catholic village of roughly whitewashed stone houses scattered along a valley where snow piles so high that even visiting a neighbor can be impossible. Less than two decades ago, about 200 families lived in Theth year-round. Now there are 10 or 15.

"Everybody leaves during the winter," says Dilda Dednoja, a lively 69-year-old who stopped spending winters in her home in Theth's Okol area about seven years ago.

"In the winter you got stuck in the snow and you really wanted to leave," she said, describing a life of privation and toil where food was stockpiled in autumn to last until spring, firewood had to be dragged into the house and villagers were isolated even from each other. "There would be 4 meters (13 feet) of snow outside the door; there was no doctor, no school."

Agetina Carku lives on the valley's slopes, in the first house on the dirt track leading from the mountains into Theth. At 76, she has been shuttering her home in the fall and moving into the northern city of Shkodra for the last two winters. But she'd still rather stay in the mountains.

"When I come here, I am reborn," she says, watching fireflies flicker in her garden on a summer night.

"I still wanted to stay, but the young generation doesn't want to work so hard. I can't stay here alone, I have to follow the family. It is a practical need, but it's also the tradition."

It is in isolated pockets such as these that Albania's traditions are strongest.

Many still live at least in part by the Kanun, a code handed down through the centuries in which "besa" -- loosely translated as word of honor or sacred promise -- is paramount. The code was adhered to by Albania's Muslim majority and Catholic and Orthodox Christian minorities.

The code covers everything from inheritances and the rights of the church to the treatment of livestock. Disobeying the Kanun could lead to harsh penalties that might include banishment or the transgressor's household being burned. A slight could lead to a blood feud that lasted for generations.

In Theth, nobody will sell land to an outsider, or even to another villager. Brides must come from outside the valley, a tradition that follows along the lines of the Kanun's rule that marriage within the same clan is forbidden.

"The Kanun is the law. Just like the state law," explains Gjovalin Lokthi, 39, a gruff "kryeplak," or elected chief of the village.

"With the Kanun you can get killed over honor," he says, sipping homemade raki in what was until recently Theth's only bar -- a wooden shack he converted from a goat shed. "But it's better to get killed, because what good is your life [if you spend] 100 years behind bars?"

Theth's "kulla," or tower, is a reminder of the devastating legacy the blood feuds can have. Now a tourist attraction, the windowless stone building was where the men of a feuding family could take refuge -- for months or even years. Easily defendable with sheer walls and slits for windows, the men survived on livestock kept on the ground floor and food brought by the family's women, who were not targeted.

Kullas are no longer used. But there are still families in northern Albania forced into isolation because of feuds, unable to walk out their front door for fear of being killed. And sometimes these days it's not just men but whole families who fear for their lives.

The Kanun has survived despite four decades of communist rule after World War II, with hardships such as mass imprisonment in labor camps and attempts to stamp out tribal practices.

"What the people went through here is pretty amazing," says Michael Galaty, associate professor of anthropology at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., who led a four-year anthropological and archaeological research project in the Shala Valley that also studied the effects of isolation. "You go from this isolated tribal culture to one of the harshest totalitarian dictatorships the world's ever known, and from there straight into the globalized community."

But many in Albania -- particularly in the rapidly modernizing capital, Tirana, -- now perceive the Kanun as brutal and arcane, with its dictates that blood be paid for blood and that a woman is "a sack made to endure."

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