Reflections on Vendetta in Contemporary Albania[1]



The past in interpretations

In what follows I am going to talk about Albania, the mountainous highlands to the North in particular. The inhabitants of Albania are held to be the descendants of the ancient Illyrians, from whom they inherited their language, traditions, customs and, to some extent, legal systems. This may be true of course, or partly true, but it is hardly our central concern today since we know little of the Illyrians other than that they existed until the 5th or 6th Century AD[2]. What is certain is that in the North Albanian mountain regions a set of ancient, clan-based societal relations were preserved right up until the middle of this century, which collapsed with the coming to power of the Communists, and were revived in an alarmingly altered form with the fall of the dictatorship.
"Ideological capitalisation" on the northern Albanian highlands started at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. The British travel-writer and anthropologist Edith Durham, remembered to this day as the "Queen of the Mountain People", presumed to have discovered "the land of the living past" on this territory. She, like many of her contemporary historians, such as Robert Seton-Watson for example, started from the assumption that the key to understanding the past was understanding the present[3]. Durham felt that she had found that past in North Albania, and that the Balkans could be approached as an in vivo tableau of a society functioning on the basis of tribal customary law, a sort of laboratory or reservation of the origins of European civilisation[4].
Decades have passed since Durham's Albanian travels. Since then we know from Eric Hobsbawm that tradition is not an eternal given[5], we know from Eric Wolf that untouched lands (reservations) have not existed for centuries - everything we see around us today is the product of the impact of cultures on one another[6]. We learn from Baudrillard's Tasaday paradox that anthropology is the study of 'frozen' (simulated) realities[7]. In the meantime two world wars and a plethora of dictators have taught us that history is not an autonomous process whereby one given phase can explain the next. The illusion that anthropology can somehow discover the past is long gone, but common sense, if such a thing exists at all, is still curious as to the narrative of a story which began at some point in the distant past and continues to this day. In the present instance the story is that of the Albanian blood feuds, which offers us a unique chance to trace its most recent developments, at least, in vivo.

The present in a story and other facts

We can start right away at the end, a recent event. On September 16, 1997, Azem Hajdari and Gafur Mazreku - both of North Albanian origin - quarreled publicly in Tirana and exchanged a considerable number of slaps in the face. Two days later, on September 18, at 11:35 a.m., Mazreku attempted to kill Hajdari. An eyewitness, Ferdinand Xhaferri, remembers the events as follows: "a few moments before the shooting I was sitting with Hajdari drinking coffee. Mazreku came to us and asked Hajdari to talk with him. Hajdari invited him to come and take a coffee with us but he refused." A second witness takes up the story: "I saw Mazreku with a pistol, type TT, in his hands (...) and some seconds later I heard four gunshots and Hajdari fell down, bleeding but still alive." In the first session of the trial against him, Mazreku said: "I am too young (42 years old) and I do not know the Kanun (the traditional law of the North Albanian highlands) in detail. Nor was I pushed by my family to take revenge. Hajdari offended me and I defended my dignity. It is not a political act.”[8]
Obviously a lot of this calls for explanation. In Albanian terms this would be an unremarkable incident were it not for a number of distinctive details: the setting for the story was the national Parliament; "publicly" here means "on television"; and the protagonists are Members of Parliament - Mazreku with the ruling Socialists and Hajdari in the opposition Democrats. The quarrel originally broke out over the amount of value added tax to be levied. Berisha, the leader of the opposition, referred to Hajdari as the "symbol of democracy" and termed the government "criminal". Fatos Nano, the Prime Minister, denied that the affair had any political import and declared instead that "Mazreku has been pushed by the medieval mentality of the Kanun."
Before I get to the collection of medieval customary laws known as the Kanun, I would like to give a broad outline of the social and political context within which this seemingly unbelievable story took place.
The so-called "pyramid schemes" of Albania was a sort of credit union network which promised enormous returns on a short investment period. It was run, as it later transpired, by the secret police, with the firm support of Sali Berisha, the Prime Minister of the day, who characterised the irregular banking system as "a practical path to capitalist development" during his election campaign. The secret police showed their gratitude for Prime Ministerial assistance by contributing actively to the fraudulence which won Berisha's Democratic Party the 1996 elections. This fact was recognised by foreign observers too, but they shrank from proposing sanctions, anxious as ever about "regional stability".
The "banks" functioned for a while longer: the population liquidised their assets in droves, invested every last penny in the state-supported network, and, for the first few months, the investors actually made a profit. Then the money ran out and the people, their houses and herds sold off, became increasingly restless and took their demands for remuneration resolutely to the streets from February 1997. The rest is history, visible on TV screens around the world: the protest developed spontaneously into a civil war, hysterical masses broke into barracks and weapons stores and wreaked havoc. The state collapsed in days, because its main pillars, the guardians of internal security, fled abroad with their stolen money. Pro-Socialist rebels from southern Albania reached Tirana and found the northerners disorganised and demoralised: they could hardly support Berisha's Democratic clan, also of northern origin, after having lost so heavily on the pyramid schemes he supported.
Peace was reached provisionally through foreign intervention. New elections were called for, which the Socialists indisputably won, and a new parliament was in place by the summer of 1997. The ministers had barely sworn allegiance to the national constitution - which in every other respect closely resembled Western models - when the vendetta story related above took place.
All this was considerably more complicated than this brief sketch suggests, of course, but a number of political anthropological inferences can nevertheless be traced. We have a multi-party democracy in which the main determinant of party preference is tribal loyalty rather than ideological orientation: the northern Gegs support their own Berisha's Democrats, the southern Tosks stick with Fatos Nano's Socialists. We have a democratic electoral system whose results are decided by the long arm of the secret police, a Western style system of state institutions which is maintained by a private banking system, and a banking system which itself operates as a pyramid scheme. And finally we have parliamentary representatives who, instead of enacting laws, resolve their differences on the basis of a medieval document, the Kanun of a certain Lekë Dukagjini.

The simulacrum of western democracy, Baudrillard would respond, is merely a surface, an appearance, beneath which lurks an entirely other reality: up to a certain critical point everything appears real, but in an unguarded moment the tenuous membrane breaks and the "genuine essence" emerges.

The Kanun in the present and in the past

The problem being, of course, that no "genuine essence" exists, unless we regard the breakthrough of destructive and murderous desires in that "unguarded" condition as such. The "genuine essence" is forgotten, submerged in an amnesia inculcated by an endless, ruthless dictatorship. The consequent perplexity, the rootlessness, is best illustrated by the parliamentary vendetta story, which, as a consequence of ignorance, is a mere simulation, a parody of the blood feud which is understood to be tradition. What is most depressing in all this is not that Mazreku, the lawmaker, did not base his attempt to exact atonement on the law of the state, but that he fulfilled a blood contract in full awareness of his own ignorance, he accepted that he was playing according to an unknown set of rules. Since he vaguely remembered that according to some law he is required to kill, the other law could never give him adequate satisfaction. And if he, the elected, doesn't know the rules, what can be expected of the ordinary North Albanian voter?
But what in fact is this Kanun which even the Prime Minister of the country alludes to in his condemnation of Gafur Mazreku MP? Can the "true essence" of Albanian society, which only rises to the surface when other powers are waning, be uncovered perhaps in these ancient "blood laws"?
Like all documents of uncertain origin, opinions about the Kanun abound. For those who enthuse about heroic national tales without interrogating their authenticity, like Leonard Fox, the English translator of the text "The Kanun is the expression and reflection of the Albanian character, a character which embodies an uncompromising morality based on justice, honour, and respect for oneself and others.”[9] Legend has it that the chief of the North Albanian highlands, Lekë Dukagjini introduced it to the territories under his control in the middle of the 15th Century, and it was gradually accepted as common law in Shkodra, Gjakovo, Kosovo, Montenegro and MacedoniaIt wasn't fixed in writing until the 20th Century - according to the national romantics its origins can be traced partly to the ancient Illyrian legal system, partly to the Laws of Manu (Manava Dharmasastra). The origin of the Dukagjini family is shrouded in obscurity - they could have brought the disparate elements that went into their own distinctive legal system from almost anywhere: the striking similarities between the common laws of the northern Caucasian peoples and the Kanun could have originated right here. It was the valid law right through till 1912, the date of the proclamation of Albanian independence, but even then it persisted in certain places as a "parallel" informal legal system.

Gjeçov's national vision and the Kanun

If we examine the Lek Kanun with a slightly more skeptical eye in the wider regional context of Central and Eastern Europe, we will come away with a slightly more nuanced picture. In the first decade of the 20th Century Shtjefën Gjeçov, a revolutionary, Albanian patriot and Franciscan monk, starts to collect the common laws and rules of self-governance in effect in North Albania. He notices that the region remained virtually untouched throughout the five Centuries of Ottoman occupation. The reason was, on one hand, that the Islamic religious code, the shariah, was able and willing to operate in tandem with the local legal systems, on the other hand the northern Albanian highlands were one of those "islands" within the Ottoman empire where the Turkish powers couldn't, and didn't really want to establish administrative control[10]. Gjeçov understood that if he was looking for some kind of "authentic Albanian" with which to legitimate the later Albanian national aspiration, this was the place. The other Slavs living in the Balkans found their national specificity in their Orthodoxy, but this was not available to Gjeçov, since Albania had a Muslim majority and Christian minority even then, and neither denomination could be considered "nation specific". So instead of religion he hit upon the "blood" metaphor, which was both the basis of the "blood laws" (blood feudalism, the clan-family-extended-family relationship) and the expression of the national "blood" bond. The extent to which he succeeded in realising this metaphor amazed me once again on my last visit to Macedonia. When I asked the intellectual head of a Kosovar refugee family how they were getting along with the Macedonian Albanians who had taken them in, he simply replied "Like family. After all we're the same blood, aren't we?" In fact they had met for the first time and were not related.
In a series of publications from the beginning of the century on, Gjeçov's method resembles that of the German romantics of Jena in their attempt to create an ideological basis for German unity, or of Vuk Karadžiæ, the collector of folk art, or of the author of Bulgaria's pseudo-history, Father Paisi, in the era of national revival. And if today we have "linguistic nationhood", "religious nationhood", "cultural nationhood", then we must include the Albanians and their "law nationhood", since in Gjeçov's conception it is just this that binds them as a national unit.
The Kanun text that has come down to us today is an ideologically biased product, but it is also a professional piece of ethnographic anthropology. In it, Lekë Dukagjini appears - implicitly of course - as a kind of Albanian Moses, whose teachings are recorded in the memories of a tribal elite and Elders in the form of proverbs and rites. Gjeçov's approach to this "unwritten Torah" is that of the Talmudist: he surrounds quotes from the work with his own interpretations, and reconstructs the "ancient law" on the basis of his own empirical observations. In footnotes he draws parallels with the Laws of Manu, Roman Law, Greek Public Law, the Ten Commandments. These serve, on the one hand, to increase the Kanun's prestige, and on the other, albeit unintentionally, to illustrate that his customary law interpretation is based on an acquaintance with these other laws.
However, Gjeçov doesn't merely collect, interpret, and reconstruct the various laws, he also includes examples of the application of the laws in his published text, and supplements the ancient Kanun with sympathetic (to him) dispositions from the epoch, such as "Anyone who joins the police will have his house burned down and will be exiled for life" . He signed this last himself - I guess the Banner of Kurbin was enacted on Gjeçov's initiative. His examples are generally taken from legal history, reminiscent of folk-tales for the most part, or tales of crimes against religious figures and the subsequent retribution.
At this point Gjeçov is evidently perplexed. The monk's Kanun includes examples of severe punishments against religious persons, but his Christian principles of love and forgiveness are understandably ill at ease in these surroundings of vendetta and revenge. He cites a precedent from the previous century. Two young men steal butter from a Franciscan monk. The village chief gets word of it and is on the point of executing them when the priest pardons them. What is interesting about this is that in the Kanun theft is not a capital offence ("only blood requires blood", or infidelity in exceptional cases), yet the Christian feels obliged to give forgiveness a chance.
Aside from this, Gjeçov succeeds in suppressing his conscience, and doesn't mix Christian morality into his ethnographic observations. He managed this by simply omitting the sacred in his descriptions of societal-hierarchical relations amongst clans and tribes, the practises of hospitality, the taking of oaths, the means and reasons for revenge. The punishment is always mundane rather than celestial, and the mountain people are not motivated by heathen beliefs but by a kind of daily routine, a simple fidelity to the law. This solution is about as honest as can be expected from someone in his situation.

Durham's vision of the past in the present

Gjeçov thus managed to forge the key to future national integrity in the reconstruction of historical laws. Edith Durham, whose wanderings in search of the "living past" in the local customs of North Albania virtually coincided with Gjeçov's, paid much less attention to issues of family structure and economics. But she was extremely detailed about the historical pagan-sacred background of the blood customs, and of the ignorance in religious matters of the locals.[11] In her opinion: "The most important fact in North Albania essential is blood-vengeance, which is indeed the old, old idea of purification by blood. […] All else is subservient to it”[12] Durham's reading of Albanian customary law in her last book (1928) is that the real goal of vengeance is not punishment of the guilty, but the discharge of a murder rite: a blood offering to the restless spirit of the dead relative so that it may find peace. Traditions of blood-drinking (often from the skull), cannibalism, scalping and decapitation have a revered and ancient genealogy in the Balkans. They originate - and this doesn't make it any less embarrassing - in the Egyptian cult of the dead, which emigrated to the region via the Greeks (the cult of Dionysus, Orphism)[13].
Apart from their ideological and exegetical differences, however, the accounts these two authors give of northern Albanian law and society at the beginning of the Century are strikingly similar: their descriptions of prohibitions and gestures accord with one another.
Each of them "simulates" a tradition from an identical terrain, Gjeçov with an eye to the future, Durham to the past - gathering their data from identical sources in many cases. Both authors emphasise that the complicated familial and ritual relations are known exclusively to the top layer of the clan's hierarchy, and they alone can adjudicate over the procedures used in a given affair or vendetta, and the applicable sanctions in the case of irregularity. Guardians, interpreter and repositories of the law exist, who carry authority in one another's eyes and in those of the lower rungs in the hierarchy.
Judging by accounts of that time, a unique institutionalised representative democracy existed in North Albania. The "local self-government" (Village Elders and Minor Elders) had the power of veto over the "county councils" (Chiefs of the Banner); the "Lord Mayor" himself (the Standard Bearer) was not immune from censure by his lesser colleagues or by the people. These positions are filled by popular vote and the elected can be recalled at any time. The "parliament" or "senate" (Assembly), in which these representatives are joined by the "media" (Heralds) and "tax collectors" (Imposers of fines), sits periodically. In especially important cases, a sort of "National Resident's Committee" gathered a representative from every single household for discussion. It is difficult to judge in retrospect how well this model functioned, or indeed whether it existed at all and was not merely an fabrication of Gjeçov's dream of popular representation, but it is a fact that these local institutions were also mentioned by other contemporary travellers.Assembly sessions followed were strictly regulated. If a single member of Albania's current parliament had known these rules, the recent fiasco could have been avoided. Hajdani would have been obliged to pay Mazreku five sheep for the slap in the face: the latter in turn would have paid the former 500 Grosh (or Lek today) for his public offence - the two would thought better of it in no time. Under the circumstances however the following amendment could perhaps be proposed: "If someone shoot at another person in the course of an assembly, his house is burned, he is executed by the assembly, and his blood remains unavenged”[14].

The Post-War events - shock and amnesia

Throughout history a variety of conquerors attempted to establish lasting religious and administrative dominance in the North Albanian highlands, but all ended in failure. Mehmet Shehu, the National Liberation Army general, was the first to understand in 1944 that if Communist rule was to be extended to the area - that is, if it was to be modernised - then, rather than repealing local laws or waiting for voluntary surrender and demilitarisation, they would have to get rid of the supervisors and executors of the laws. While the old Albanian history books say that "In the newly liberated zones the National Liberation Councils fulfilled various administrative functions”[15] Reginald Hibbert, one of fifty British officers ordered into Albania who fought the war to the end on the side of the Communist Partisans, remembers that after the battle of Dibra, the First Brigade, under the leadership of Mehmet Shehu, set off to the North along the Drin river to annihilate the tribal leaders up that way. "The followings of the chieftains tended to melt away and were in any case no match for the Partisan Brigades which had acquired battle experience”[16] What happened in reality was that Partisans poured in from Yugoslavia and executed approximately a third of the adult male population of the region - the elite of the clans and tribes, the Elders, anybody who had any knowledge of local law and self-governance.
My most shocking experience during field-work in Albania in 1997 was not that the locals do not have their own folk music, dance and handcraft traditions, but that they have no memory of their own predecessors, of the clan to which they belonged only 50 years earlier, and of how, or more particularly when, their current settlements were established. In Kalcë, a Catholic settlement situated high on a cliff, the locals could only tell me that their ancestors arrived anything from 80 to 300 years ago, but they knew for sure that they were fleeing a vendetta. Of course there was another event they remembered clearly: the arrival of the Partisans in 1944.
The massacre - hitherto unimaginable, and wholly inexplicable within the framework of local customary law - evoked such a shock that it caused a total amnesia in the minds of the survivors. The hierarchic tribal relationships disintegrated, the new authorities introduced a general compulsory education, the idea of social redemption broke up spiritual belief, everyday terror broke up the traditional vengeance mechanism, the meaning of the old stories was lost or forgotten. Their place was filled by the exteriority of time and history - the region one-time visioned as an anthropological reserve dissolved into a ghetto state - the highlands had finally attained "civilisation". And, more importantly, everything came into state ownership and property disputes per se ceased to exist immediately.

Blood feud pictures of today - game without rules

I am inclined to believe what my informants told me in agreement with the official line: that during the period of dictatorship the vendetta system disappeared. I spoke to a policeman in early 1997 who told me his father had been murdered in 1946. He grew up fatherless and joined the police in when 1990 came around, acquired a gun and shot his father's murderer. He still serves the law, but he couldn't tell me which law, since, he said, he wouldn't act to prevent a vendetta's fulfillment even if he shared a bedroom with the murderer. This, according to the policeman, is the order of things. Why should he think any differently? In that same year his village representative attempted murder in the country's parliament.
After 1990 a wave of vendettas flooded North Albania. It may be that the dissolution of strong centralised authority, the collapse of central institutions simulating governmental activity, led to a revival of their virtual "genuine essence", which would never disappoint them and which presented some sort of safety. Except that when they finally reached the point of settling their decades-long grievances in the "old way", with a virtual tradition, nobody knew the rules of the game anymore. They only remembered that "blood requires blood". The instruments of supervision, the authority, the entire hierarchy of the clans and tribes which had regulated common law and ensured balance had disappeared.
In Shkodra, a town of 80,000 inhabitants, there are about a hundred families "in blood" at the moment. The town is therefore home to about 1,000 - 1,500 potential murderers and victims. "Peace-makers" operating in the town are complete outsiders. They have neither family nor friendship ties to the protagonists - all they can do is explain the rules. Rules which they themselves lifted from the Kanun, and whose validity was guaranteed by the authority of the Village Elders, the Minor Elders and the Chiefs of the Clan. The job of peace-maker doesn't carry much prestige these days, nor does it pay well. Their advice may or may not be heeded, there is no threat of retaliation. One peace-maker, for example, spent six months visiting a certain offended family trying to convince them not to kill the murderer's three year old son, to wait instead for a few years until the father gets out of prison. He didn't succeed.
When I asked people "in blood" - potential victims or murderers, reconciled or not - what they think about the soul and the afterlife, they almost all answer that the priests say these things exist. When I asked them whether they believe in it themselves they answer yes. And when I asked whether their actions are not sinful, they shrug their shoulders and say its not their choice: their families would never speak to them again if they didn't settle the debt. God cannot be the authority in a region where nobody has met His earthly representatives in forty years.
They trust the state even less than the church. For the northern Albanian mountain dwellers there is no difference between the Communist powers of the past, who instilled fear and disrupted their ancient relationships, and the impotent government of the present. Nothing good has ever come from outside rule, not even when they themselves elect their representatives.
Today, therefore, the ancient game is played without rules or adjudicators. And every year hundreds pay the price of an amnesia enforced by a repressive and ruthless modernisation, from a distance of forty-five years. Reawakening is a long and desperate process, and it is possible that it will take another cataclysm to make the northern mountain dwellers believe that their identity doesn't necessarily or exclusively originate in the ancient laws, and that there are virtues other than unrestrained pride and revenge to underpin a sense of belonging.
The story of Albanian blood feudalism is not over yet. It is difficult to draw any conclusions and even less feasible to advise solutions. Orwell's anti-utopias appear, from a number of perspectives, like a gentleman's sport when compared to the reality of Albanian Communism. In Rorty's interpretation, Orwell's vision was of a world in which human solidarity was - deliberately, through careful planning - made impossible . It is next to impossible to influence, from outside, the functioning of a society which has lost its past through a process of enforced amnesia, and lost a sense of security based on solidarity and legal regulation. Given the current circumstances in North Albania it would be just as difficult to consolidate the rule of law as to reconstruct the former clan elites.


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[1] This paper was presented at the conference on The History of Vendetta, organised by the International Association for the History of Crime and Criminal Justice, in Bad Homburg, Gemany in June 1999.
[2] Not only is this origin myth treated as authentic in historical writings about Albania today (Pollo-Puto, 1981:240; Skendi, 1967:115; Logoreci, 1977:16), but a number of well known Western scholars have also adopted this national romanticist position uncritically (Jelavich, 1977:223, Schevill, 1991:34; Costa, 1995:1). Sceptics remind us that the debate on Illyrian origins was suppressed in the 1950s by the dictator Enver Hoxha (Lubonja, 1999:2). Moderate scepticism in this issue is evinced by Miranda Vickers (1995:1) and Peter Bartl. An outstanding account of the construction of the idea of Illyrian-Albanian continuity by German philosophers and linguists can be read in the latter’s book (Bartl, 1995:18-19).
[3] “The past as a key to the present ­ this is true of  every country and period. The present as a key to the past ­ this is peculiarly true of Central and South­Eastern Europe” – stated the famous British historian not long after the end of the Great War. (Seton-Watson, 1923:16)
[4] ”The wanderer from the West stands awestruck amongst them, filled with vague memories of cradle of his race, saying: »This did I do some thousands of years ago; ... so thought I and so acted I in the beginning of time” – noted the British anthropologist in 1909 (Durham 1985:1).
[5] Erik Hobsbawn, 1983
[6] Eric Wolf ,1990.
[7] Jean Baudrillard, 1994:7-9.
[8] I owe the precise details of the story to Artan Puto but the same story was published by East European Constitutional Review (vol. 6, numb.4, Fall 1997, p.4 ). Probably the author of the both texts is the same - Mr. Puto is the Albanian correspondent of the magazine.
[9] Leonard Fox, 1989:XIX .
[10] The main reason for that was that the Ottoman authorities treated the inhabitants as a nomadic tribe and were satisfied with lump tax payments (Shaw:1991:150-151; Vickers, 1995:5).
[11] Both books written by the English scientist lady mention that: “It is said that Pope Paul II (1464) excommunicated him [Lekë Dukagjini ­ P. K.] for his most un-Christian code” (Durham, 1928, 66; 1985:27) and she also quotes certain Marcus Crisius, a Catholic Missionary in 1653: “It’s incredible how ignorant the people now are of religion,” although she doesn’t provide a source for (Durham, 1928:24). “The teachings of Islam and of Christianity, the Sheriat and the Church Law, all have to yield to the Canon of Lek” (Durham, 1985:25).
[12] Durham, 1985:31.
[13] Durham, 1928:155-179
[14] Gjeçov, 1989:202
[15] Pollo-Puto, 1981:240.
[16] Hibbert, 1991:192. All Hibbert records after this is that a certain Yugoslav political commissar, Velimir Stojnich, and later Enver Hoxha himself, sharply criticised Shehu for “ruthlessness practiced  ... in his dealings with ‘nationalists’ and non-Partisans in general” (Hibbert, 1991:218; 229),