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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.

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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.

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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

Tirana, Albania

Phone: (+355) 4-259-124