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.