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World Blood Feuds

Discussion in 'Breaking News' started by Aman Singh, Jul 18, 2009.

  1. Aman Singh

    Aman Singh
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    Jun 1, 2004
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    The institution of the "blood feud" is the little-known but highly-destructive male counterpart to "honour" killings of women. Every year, at least a thousand men and boys die in blood-feud killings in Albania alone; the lives of tens of thousands more are spent in isolation and perpetual fear. Women and girls are virtually never targeted.

    Map of Albania and neighbouring territories.The Balkans, along with the Caucasus region, Sicily, and Corsica, are the areas where the "blood feud" still holds greatest sway today. (In the past, the institution was also prominent in Scotland -- and in the U.S. region of Appalachia, as with the famous feud between the Hatfields and McCoys.)

    The institution of the blood feud is most virulent in the malësi (mountain regions) of northern Albania, spilling over into the territory that is today the Yugoslav province of Kosovo. The institution has its roots in the Kanun (canon) of Lek Dukagjin, a legal code compiled in the fifteenth century that enshrined "many customary practices which went back much further into the past," according to Noel Malcolm. Malcolm writes that

    The importance of the Kanun to the ordinary life of the Albanians of Kosovo and the Malësi can hardly be exaggerated. ... One leading scholar has summed up the basic principles of the Kanun as follows. The foundation of it all is the principle of personal honour. Next comes the equality of persons. From these flows a third principle, the freedom of each to act in accordance with his own honour, within the limits of the law, without being subject to another's command. And the fourth principle is the word of honour, the besë ... which creates a situation of inviolable trust. Gjeçov's version of the Kanun ["the fullest and most authoritative text"] decrees: "An offence to honour is not paid for with property, but by spilling of blood or a magnanimous pardon." And it specifies the ways of dishonouring a man, of which the most important are calling him a liar in front of other men; insulting his wife; taking his weapons; or violating his hospitality. ... This was very much a man's world. ... Women had their honour, but it existed through, and was defended by, men. (Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History [London: Papermac, 1998], pp. 18-19.)

    The blood feud was the result of perceived violations of this code of "honour." It "is one of the most archaic features of northern Albanian society," notes Malcolm. "... What lies at the heart of the blood-feud is a concept alien to the modern mind, and more easily learned about from the plays of Aeschylus than from the works of modern sociologists: the aim is not punishment of a murderer, but satisfaction of the blood of the person murdered -- or, initially, satisfaction of one's own honour when it has been polluted. If retribution were the real aim, then only those personally responsible for the original crime or insult would be potential targets; but instead, honour is cleansed by killing any male member of the family of the original offender, and the spilt blood of that victim then cries out to its own family for purification." The blood feud granted blanket exemption to females, the killing of whom was seen as a profound violation of a man's personal honour. "The strongest taboo of all concerned the murder of women, and any woman could walk through raging gunfire in the knowledge that she would never be shot at." (Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History, pp. 19-20.)

    In his study of the blood-feud in the Yugoslav province of Montenegro, Christopher Boehm gives a vivid picture of the surreal lengths to which this gender-selectivity is carried:

    In the old days, women were free to come and go as they chose under feuding conditions, since taking their blood did nothing to help the blood score and also counted as a dishonor, morally speaking. Thus, their normal daily activities could continue. But men were sorely pressed when it came to doing any work other than herding, which allowed them to stay under cover with a rifle ready at all times. In 1965 [at the time of field research] it was for this reason that women still did so much of the heavier work in the fields, so I was told by the slightly apologetic Montenegrin "male chauvinists," who viewed this as a once-necessary custom formed in an earlier era. ... Whatever might happen to the men during a feud, the women were always free to keep the household economy going because the rules of feuding were taken so seriously by the opposing party.

    With respect to the sanctity of women, it was even possible for them to enter directly into combat during the first stage of a feud, when the killer's clan shut itself in and the victim's clan attacked the fortified stone farmhouse, which had loopholes [for firing rifles] everywhere. With no fear of being harmed, women could carry straw and firebrands up to the house to try to burn it. Also, women of a besieged house could go outside at night carrying torches, to light up the enemy so that their own men could shoot at them. This exemplifies the strength of these particular rules: to shoot a woman was a source of shame (sramota) for the entire clan. (Boehm, Blood Revenge: The Anthropology of Feuding in Montenegro and Other Tribal Societies [Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1984], pp. 111-12.)

    The death-toll exacted by the blood feud has historically been heavy for Balkans men. "At the end of the Ottoman period it was estimated that 19 percent of all adult male deaths in the Malësi were blood-feud murders, and that in an area of Western Kosovo with 50,000 inhabitants, 600 died in these feuds every year." (Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History, p. 20.) In Albania, the feuds gave rise to another enduring institution: the "sworn virgin," women who "cut their hair short, wear trousers and drink fiery local brandy with the men." According to Julius Strauss, "The tradition of the sworn virgins was born of necessity in this barren land racked by war, blood feuds and intense poverty. In times past when the male line of a family was wiped out, such a virgin was entitled to take over as the head of the family." (Strauss, "The Virgins Who Live Like Men," The Daily Telegraph [UK], February 6, 1997.)

    Blood feuds generally declined in the Balkans after the Second World War, as the authoritarian rulers of Albania (Enver Hoxha) and Yugoslavia (Josip Broz Tito) clamped down on practices that were seen as a legacy of the feudal past. In Albania, however, the blood feud has returned with -- one might say -- a vengeance. It has also spread from the traditional heartland of the Malësi to Tirana, the capital, and to the south of the country.

    The origins of the current blood-feud crisis in Albania date to the collapse of the communist regime in 1991, and the weakness of the quasi-democratic government that replaced it. From 1992 to 1996, "press reports in Tirana" spoke of "more than 5,000 murders linked to vendettas in the past four years." (Branko Jolis, "Honour Killing Makes a Comeback," The Guardian [UK], August 14, 1996.) It is worth noting that this rate of approximately 1,250 men killed in blood feuds annually is slightly greater than the number of known "honour" killings of women in Pakistan -- in a country with about 1/35th the population. Estimates of fatalities are made difficult by the fact that many blood-feud murders go unreported. As one Albanian clan leader told The New York Times, "People don't want to report killings to the police because then the accused would be protected by the state in prison instead of being available to kill." (Jane Perlez, "Blood Feuds Draining a Fierce Corner of Albania," The New York Times, April 15, 1998.)

    In March 1997, the post-communist regime was rocked by "the collapse of enormous, government-endorsed pyramid investment schemes. The public looted army weapons depots as furious investors clashed with security forces. Roughly 1 million firearms are said to be in circulation in a Balkan nation of only 3.2 million." (Michael J. Jordan, "In Albania, A Return to 'Eye for Eye'", The Christian Science Monitor, August 7, 1997.) Between 1,600 and 5,000 Albanians died in the ensuing six months, and "revenge killings skyrocketed." (Perlez, "Blood Feuds.") In 1998, Gjin Mekshi, a leader of the Committee of Blood Reconciliation in the town of Shkoder, stated that "In some families there are no men left," although "So far no women have been killed." (Owen Bowcott, "Thousands of Albanian Children in Hiding to Escape Blood Feuds," The Guardian [UK], September 30, 1998.)

    In addition to the thousands killed, tens of thousands of men live in fear and seclusion as a result of the blood feuds. Mihaela Rodina cites estimates by Albanian non-governmental organizations that "the men of some 25,000 families in northern Albania live thus, never going out of the house for fear of being victims of ... feuding. The women, who are unaffected by the kanun, are left alone to provide for the family's needs." (Rodina, "Blood Code Rules in Northern Albania," Agence France-Presse dispatch, June 30, 1999.) In 1997, The Christian Science Monitor interviewed one man in Shkoder who "ha[d] been homebound for six years ... The man says he dreams of escaping with a visa to America. 'This is actually worse than prison,' he says, standing in his fenced-in garden. 'At least in prison I'd know that one day I could get out.'" Even school-age boys must remain cloistered: "up to 6,000 children [were] said to be hiding" in 1998. (Bowcott, "Thousands of Albanian Children.") (For a 2008 report from Albania, see Nicola Smith, "Blood Feuds Trap 1,200 Albanian Youths At Home", The Sunday Times, January 20, 2008.)

    The resurgence of the blood feud has led Gjin Mekshi and others to join forces in an attempt to reconcile feuding families. "The Committee of Blood Reconciliation has 3,000 members in Albania and is pressing the government to accept its arbitrations as part of the legal process. 'I have a good reputation and my father was a man of good reputation, too,' says Mr. Mekshi. 'I am approached to arrange truces by those who are in hiding and dare not go out during the day. When we agree a deal, we sanctify the arrangement with a procession led by the local priest." (Bowcott, "Thousands of Albanian Children.") Albanian Radio reported in August 2000 that "Seven hundred and fifty-six blood feuds have been reconciled, allowing the people involved to put an end to self-confinement at home." (BBC Worldwide Monitoring, August 10, 2000.) In neighbouring Kosovo, a similar campaign was mounted in the 1990s by Anton Çetta. (Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History, p. 20.) Nonetheless, according to Deutsche Presse-Agentur, the success of such campaigns has been "only limited." ("Albanian Blood Feuds Affect 210,000," Deutsche Presse-Agentur, March 11, 2000.) "The feuds have very deep roots," said Perlat Ramgaj, mayor of the town of Koplik. "They're ingrained on our souls, and in this period of transition people feel free to do just about anything." (Quoted in Helena Smith, "Lost Land Where Vengeance is Written in Blood," The Guardian [UK], February 12, 1995.)
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