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Albania cracks down on centuries-old blood-feud killings

| Saturday, March 2, 2013, 11:48 p.m.

SHKODER, Albania — Throughout her short life, Marsela has lived in hiding.

Few people ever visit. Her mother won't let her go to school or play outside with other kids. She can't even stray from the yard of her rundown home.

If she does, she risks being gunned down in the street.

The 9-year-old is the child of a blood-feud family. In 1995, long before she was born, her father killed a friend in a drunken rage — sparking a series of retaliatory killings that have left five people dead so far.

Her 40-year-old mother, Marie, is taking no chances that any of her four children, ages 7 to 19, will be next. Marsela has left the house fewer than 10 times in her life. She doesn't even really own shoes — a pointless luxury because she can get by indoors with knitted booties.

Under a centuries-old Albanian code of conduct known as the Kanun that regulates many aspects of life, killings must be avenged with blood. Grieving relatives are duty-bound to target the culprit and the culprit's family. Now the justice minister is pledging the strongest laws in a generation to end the cycle of killing: Eduard Halimi said this month that new laws being drafted would carry a minimum sentence of 40 years to life imprisonment for anyone convicted of a blood feud killing, up from 25 years to life.

“Blood feud, this unique phenomenon in Europe, is the most absurd behavior of a civilized society,” Halimi said in a recent Facebook post.

Albania's blood feuds are carried on through generations. Traditionally only men could be targeted in the vendettas, and only they could exact revenge. But the code is loosely interpreted these days, and nobody is safe.

That leaves entire families living in extreme isolation for years, struggling through abject poverty as nobody can leave the house to earn a living.

“Everybody speaks about the men who can be killed, but they forget those men have children. And look at their lives,” said Liljana Luani, a teacher who operates through a charity to give home lessons to Marsela and other blood- feud children.

Blood feuds were largely eradicated under Albania's 46-year communist rule. But they made a strong comeback after the regime's 1990 collapse, and are particularly deep-rooted in Albania's rugged north.

Police figures show 225 feud killings over the past 14 years, though charities advocating an end to the practice say the true number is much higher, with many slayings misreported as ordinary murders. The Interior Ministry says 67 families, accounting for 155 people, are living in hiding across the country. Charities say the actual number is closer to 6,000 people, including hundreds of women and children living in isolation in this country of 3.2 million.

In the northern district of Shkoder alone, Luani counts 120 children living in hiding. Authorities put the official figure at 33.

Marsela's family lives off her mother's meager monthly social assistance of $79. Food comes mostly from a vegetable patch in the 100-square-meter yard, and from livestock — a cow, two calves, a sheep and a lamb that live in the humidity-ridden front room. Her mother asked that the family's surname and exact location be withheld because of the death threat that hangs over them.

Marie and her four surviving children have been fending for themselves since the death last year of Marie's husband Mirash, a violent man who drank and often beat his wife and children. It wasn't the feud that got him: He killed himself after shooting dead his 14-year-old daughter in a dispute.

Blood-feud children, particularly boys, have a preordained, bleak future, says Mentor Kikia, a journalist who runs the Alternative Civile, a non-governmental organization advocating a government crackdown on vendettas.

“They feel obliged to commit murders and turn into criminals,” he says.

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