Page last updated at 05:03 GMT, Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Albania's young blood feud 'hostages'

Hundreds of children across Albania are living virtually imprisoned in their homes - for fear of being killed in blood feuds under the country's ancient vendetta code, writes the BBC's Mike Lanchin.

Nicolin (first left in the front row) and his family
Nikolin (left) and his family say they live in constant fear

Eleven-year-old Nikolin dreams about the day he can walk out of his house without fear and attend the local school.

"I imagine that it's a beautiful place, with chairs, benches, and a blackboard. I imagine being there with loads of other kids," he says.

Seated on the porch of his parent's small farmhouse in northern Albania, he looks wistfully towards the gatepost which marks the boundary between safety and danger.

"It would be good to make friends, to play and learn, and have friends over to see me," he adds quietly. Does he understand why he can't go out? "I know that they will kill me out there, that's why."

'Kanun' code

Nikolin and his three brothers and sisters have the misfortune to have been born into a family entangled in a blood feud, or vendetta, that dates back more than 30 years.

'We owe blood to another family'

The children's father, Kole Ndrepepa, was only a teenager when he killed a neighbour after a petty argument near his village.

Under an ancient Albanian code, called the "Kanun", the victim's family invoked its right to take revenge on any male adult in Ndrepepa's extended family, even though he spent 15 years in jail for the crime.

"After I came out of jail I tried to seek reconciliation with the victim's relatives, but I didn't succeed, said the 50-year-old Ndrepepa. "Now we're all scared to go out since we still owe blood."

Because the Kanun precludes entering another person's property to exact revenge, home is the only safe place for those under threat.

According to the headmaster of the local school, Leke Pjetri, 20 other youngsters are in the same position as Ndrepepa's children.

'Strange crimes'

The non-governmental National Reconciliation Committee (NRC), a group that tries to mediate between warring families, estimates that several thousand Albanian families are currently embroiled in feuds nationwide, leaving some 800 children confined to their homes.

Albania's capital, Tirana
Some villagers are forced to flee their homes to start a new life in Tirana

Blood feuds were officially banned during the 40-year rule of Albania's communist-era hardliner Enver Hoxha, but in the chaos that accompanied the fall of communism in the early 1990s, the practice resurfaced, often sparked by disputes over rural property, or slurs on family honour.

NRC director Gjin Marku told the BBC that since tradition dictates that ending a blood feud requires the agreement of all male adults in both families, the reconciliation process can sometimes take up to 10 years to complete.

"If just one man in a family of perhaps 50 or 60 people objects, then the whole process fails," he said.

Albanian Justice Minister Enkelejd Alibeaj said the problem was slowly diminishing, although it remained acute in some areas of the north of the country.

Mr Alibeaj, who made his name fighting corruption, denied claims that the authorities were not taking the problem seriously: "What's important is not the frequency with which this is happening, but that such strange crimes happen at all in the 21st Century and in a country now aspiring to join the European Union. That is what really concerns us - and is making us act."

He said that 13 people were prosecuted for blood-feud-related murders last year under a specific article in the penal code referring to killing for revenge.

Pjeter's dream

But for some of those whose lives have been turned upside down by these age-old customs, swift resolution remains a distant hope.

The only future I see for myself is being able to leave Albania and live somewhere else, far, away far from here
Pjeter Luci

It has been almost two years since Pjeter Luci dared venture outside the cramped house on the edge of Tirana, Albania's capital, which he shares with his mother, Lula, and two sisters.

The family were forced to flee their village in the north after a distant cousin killed four men in a bar brawl. The dead men's relatives have all sworn to take revenge.

Pjeter, 22, said he dreamed about being able to leave what he termed "his prison". He said that it was "unacceptable" to have to pay for a crime committed by someone else.

"The only future I see for myself is being able to leave Albania and live somewhere else, far, away far from here."

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