By Llazar Semini
SHKODER, Albania (AP) — Throughout her short life, Marsela has lived in hiding.
Few people ever visit. Her mother won’t let her go to school or play outside with other kids. She can’t even stray from the yard of her rundown home.
If she does, she risks being gunned down in the street.
The 9-year-old is the child of a blood feud family. In 1995, long before she was born, her father killed a friend in a drunken rage — sparking a series of retaliatory killings that have left five people dead so far.
Her 40-year-old mother, Marie, is taking no chances that any of her four children, aged 7 to 19, will be next. Marsela has left the house less than 10 times in her life. She doesn’t even really own shoes — a pointless luxury since she can get by indoors with knitted booties.
Under a centuries-old Albanian code of conduct known as the Kanun that regulates many aspects of life, killings must be avenged with blood. Grieving relatives are duty-bound to target the culprit and the culprit’s family. Now the justice minister is pledging the strongest laws in a generation to end the cycle of killing: Eduard Halimi said this month that new laws currently being drafted would carry a minimum sentence of 40 years to life imprisonment for anyone convicted of a blood feud killing, up from 25 years to life.
“Blood feud, this unique phenomenon in Europe, is the most absurd behavior of a civilized society,” Halimi said in a recent Facebook post.
Albania’s blood feuds are carried on through generations. Traditionally only men could be targeted in the vendettas, and only they could exact revenge. But the code is loosely interpreted these days, and nobody is safe.
That leaves entire families living in extreme isolation for years, struggling through abject poverty as nobody can leave the house to earn a living.
“Everybody speaks about the men who can be killed, but they forget those men have children. And look at their lives,” said Liljana Luani, a teacher who operates through a charity to give home lessons to Marsela and other blood feud children.
Blood feuds were largely eradicated under Albania’s 46-year communist rule. But they made a strong comeback after the regime’s 1990 collapse, and are particularly deep-rooted in Albania’s rugged north.
Police figures show 225 feud killings over the past 14 years, though charities advocating an end to the practice say the true number is much higher, with many slayings misreported as ordinary murders. The Interior Ministry says 67 families, accounting for 155 people, are currently living in hiding across the country. Charities say the actual number is closer 6,000 people, including hundreds of women and children living in isolation in this country of 3.2 million.
In the northern district of Shkoder alone, Luani counts 120 children living in hiding. Authorities put the official figure at 33.
Marsela’s family lives off her mother’s meager monthly social assistance of $79. Food comes mostly from a vegetable patch in the 100 square meter yard, and from livestock — a cow, two calves, a sheep and a lamb that live in the humidity-ridden front room. Her mother asked that the family’s surname and exact location be withheld because of the death threat that hangs over them.
Marie and her four surviving children have been fending for themselves since the death last year of Marie’s husband Mirash, a violent man who drank and often beat his wife and children. It wasn’t the feud that got him: He killed himself after shooting dead his 14-year-old daughter in a dispute.
His suicide didn’t expunge the vendetta, which endures, blighting the lives of his widow and surviving children.
Cooped up in a small house, their whole world centers on four rooms and the yard. The family’s two boys have little to look forward to except one thing: Revenge.
A boy is considered a man — and old enough to participate in a feud — when he turns 15. Marsela’s 12-year-old brother, Zef, is biding his time.
Over the years the other family involved in the feud tried repeatedly — and failed — to kill their father, uncles and cousins. Their cousins, on the other hand, were far more successful — killing four people in the opposing family. In Zef’s world, he will have to kill those who come after his people first.
“A few days ago, he told me he would take the rifle and take revenge in three years’ time, when he became an adult,” said Marie, her brow furrowed as she stirred a pot of beans on a hand-made stove that doubles as a heater.
A quiet boy with tousled brown hair, Zef glowers when asked his age.
“I’m still not a man,” he retorts before running away into the yard.
Blood feud children, particularly boys, have a preordained, bleak future, says Mentor Kikia, a journalist who runs the Alternative Civile, a non-governmental organization advocating a government crackdown on vendettas.
“They feel obliged to commit murders and turn into criminals,” he says.
Alfred Vukaj knows the burden of revenge. From age 2 he was shuffled around relatives’ homes after losing both parents in a feud.
Last November, aged barely 16, he tracked down a man he believed was involved in the vendetta, allegedly opening fire with an assault rifle in downtown Shkoder. But he lost control of the weapon, accidentally killing a passing 24-year-old washing machine repairman and wounding a student, authorities say. The man he was targeting was wounded but survived.
Vukaj was arrested and jailed pending trial for murder. He faces a maximum life sentence if convicted. And he might have sparked a new blood feud with the dead man’s family.
Dread hangs over the days of Shkurte Ndrevataj, who worries constantly about the fate of her six children, particularly her five sons aged 10-20. Her family has been in hiding since her brother-in-law sparked a feud by killing a man over a perceived social slight during a dinner in 2000. He and her husband’s two other brothers have all been killed since, and the couple has taken in an orphaned 6-year-old nephew.
It is 18-year-old Pashk who worries his mother the most. “He only wants to take revenge,” she says, tears welling in her eyes. “What else can he think of inside a house or in the yard?”
She longs for her children to go abroad, where they might be safe — although blood feuds can follow people across the world.
Pashk’s older brother, 20-year-old Pepa, defies the isolation and ventures to school occasionally — about once a month.
“Of course I am afraid when I go to school,” says Pepa, who is trying to catch up all his missed schooling and graduate in a couple of years. “And I have no friendships there. Classmates are so cold and stay away from me.”
Nobody wants to get too close to a blood feud kid.
Defying the Kanun comes at great risk. Sixteen-year-old Eduard, another vendetta child, broke his isolation by going to school. Luani, the teacher, knew him well. A pretty boy with blond curls, he paid for his defiance with his life: He was gunned down two years ago, on his way back from school.
“When they grow up and become adults,” Luani said, “either they fear being killed, or feel obliged to kill for their family’s honor.”
NGOs say the government has done too little to stamp out vendettas or help the families caught up in them.
A center set up in central Albania for about 20 blood feud children to live in — including four of the Ndrevataj boys — was shut down due to lack of funding in 2008, just two years after opening. The Education Ministry has plans for isolated children to attend lessons online via Skype, but it has yet to be put into practice.
In an attempt to pressure authorities, the country’s ombudsman recently organized an event in the capital, Tirana, for 12 feud children aged 8-16 from the Shkoder district, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) northwest of the capital.
They needed heavy police protection for their day trip last December.
Marsela was among them. It was the first time she had ever visited Tirana. Her eyes shone at the memory as she recited a line from a poem she learned for the trip, on which the children also held an exhibition of drawings.
Shyly, she expressed her hopes for a normal life: “Stop the killing.”