Blood Feuds: Isolation and Corruption in Albania

 

Though blood feuds are a real problem, the phenomenon is embellished by corrupt organizations for profit

Gjon Mhilli and his family are trapped in self imposed isolation.

Gjon Mhilli and his family are trapped in self imposed isolation.

Ben Mayer-Goodman–Tirana, Albania.

 

Gjon Mhilli and his family are trapped. They fear death if they leave their small three room house. Gjon spends his days writing letters to politicians while his kids watch television and play dominoes.

Twenty-two years ago, Mhilli had an argument over land that ended in a knife fight, though no one was killed or seriously wounded. After the fight, Mhilli’s brother heard a false report of his death and killed the accused murderer with a shovel. For this, the brother received 20 year’s in prison, but jail time was not enough punishment for the deceased’s family. They wanted blood.

Now, Mhilli is the target of a vendetta or “blood feud”, an act once common in the mountains of Albania. It’s the remnant of an eye-for-an-eye centuries old rule-of-law and still manages to affect the lives of at least 200 Albanians. Though official accounts of feuds are dwindling, corrupt NGOs are exaggerating the numbers and using the feuds for financial gain.

The Albanian NGO’s distributed false blood feud “certificates” after the EU loosened visa requirements in 2010. The next year, hundreds of Albanians applied for asylum, claiming blood feuds put their lives in danger. They used certificates as proof.

 

“A Vicious Cycle”

Murderous blood feuds may be illegal in Albania, but many of those involved believe they are following proper law. Not necessarily state law, but the Kanun, or canon, a 500-year-old doctrine that once governed northern Albania. The oral code covered every aspect of life, including childbirth, hunting practices inheritance, and murder.

“The most important pillar of the Kanun is honour,” says Dr. Tonin Gjuraj, Rector of European University of Tirana and expert on Blood Feuds.

According to the Kanun, when a member of a clan is murdered, in order to restore the family’s honour, they must kill a male member of the killer’s clan. Gjuraj says this rule of law creates a “vicious cycle” that only leads to more deaths.

The feuds increased after the fall of communism and again in 1997, after a series of governmental pyramid schemes failed and mass protests erupted. It’s difficult to account for the number of feuds actually taking place, as many of those involved live in remote regions and distrust the state. Nevertheless, official police records show that the numbers declined significantly after 2000, and now less than 200 individuals are affected by the feuds.

Despite the low official records, and relative peace in the country, according to a European Commission report, Belgium received over 800 asylum requests from Albania in 2011, most claiming that blood feuds are leaving them in danger.

In response, Freddy Rosemont, head of Belgium’s Asylum and Migration Department, visited Tirana in 2011 to declare that most blood feud-related asylum requests would not be granted.

“We are sure that behind those people there is an entire organization, networks that provide documents and fake papers in exchange for huge amounts of money,” he said in a press conference.

 

Corruption and Scandal

The government reacted to the allegations, and in July, two missionaries at the National assembly for Reconciliation of Blood Feuds were found guilty of corruption and falsification of documents. Prenga Ndrec and Tom Marenave were sentenced to 8 and 6 months in prison, respectively, for writing fake blood feud certificates.

Though the penalties are harsh: a prison sentence up to 7 years and a fine of 13,250€, the phenomenon is widespread among blood feud reconciliation NGO’s in Albania. Only two years before, 12 members of these organizations, including the chair of Reconciliation Missionaries of Blood Feuds, were sentenced for the same crimes.

In 2012, an Albanian television show, “Fiks Fare” caught Pashko Toma, president of the Peace Missionaries Union Albania, on camera accepting money and writing a document to an under-cover journalist.

Though many of these organizations may be fraught with scandal, they still perform humanitarian aid. Nikoll Shullani, head of the Shkoder department of the Centre for Nationwide Reconciliation (CNR) works personally with villagers to resolve blood feuds and prevent escalation in tense circumstances.

“We try to use the Kanun to mediate with families, it’s the only law they know,” he says. “In the past, religious leaders or village elders would help settle disputes, but now our organizations and ones like ours have to fill the role.”

The CNR also helps the few families, like Gjon Mhilli’s, who live in isolation by providing them with food and shelter if possible. Those in self-imposed imprisonment are often entirely dependant on charitable organizations, and can go days without eating.

The good deeds of these organizations, however, are often overshadowed by their member’s dealings. Shullani says CNR doesn’t receive any grants from the government and requires “commission” from the families it helps mediate. The organization also insists on a 100€ “donation” for journalists to visit affected families, but with a little bit of haggling, they can bring the price down to 60€.

 

Exaggerated incidents

Isolated Families like the Mhilli's must rely on organisations like Nikolli Shullani's (left) Centre for Nationwide Reconciliation for food.

Isolated Families like the Mhilli’s must rely on organisations like Nikolli Shullani’s (left) Centre for Nationwide Reconciliation for food.

Gjin Marku, Head of CNR, is being investigated for fraud and corruption by the Albanian state police and was accused of exaggerating the number of blood feud related incidents.

“We work with over 1,000 families living [in] isolation,” said Marku.

He also claims that more than 10,000 people were killed in blood feud related incidents since the fall of communism. These numbers were reported in various media covering the issue, including articles featured in Vice, The New York Times, The Telegraph.

In September 2011, Marku testified for an asylum seeker to a UK upper tribunal who found his evidence “unimpressive”. They concluded that his definition of blood feuds was wide, often including any records of violent death, which left his statistics in question.

“At the end of Mr. Marku’s oral evidence … we had formed the view that he was not a truthful or reliable witness and that rumours of attestation letters being available for payment from the CNR were likely to be correct,” the report stated.

Marku denies these accusations and believes he is the target of a “political set-up” involving police, traffickers and government authorities.

“Our organization has never signed certifications we knew to be untrue, nor have we accepted bribes to write those letters,” he said.

 

Stemming From Distrust

There are some reputable organizations that work, not to mediate between feuding families, but to change mentalities of the villages predisposed to feuding.

Rasim Gjoka, founder of the Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation of Disputes (AFCR), believes that many of these conflicts exist because the families feel they can’t rely on the state for justice. He says that the distrust stems from decades of dictatorships such as ottoman autocrat King Zog and the communist regime. AFCR’s projects include changing school curriculum to have dialogue on learning forgiveness, and strengthening in court mediation.

“We work to create respect of the state, institution and rule of law.” He said. “Solving problems one at a time with the Kanun won’t change anything in the long term.”

 

No Hope

Gjon Mhilli, who’s story was verified by local police, sought asylum in Sweden two years ago, using a plane ticket and blood feud certificated given by Gjin Marku’s CNR. During that time, Mhilli’s three children received their first formal education and can now read “a little.” After a year and a half, he and his family were denied asylum deported back to Albania, not long after the Swedish Government issued a report on blood feuds and false certificates.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do, we have this house paid for by a benefactor only for another month, my children can’t write, they have no skills, we’re stuck. I have no hope,” Mhilli said.

"Because of this Feud, we're stuck, my children can't read, we have no money, Theres no hope" Gjon Mhilli

“Because of this feud, we’re stuck, my children can’t read, we have no money, Theres no hope”
Gjon Mhilli

Mhilli has documents from Albania's Prime Minister, President, and Minister of justice saying they will help him. He claims they have done nothing.

Mhilli has documents from Albania’s Prime Minister, President, and Minister of justice saying they will help him. He claims they have done nothing.

Unable to leave the house, Jonathan Mhilli, 15, plays dominoes and watches television all day.

Unable to leave the house, Jonathan Mhilli, 15, plays dominoes and watches television all day.

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Pumpkin Parade

Here is an still photo slideshow with audio (or soundslide that I made. It documents Montreal’s annual Outremont Pumpkin parade, which hosts hundreds of donated hand carved pumpkins. Residents give their pumpkins, that would otherwise be discarded, to the festival where they are lit up and put on display at Pratt Park. This community event not only extends Halloween, but also composts the Jack-o-lanterns that would have gone in the trash.

“Excel”sior!

Microsoft Excel has been around for ages, and though most people associate it with accounting and business, it can also be used as a great tool for journalists. Excel allows journalists to sort through tons of data and find relevant information quickly. There are many “data journalists” who’s jobs are to sort through data and produce news stories.

Yay! What Fun!

Yay! What Fun!

Excel can be used for basic functions such as sorting data or adding figures. It can track city budgets, tally crime rates and calculate finances. Spreadsheets can double-check statistics given by others and if you get the raw data (the freedom of information act gives you a right to most government data) you can perform the calculations yourself.

Though the amount of data and numbers can often seem daunting, Excel allows for an quick, easy

Numbers and data don't have to be disgusting

Numbers and data don’t have to be disgusting

way to manage the data and possible find a great news story.

For example, let’s say a politician declares that the average income of his governing area is $100,000. That sounds pretty good, but then you check the data. Using excel, you find that the most peoples incomes are pretty low and that a few people are making absurd amounts of money, thereby skewing the average. That’s a good story.

As you learn to use Excel you can discover the many complex capabilities the program has to offer. Who knows, it might all lead to a new scoop!

Intro To Photoshop

Photoshop is  an important tool for all digital photographers and photojournalists. It can sharpen pictures, giving every photo an overall sense of professionalism, even if, originally, the lighting wasn’t perfect, or the photo was crooked. Photoshop, if used responsibly, i.e. not modifying the  content of the photos, is an essential device for any modern journalist.

Here are some examples of what can be done with photoshop:

Before:

ColorThis

This photo was just a tad dark, so I adjusted the contrast and brightness.

After:

newcolour

Before:

IMG_1503

Had to crop this photo to get rid of that ugly garbage can.

After:

New Crop

Before:

RoundhouseTOCropThisToo

I cropped these photos and enhanced the brightness, contrast and vibrance.

After:

newcrop colour TOnew colourCropThisToo

Before:

IMG_1567 IMG_0395

I cropped these photos of my favourite urban creatures and stitched them together.

After:

New Stitch

Basically Everything Is Wrong With The Bathrooms at Sochi (Storify)

http://storify.com/benmg/basically-everything-is-wrong-with-the-bathrooms-a/preview

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Image

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Twitter is now one of the most important resources for journalists. Often stories can go viral on twitter before they get coverage from the major media. Twitter is a platform that allows for official quotes, almost like a 250 character press conference.

The Sochi Olympics is one of the most buzzed about events and is a constant trend on twitter. But unfortunately it’s not only the Olympic coverage that has gained traction. Many people had negative experiences with their hotels at the Olympics, and some (especially journalists) posted their stories. Therefore, many of the Olympics problems have been thrust into the spotlight.

Information can be given to a worldwide audience instantly and anyone can be a publisher. Storify offers a unique and easy way to sort through social media information and create a collage telling a cohesive story.

Storify provides an easy to use medium for collecting and publishing social media information. The layout is clean and allows for captions. Through twitter, Storify allows the collection of information straight from the source. There is a good reason popular websites such as Buzzfeed cover stories like Sochiproblems using the Storify format.

Social Media: Keep It Classy

Social Media is now an integral part of every major news organization. On nearly every online newspaper or news video, there is a comment section. Users can discuss what they read/watched and editors and authors can give comments. Blogs and twitter are also an important source of newsgathering. It would be hard pressed to find a journalist without a twitter account.

Twitter and other social media allow accessible breaking news and offer unique opportunities to engage with the public. However, social media can  be a destructive force leading to widespread misinformation and inappropriate comments. Many news organizations now provide strict rules for their employees limiting them for commenting or displaying any personal opinions.

By following this set of guidelines, journalists should be able to use social media to its fullest potential.

  • Interact and Engage.

Be social on social media. This does not mean start a conversation with everyone, but if something interests you and you want to know more or have something relevant to say, SAY IT. Not only does it market you as a knowledgeable person and a good writer, it also can lead into an great exchange of information.

  • Reach Out.

People like being involved. If you need sources, social media can be an effective way to obtain them. Just ask Jason DeRusha.

  • Link, Link, Link.

If you saw something that interested you and would interest your viewers, show them. Simple as that. Also, retweet retweet retweet.

  • Think before you post.

Anytime you write something, think to yourself:

Is all my information correct?

Who will see this?

Am I offending anybody?

What will be the Consequences of this post.

Am I drunk? (If your answer is “Yes”, definitely don’t post it!)

Remember: No posts you make can really be deleted. There is always a Cache.

  • Don’t Respond to Trolls.

Attention seeking behavior should not be reinforced. Leave them be. Delete or report the comments if necessary.

  • Be Transparent (not literally).

Let the readers know your affiliations and opinions. Don’t blur the line between facts and ideas. Admit when you are wrong.

  • Don’t Be Stupid

New York Times editor, Liz Heron, said it best.

For some examples of what not to do, check out here, herehere and here.

Why Do I Have A Blog? Because I Am A Journalist.

Since the dawn of the Internet, people have been spewing their opinions on blogs. The trend may have started with just a few tech savvy, outspoken individuals, but now blogging is more popular than ever. Just look at the latest tumblr statistics.

If you work hard, one day you may be as happy as this woman.

If you work hard, one day you may be as happy as this woman.

There are blogs for just about everything you could think of: birds, shoes, waterskiing, metaphysics… just type any random noun into Google and I guarantee you’ll find a blog for it.

Why has blogging got so big? Perhaps it has to do with our fame hungry culture, desperate for the attention of strangers. Maybe it’s for business, used a way of getting your name out. Regardless of the motives, blogging has become a significant part of our culture.

In the wake of the “Blog Revolution” many people now get there daily dose of info from a  variety of sources and individuals. In the olden days (10 years ago), people would gather info through common news sources such as radio, television and the paper.

Common forms of journalism have recently been losing their fight against the alternative news sources. I, for one, have a fear of entering the field of print journalism. The advertising losses have been mounting over the recent years and there are fewer jobs. This has created more competition among journalists, so publicity of utmost importance.

Blogs are one of the best ways to get your name out as a journalist. They demonstrate ability to write and display your passions and areas of expertise. A good blog can work just as well, if not better than an internship (especially if it’s unpaid).

Blogs can also be used as a medium for self-expression. If you’re a journalist under the strict rule of an editor who demands only straight news stories, a blog could be the only way to show your opinion writing to other employers. Who knows, you could be the next David Lee, who received his job at The BBC from his personal Blog.

Some blogs can also kickstart stories covered in mainstream journalism. They can hold eyewitness accounts of important events, or be the first to report on stories. If a blog story gets big enough, mass news organizations will often cover it.

For journalism students, blogging is especially important. We don’t know where the journalism world is headed, but if the current trends remain, online news sources will dominate. Plus, blogging allows students to get practice in the field of online journalism.

Though to many it may see like a “lesser form” of journalism, the good blogs still adhere to all the major rules such as fact checking, accountability and readability. Successful blog journalists still choose stories and angles, presenting them in an interesting and accessible manner. Some examples of great journalism blogs include Journalism.org, Common Sense Journalism and The Evolving Newsroom.