Despite attempts by human rights groups and the government to intervene, a draconian social code has wreaked havoc on the lives of countless Albanians.
The code, known as Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit or simply Kanun (or, in English, The Code of Lekë Dukagjini) allows someone to kill another person to avenge an earlier murder or moral humiliation. The locals refer to it as Gjakmarrja (blood-taking).
The Albanian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organisation, reckons the pervasive nature of blood feuds is due to a collapse of the judicial structure. Developed by Alexander ‘Lekë' Dukagjini, hero of the Albanian resistance against the Turks, this highly dreaded law has forced more than 300 families to go into hiding for the rest of their lives.
It is late afternoon when we arrive in Kalmhet, part of the grey and tormented city of Leja. Rosa waits for us. Her house is hidden in a vineyard not far from the main road. The heavy iron gate has a window near the lock: it looks like an arrow slit, perhaps a portent of what awaits us beyond the entrance.
Rose is 40, and has the unkempt look of someone who has given up hope and has nothing left to live for. We are welcomed in and are seated on a sofa in the living room when Elsa walks in. A beautiful girl with dark hair gathered in a pony tail, the 25-year-old is Rosa's daughter. She offers an offensive Albanian welcome drink that burns the stomach, but declining the offer is unthinkable. In Albania, hospitality is sacred, a matter of honour, and to refuse such an act of kindness would risk offending the entire family.
And in some parts of Albania, like here, people are killed for causing such simple offence. Because here they still follow the Kanun, a code of Turkish origin intended to reduce land fraud and family feuding. Today, the code typifies the stereotypical Albanian man, the proud head of the family who will never back down as a matter of honour. Kanun was created during the first half of the 15th century by Lekë Dukagjini. But the laws were only written down in 1874, by Shtjefen Gjecovi, a Catholic priest who is known to be the father of Albanian folklore. The text is divided into12 books, subdivided into articles and paragraphs, and it is still used to regulate almost every aspect of public and private life: the Church, family, marriage, home issues, cattle disputes, work, honour… in short it is a sort of ancient civil and criminal code.
"One day a group of friends was out playing football," Rosa tells us. "Near here, at the bar. They were four of them. I never knew exactly what happened, but a fight broke out and my nephew stabbed one of the boys. He was very young, the son of a family very close to ours." Rosa's voice breaks off for a moment. She attempts to focus on my glass. "They avenged the death by killing my husband shortly after," Rosa continues. "They killed him in the woods. He was 32 years old. Edy, my son, was only four." Edy is now 17, and ever since that time he has lived quietly at home, in fear of further reprisals.
However, her daughter Elsa is safe. She is getting married soon, and her surname will be consigned to the drawer of memories. She will belong to another family, and be out of the circle of revenge.
However, Edy is at risk because article 125 of the Kanun states: "All the males in the killer's family, even if still babies, whether distant cousins or close nephews, may incur the revenge. Blood for blood: when a member of one's own family is killed, the way to honour is to take vengeance on the murderer or one his male relatives. The murderer may venture out at night, but he will stay hidden during daylight hours."
Edy comes downstairs to meet us when he hears his name, he is a big boy, dark-skinned, with black eyes. He stops in the doorway and leans on the frame. Rosa explains that Edy is going deaf due to a poorly treated ear infection. Once you enter the circle of revenge, you can have trouble finding a doctor: it isn't easy for someone to accept an invitation to enter a house of blood. You risk making enemies. And in Leja this is unthinkable, especially if you have a respectable job.
It is time to go. But as we walk out through the garden I feel a hand on my shoulder. Edy whispers to me that I look like his father.
Ndol's endless suffering
Shkodra, too, is a grey city. There are thousands of buildings under construction. On every road, even on the back streets, everything is concrete. As a colour, green doesn't get a look in. There are many bars and lots of squares. And it is outside one bar, with a glass of iced tea in hand, that I meet Sandro, a 28-year-old man with brown hair and a freckled face. He is wearing a suit and will act as an intermediary, accompanying me on a visit to another family living in fear in Bushat, a suburb of Shkodra.
We arrive at the home of Ndol Gjeloshi in the late afternoon. It is a small run-down house surrounded by a thousand others just like it. Ndol welcomes us. At80 years old, with just a little white hair left on his head, he sports a shirt that looks like a cross between a painting by Cezanne and one by Mondriaan. He is already drunk - Sandro had warned me he might be.
Ndol's story is incredible, and the more I go on listening to it the more I become convinced I am seeing a reality light years away from my own. I feel like I am trapped in the past, locked in a history too embedded to be eradicated. The house is the only object, according to the Kanun, considered inviolable. It is sacred ground. No one can enter unless invited. Even if a person chooses to seek revenge, if they visit the family whose blood they want to spill, the code requires the victims to accommodate their potential executioner in the correct manner, giving them food and water for three days.
Ndol's words spin around in my head, giving me time to reflect on these crazy rules, and the fact there is no escape for those who yield to vengeance. You die as soon as you decide to kill, and the only flag that can be hoisted is that of wounded pride, no matter what the motive.
"I was travelling through the countryside," Ndol says, "when suddenly two people approached me and tried to steal my money. I tried to defend myself as best I could. And I killed one of them. I killed the wrong man. From there it all started. I did not sleep at night. I was not scared for myself, but for my children. It is no good. We have offended repeatedly. My family has killed four men and one woman. They took revenge on my three children. I only have my nephew left. I do not care about my own life. I am 80 years old; I have nothing left. I am already dead."
As he speaks, Ndol jumps up and shows me a picture of his three children. He cries. The living room wall isa wall of tears. There are only photographs of people who are gone.
Anyone venturing into the Albanian countryside or any city will find bustling construction sites everywhere. The desire to adapt to the styles of the European Union is plain to see. The cities are physically changing; but unfortunately there is still no efficient road network, which combined with the nature of the terrain (mountainous and full of lakes), does not make getting around or social interaction easy. The industrialisation of the larger urban centres, especially Tirana, has prompted an internal migration from the mountains to the cities. This increased population combined with an ineffective political system has created an urban imbalance filled with illegal construction sites and massive social inequalities.
The migration has also emptied the rural areas, constraining the remaining few in forced isolation. Ancient codes have always been an expression of community in an era of globalisation, but most have adapted to sudden social changes and new lifestyles. The Kanun is the only set of rules not yet brought up to date.
When I arrive at the home of Ester, in Markulale, near Shkodra, it is almost evening. Accompanying me is Federica, a young Tuscan woman who is in Albania volunteering with the Sisters of Ravasco. I needed someone to take notes while I went to work with my camera.
This house doesn't even resemble a home. It is all brick and concrete, as if someone had built it shortly before our arrival - it looks like a place that was built just as a hideaway. On the table in front of the sofa are figs, honey, raisins, biscuits and tea. Ester is the matriarch of the house, and dressed completely in black. She is in mourning - since quite recently.
Then Ester's son Zot arrives with his girlfriend. Zot seems a distrustful and grumpy type, who doesn't talk much. So, to break the ice, I ask a simple and direct question: How did you find out you had trouble with the Kanun?
Zot immediately relaxes. "Soon," he replies. "Everyone in town knows everything. I worked as a nurse and came to meet so many people when they were working with me. My father was unjustly killed while cutting wood: my brother was with someone who claimed land that was not his. My father, Nardy, tried to act as an intermediary, but he was shot with a rifle. They gave the murderer eight years."
When a murderer ends up in prison, the family who seeks vengeance has only one option: to wait. "If you ask me whether I would be able to kill, I'd say that in a situation like this I could. Many of us have started having problems at work because of the Gjakmarrja (the blood-letting, or revenge), and I'm one of them. No one calls me to work any longer. Revenge is the only thing I have left, but the Kanun is clear. If evil comes to you, you exact revenge. We did not want it to get to this point, but we have tolerated too much."
Ester takes me aside and says she wants a photo, a portrait. I am happy to oblige. She poses on the steps of the house and stares into the camera. The black dress and the bricks in the background fill this moment. She thanks me and disappears like a ghost, just as she first appeared. Everything seems to freeze, even the air. Everything is frozen, like the lives of these people.
As you read this, around 670 families are living inside their houses, locked up around the clock in a state of self-imprisonment, in order to escape death. This is according to a recent US Department of State report on human rights in Albania. According to the report, the phenomenon also involves women and children, exposed like the men to the risk of reprisals.