SHKODR, ALBANIA — The killer was practically rubbing it in. Sprung from prison during Albania's plunge into anarchy this spring - along with about 1,200 other convicts - he was seen last month zipping around his dusty hometown on a flashy motorcycle.
One onlooker was the sister of the man he'd slain six years ago. In keeping with a 500-year-old Albanian tradition, she decided to take an eye for eye, to save her family's honor.
She got a Kalashnikov rifle and hunted him down. After she killed him, neighbors rejoiced at her bravery and took her out to celebrate.
"She said she can now die happy," says Liri Smajli, her neighbor in the dingy tenement. The celebration, however, was short-lived.
Someone else in her family might be the next target. According to the Kanun of Leke, she had created a blood feud. So she padlocked her apartment and fled into the mountains with her mother and younger sister.
It seems to many that Albania has spiraled back to the Dark Ages.
Once suppressed and nearly extinguished by the Communists, the Kanun - a code of law that has guided life in much of northern Albania for nearly half a millennium - is back, with a vengeance. Albania's descent into turmoil has fueled its revival. Once relegated to the north, blood feuds have reportedly erupted in the capital, Tirana, and in the south.
"With no police and no court system, there's great public pressure to finish the situation themselves," says Arden Rakipi, a lawyer and former judge who is chairman of the nonprofit Albanian Foundation for Reconciliation of Disputes.
The breakdown in law and order was triggered in March 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.
Official reports state some 1,600 people have died since January, but Mr. Rakipi says the number may be closer to 5,000. And with the state either unable or unwilling to respond, more look to the Kanun for answers. Rakipi says he and his team of lawyers, sociologists, and psychologists are working to reconcile an estimated 200 to 500 new blood feuds spawned in the past three months alone.
A deep-rooted practice
The Kanun, traced to the early 15th century, was the first attempt to codify civil laws in Albania. Through the ages, the code evolved into a virtual religion. Locals argue that the Kanun helped them resist assimilation by the Ottoman Turks.
Turkey exercised control over Albania for some 450 years before Albanian independence was declared in 1912.
Blood-feud traditions are common in isolated mountain regions such as the Caucasus Mountains, Sicily (which gave birth to the Mafia), and even Appalachia (as in the legendary feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys). They arise when locals resist outside authority and develop their own way of governing themselves.
Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha suspected the Kanun would undermine his regime's authority and forbade mention of it in public. That, coupled with development of a legal system, gradually curbed the Kanun's influence among those who had moved from their mountain villages into industrializing cities like Shkodr.
Today, police sometimes step in and try to talk families out of a revenge killing. But many cops, Rakipi says, are themselves adherents of the Kanun and fear retribution.
Few in the north seem opposed to vigilantism. By their own admission, Albanians are a hot-blooded, gun-happy lot. Men of all ages routinely enter cafes toting automatic weapons. And the sporadic, random gunfire that rings out daily intensifies at night, after the nationwide 10 p.m. curfew.
Breaking the cycle of violence
All of which makes Ndrek Pjetri a very busy man. Avuncular and soft-spoken, this so-called Mediator of Blood travels extensively working to reconcile feuding families. Mr. Pjetri says he has prevented 288 murders in Albania since 1991, plus another 20 abroad. But today his job is more difficult than ever. "It's easier to kill," says Pjetri, "than to pardon."
Fear of that solution, he adds, has driven many into hiding. One Shkodr man, who asked not to be identified, has been homebound for six years. His brother, then 16, "accidentally" stabbed a neighbor's relative while breaking up a fight between a third brother and the victim.
The two brothers took flight, and their family claims not to have heard from them since. Twice, mediators, including Pjetri, were sent to ask for a pardon. Both requests were rejected. So the man and his father have confined themselves to a sort of house arrest. If either were seen on the streets, someone in the victim's family would be obliged to kill them.
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."
Primitive or not, northerners say, this brand of vigilantism has actually kept the havoc to a minimum. Despite recent elections, gunfights continue in the south. But due to the Kanun's eye-for-an-eye philosophy, northerners think twice before killing.
Margerita Ashiku, for one, has already made up her mind. Her husband, Koleu, was killed last year trying to halt a blood feud between two warring clans. Mrs. Ashiku has urged her sons not to avenge their father's death, though public pressure to react is great.
"We live for God; He must judge," Ashiku says, sitting in her living room dressed in black. "I don't want to continue with such ways. It will go blood for blood, and I don't want my family destroyed."