A resurgence of blood-feud law

Sun Journal

Kanun: With the collapse of law and government, many Albanians have turned to a 500-year-old code of conduct based on family honor and revenge.

August 03, 1999|By Marjorie Miller | Marjorie Miller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

GOLAJ, Albania -- For 11 weeks, Zeke Rrushi could feel the tremors of NATO bombs and Serbian shells exploding on the border with Kosovo less than a mile away. He listened to intermittent sniper fire and to the staccato of automatic rifles close to his farmhouse.

But to Rrushi's mind, the only real danger to his family came from the barrel of his neighbor's shotgun.

The Rrushis have been fighting their own war for seven years, locked with their neighbors in a blood feud that has taken at least four lives and threatens to take many more.

Except for a few weeks during planting season and the harvest each year, when their enemies grant them a truce, Rrushi and 24 other adult males in his family have not set foot outside their compound of rustic farmhouses since 1992, for fear of being killed.

A few lucky ones have escaped the country, but the rest are prisoners in their fortress and do not expect to be freed anytime soon. NATO may have negotiated a peace with its foes, but not the Rrushis.

"No one has come to mediate between us and the other family," says Rrushi, 60. "There is no light at the end of this story."

Rrushi's story takes place deep in the mountains of northern Albania, where little has changed over the centuries. Land, family honor and revenge are the currency of these forgotten parts; the arm of government and rule of state law do not reach here.

The farmers of northern Albania live by a 500-year-old code called the "kanun" of Lek Dukagjini. Named for a 15th-century Albanian hero, the kanun dictates rules of behavior for family and village life. It lays out formal "laws" for marriage, birth, death and inheritance and also determines when it is permissible to kill an enemy in a blood feud.

It was, adherents and academics say, a system for administering justice among remote, warring tribes that even the occupying Ottoman Turks found difficult to control. Originally, the kanun meant to limit revenge killings by regulating them.

Handed down orally from generation to generation, a version of the kanun was put into writing in the 1920s by a Franciscan priest from Kosovo, a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's main republic.

The Communist government that ruled Albania from 1944 to 1991 tried to wipe out vendetta killings and the kanun. Publication of the code was prohibited, and possession of the text was outlawed. Blood-feud crimes dropped dramatically.

But the number of feuds has climbed steadily in Albania since the fall of communism and, particularly, since the collapse of the central government in 1997. A new Socialist-led government under 31-year-old Prime Minister Pandeli Majko that took office last year has been struggling to assert its control over armed bandits, tribal leaders and a cynical public.

An independent blood-feud reconciliation agency says there are more than 2,700 ongoing feuds in Albania, some of them old quarrels revived after lying dormant for half a century.

Although some academics say this estimate is far too high, inflated by Mafia-style killings and run-of-the-mill crimes, there is no doubt that Albanians are resorting to the kanun to fill the vacuum of modern law and government. Today, paperback copies of the kanun can be purchased in kiosks in the Albanian capital, Tirana.

The Rrushis own a dog-eared copy that is full of pencil notations, as if they have studied for a life-or-death exam. They say they are following the book in their feud with the Bardhoshi family, their neighbors who live less than half a mile away.

Blood feuds have been known to start over anything from a game of cards to untoward advances on a woman. But like many post-Communist disputes, the one between the Rrushis and Bardhoshis is over land -- about 6 acres.

To hear the Rrushis tell it, the Bardhoshis are Johnny-come-latelies to the region, having arrived about 160 years ago to settle on a plot of land the Rrushis say they once owned.

"We have been here for centuries. We gave them a small piece of land at that time, and then they abused our hospitality," Rrushi says.

After the collapse of communism, when collective ownership of the land was abolished, the Rrushis say the Bardhoshis "occupied" a plot of land that belonged to them. The Rrushis countered by seizing another plot of land belonging to the Bardhoshis, triggering the family feud.

"They started slapping and hitting. Then we got our weapons," says Isuf Rrushi, 70, another family elder.

The Rrushis attacked in June 1992. They say three Bardhoshis died in the gunbattle; the Bardhoshis insist that they lost four family members.

According to the kanun, "blood is paid for with blood . . . a head for a head." Murder violates family honor, and "an offense to honor is never forgiven."

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