Peacemaker breaks the ancient grip of Albania's blood feuds
Agim Loci works to help his countrymen observe a time-honored code for resolving disputes – but without violence.
In 1994, when Agim Loci was 23, his friend tried to rape a girl.
The girl's two brothers thwarted the attack at the last moment. But the matter did not stop there: The family wanted revenge. But Mr. Loci made a highly unusual decision: He took his friend, tied him up, and made him stand in a field before the girl's entire family.
"I said, 'If you want to kill him, kill him. But then his family will come and kill one of you,' " Loci recalls. "Of course, nobody was going to kill him then."
Loci now works as a bodyguard for the Albanian Ministry of Justice. But he regards that day 14 years ago as the beginning of an unlikely second career as a volunteer peacemaker.
In addition to his ministry job, Loci is one of the leading coordinators for the Committee for Nationwide Reconciliation (CNR), a nongovernmental organization that works to broker truces between families caught in the murderous cycles of blood feuds, a custom rooted in the tradition of an "eye for an eye" and sanctioned by a centuries-old Albanian code of conduct. Feuds and revenge killings have resurfaced significantly since this Balkan country's transition from communism to democracy and are sometimes spark by issues as basic as property disputes.
Some 1,600 Albanian families cannot leave their homes today because they are involved in blood feuds, CNR estimates. Human rights organizations note in particular the impact blood feuds are having on the country's children: more than 1,000 cannot attend school because of them.
Loci is a squat and powerful man, with the snout of a pistol peeking from beneath his shirttail – standard equipment for his bodyguard work. Several times a week, he works out of this gritty suburb of ad hoc markets and choking traffic 30 minutes outside Tirana, the capital. From a modest office, he coordinates CNR volunteers throughout greater Tirana, where as many as 114 families are thought to be living in hiding because of blood feuds – 40 in this town alone.
Families contact Loci with requests that he mediate their feuds. The first step, though, is often to visit the family seeking revenge and inform them that the other family wants forgiveness.
What follows is a sort of grass-roots shuttle diplomacy, with Loci bringing messages back and forth and keeping the family in hiding updated on where their avengers stand. Often, reconciliation comes with a price tag – compensation paid to the family wanting revenge. Loci helps negotiate that sum.
It can be dangerous work. In 2004, a CNR volunteer was murdered in northern Albania. Still, Loci has reconciled more than a dozen feuds in recent years. A gift from families following peace is his only payment. But he says he's setting an example for his three children.
"I want to give my children what my father gave me: a good name," he says. "I want my children to have the respect for life my father gave me."
Ancient tradition still holds sway
Blood feuds may seem like an anachronism in a country that was invited to join NATO this spring and is positioning itself to make an official bid, potentially this year, for European Union membership.
But in Albania, the forces of tradition and modernity exert equal pull. Often, Loci must respect an honored code of conduct while fighting how it is applied today.
That code, or kanun in Albanian, dates to the 15th century and has long served as a blueprint for social conduct, governing everything from how to treat strangers and arrange marriages to how to pay taxes and settle property disputes.
And, yes, it lays out a brutal tenet: Blood must be paid for with blood.
Strict rules always have governed that precept, namely, that only the killer could be targeted in a blood feud. As applied today, however, the family members of the killer, including women and children, are also targeted, says Ismet Elezi, a law professor at Tirana University.
The result: Whole families confined to their homes, the one place a murder cannot be avenged under kanun.
Revenge killings still have their origins in property disputes. The courts are dealing with 130,000 such cases, most stemming from communist-era land seizures and subsequent restitutions. CNR estimates that 30 percent of those won't be resolved to families' satisfaction, prompting many to take matters into their own hands.
Others say blood feuds have resurfaced here because the lawlessness and corruption that followed the collapse of communism resulted in institutions not equipped to handle matters kanun traditionally could deal with, including bringing criminals to justice.
"It's lack of justice that brings on these blood feuds," says Gjin Marku, national director of the reconciliation committee. "Albanians don't believe in justice. They believe justice is corrupted and the state is also corrupted."
Loci puts it more bluntly: "If you have the kanun structure today, it means the state is not working."
The government, which has downplayed the prevalence of blood feuds, seems to be taking the issue more seriously. It amended the criminal code this year to make blood feuds illegal and punishable with three years in jail. It has also pledged about $100,000 to promote reconciliation and help children who cannot go to school because of feuds get the instruction they need.
Despite reporting more than 100 new blood feuds every year, CNR says more families are choosing to forgive. The committee usually reconciles 50 blood feuds a year; in 2008, dozens of volunteers countrywide have already made peace in 60 cases. Revenge killings are down 50 percent so far this year.
Luci is handling seven feuds, three of which, he says, are near reconciliation. But it can often take a year or longer. "It's frustrating, because it takes time," Loci says. "You always have to wait."
Glimmers of hope on a tough day
Indeed, the day Loci takes a reporter on his rounds is bookended with distress – and then hope.
Loci cannot always bring good news. On this day, he visits the Puci family, which has been in hiding since January, the month in which its patriarch murdered two members of the Ferhati family.
The murder was to avenge the death of his two sons, murdered in 2004 by a member of the Ferhati family who then escaped justice by fleeing the country.
A small picture of the two slain brothers hangs on a white wall in a neat living room, dark in late afternoon because the shades are drawn tight.
Loci tells a third Puci brother, who did not want his first name published, that the Ferhati family is not ready to reconcile. It's too soon since the January murder. The family must wait a year before asking forgiveness, under kanun. "We will run out of money soon," Mr. Puci protests. There are nine people in this house, including five children ages 5 to 17.
"Somebody needs to go to work," Puci says. "If they go to work, they're going to be killed. How will this end?"
The conversation between Puci and Loci quickly becomes emotional. "Kanun must be respected," Loci says, counseling patience.
By being patient, Loci says on his return to Tirana, families "respect me. They know I am honest, that I am going to play fair with both sides."
He was able to offer greater encouragement to Haziz Aruci, the patriarch of a family here. Meeting Loci in a second-floor cafe, he tells him that he will forgive another family for killing his nephew last year. That family has been in hiding ever since.
"We don't want to look too much into it. We want peace," he says.
Soon, members of both families will face one another at a formal ceremony and sign a videotaped declaration ending the feud. "To have this peace in hand feels good," Loci says.
To contact the Committee for Nationwide Reconciliation:
Rruga M. Muca
Pall. 46, Apt. 23
Phone: (+355) 4-259-124