mountains and communism

Under the communist regime of Enver Hoxhas the clans in the Albanian mountains suffered especially severe oppression because the dictator feared the power structures of the “Mountain People”. The old aristocratic families were deported to work camps and their houses frequently demonstratively destroyed. Land ownership in the mountains was collectivised. Albania had virtually no infrastructure; only civil servants had cars; there were few roads, no local traffic and no telecommunications. The mountains were light years away from the capital, Tirana.

Even today, the strict rules of the patriarchy prevail up here. They are based on the laws of the Kanun, a 500-year old collection of legal customs. Jurisdiction is among others based on the concept of the blood feud.

The clans regarded it as an effective deterrent to protect their value system from violation, maybe comparable to the death penalty. 

Although the communists succeeded in building barracks on some of the

passes considered important and even a few schools and smaller hospitals, nevertheless they were unable to mentally infiltrate the community of the mountain people, except by repression. Although among communists ten years’ imprisonment was the penalty for just using the word Kanun, when the regime stepped down in 1990, the old laws applied again. This also applied to blood feuds.

On the day when the people in Tirana pulled down the bronze statue of Enver Hoxha, the settlement of old accounts started in the North. Even the communists had not impaired the clans’ memory.

When the regime broke down, so did the modest infrastructure in the mountains. Hospitals and schools were closed and the few existing roads deteriorated rapidly. Migration to the valleys and cities, which the communists had hitherto suppressed, started all over Albania. Just 10 years ago there were still over 60,000 people living in the Dukagjin-Shale region along the ridge of Nikaj mountains. Only about ten percent of them remained. (Dukagjin-Shale is the region over which the Sokoli clan used to rule).

The majority of the people went to Shkodra. However, the urban culture and the infrastructure there were too weak to accommodate the newcomers. There is not enough housing, not enough schools and not enough hospitals. In many towns the population has grown enormously. The consequences are urban decay, illegal buildings and rampant unemployment; these destroy the social structure of the towns.

blood-feud and reconcilement

Blood feuds are still well-anchored in the consciousness of the people of the North, creating a climate of violence also - and especially - in the towns, where the various clans are forced to live at closer quarters with one another than in the mountains. Even the smallest disputes may be interpreted as crimes of honour and even today still lead to bloody shootings, which in turn give rise to acts of revenge by the families of the victims. Although this has little more to do with the Kanun, the old tribal laws are frequently advanced as justification. The Kanun does not provide for a “natural” end to a blood feud. There is only one way of ending a blood feud: “noble forgiveness”, which ultimately brings about the reconciliation of the two families. If the clans decide to become reconciled with one another according to the laws of the Kanun, all male adult members of the enemy clans must agree to the “Reconciliation of the blood”.

There is a variety of reasons for the new cases of blood feud, for those the origins of which only date back to after the end of the communist regime. An important catalyst was the disputes when landed property was given back and redistributed after the communist collective was disbanded. Another reason is organised crime. Mafia-like structures in Albania are based on the patriarchal clan system, which functions according to similar rules as the Italian mafia: Loyalty on the inside, silence on the outside. Disputes between Albanian mafia families also happen to be resolved by means of the ritual of reconciliation. There are also reports of cases where wealthy families have bought themselves out by corrupting a party to the reconciliation.The bereaved in the victim’s family almost never go to the police, but they insist that their honour must be restored, which is assured by a reconciliation.

After the turmoil in Albania in 1997, during which numerous military depots were plundered, there was again a sudden rise in the number of acts of vengeance. It became hard to imagine daily life without weapons even in the cities. The state’s authority had virtually disappeared. Even today Albania – especially in the north – has not been totally disarmed, but the state authorities are gradually gaining ground.

Philip Vogt, Max Mönch