'We'll Get You': An Albanian Boy's Life Ruined by Blood Feuds

By Katrin Kuntz and Maria Feck (photos) in Shkoder, Albania

Blood feuds still exist in Albania and those involved have to live a life in hiding. They include people like Leonard Qukaj, who has left his home only rarely in the last four years for fear of being murdered by a rival clan -- or by his own uncle.

On nights when a strong wind sends the clouds scudding over the mountain tops and carries the smell of freshly cut grass through the window, Leonard's sleep is a bit more restful. The breeze makes the decrepit front door rattle, which covers up the sound of the squeaky gate hinges outside. Amid all the noise, the teenager is convinced, he wouldn't hear the assailant's steps and the click of his silenced pistol.

His little brother in the room next door would be able to continue sleeping peacefully and his mother wouldn't wake up either. And he himself, 14-year-old Leonard Qukaj -- a shy boy with bright blue eyes, a talent for drawing and an enthusiasm for the Bayern München football club -- would likely not even feel the bullet piercing his skull. "My life," he says, "would simply be over."

Of course, he says, it wouldn't be nice for his mother to find him dead in the kitchen, where he sleeps in a bed next to the stove, the next morning. But she might actually be pleased, because his murder would be accompanied by renewed hope for peace. It would restore honor to the avengers. His death would open up the possibility for reconciliation and an end to the blood feud his family has been ensnarled in for years due to a ludicrous dispute over a mountain stream.

Leonard has thought about the moment of his death often during the four years he has been hiding in his house from assassins from a rival family. He has developed back problems from sitting so much; during the day, when there is nothing else to do, he watches Italian television or, more to his liking, football. Often, he simply lies on the sofa and stares at the ceiling. Sometimes, his mother Gjelina, or his 10-year-old brother Florian, sits with him -- or his cat who has a name similar to his own: Quoki.

The family lives in a whitewashed house in Shkoder, a city of 96,000 people in Albania's northwest, near the Albanian Alps. Horse carts drive by on unpaved streets, vendors sell tomatoes on the sidewalks and men play dominoes in the parks. There is a university in Shkoder, it has restaurants and bars and women picking their way carefully across the cobblestones in high heels. But Shkoder is also a poor city with high unemployment, its outskirts smell of garbage and damp fields. Leonard's house has no running water.

Spilled Blood

Shkoder is just as deeply divided as the rest of the country. On the one hand, it is a place looking optimistically to the future; this week, Albania was given the green light by the European Commission as an EU accession candidate. On the other hand, it is a country where corruption, human trafficking and organized crime are all present. It is a country where blood feuds are still prevalent -- of the kind that could soon cost Leonard his life.

"Spilled blood must be met with spilled blood": Such is the edict of the Kanun, a set of traditional Albanian laws that stems from the 15th century. It is a parallel system of justice focusing on honor, guilt and vengeance, and remains in effect in rural regions. And here in Shkoder. It threatens entire families, including children and teenagers. And the feuds that result often begin with a seemingly harmless quarrel.

Sitting on a torn living room sofa one April morning, beneath a picture of Mother Mary hanging on the wall above, Leonard prepares to tell the story of the dispute which has become a roadblock to his life. Making sweet Turkish coffee on a gas cooker for his guest, his face is pale and his expression is one of defiance, except when he smiles. He is happy for the visit. Any change of pace in this three-room house -- his prison -- is welcome.

Four years ago, Leonard begins, there was a dispute over a water mill up in the mountains where the Qukaj family used to live. It centered on the question as to whether Leonard's family had to pay to use the water that flowed through the property of the neighbors, the Prroj family. The Prrojs thought they should be paid a fee and insulted the Qukajs, a serious blow to the family's honor. To restore it, Leonard's uncle shot and killed a member of the Prroj family. Two years later, the Prrojs got their revenge by killing two members of the Qukaj family. The murders alternated, a member of the first clan would kill someone from the second, triggering a murder perpetrated by the second on the first. Leonard's cousin Marija was also killed two years ago.

Coffee in hand, Leonard sits on the stairs leading out to the yard -- surrounded by a high wall -- to tell the story of his cousin. Marija's story is part of his own.

Women in the Kanun are referred to derogatorily and seen primarily as producers of offspring. Their lives are held to have little value, which is why they are not generally targeted in blood feuds. But Marija, who was 17 at the time of her slaying, was raking in her grandfather's fields wearing a shirt and pants. She looked like a boy, which is why she was murdered together with her grandfather.

'We're Going to Get You'

Her death was widely publicized and Marija became a symbol of the senselessness of blood feuds and revealed the country's backwardness. There were even protest marches in the capital Tirana, but Leonard didn't go. "Because in reality," he says, "Marija's death was a mistake." The bullet had been meant for him. "Now, Marija's father also wants me dead." He told Leonard: "We're going to get you."

Since then, Leonard has been hiding from his own relatives in addition to the Prrojs. "My parents don't let me go outside," he says quietly. In recent years, he has only attended school a few times: "But only when I became so aggressive that my mother couldn't take it anymore," he says. Leonard could make up with his uncle, but to do so he would have to kill a member of the Prroj family. The feud with the Prrojs, on the other hand, could be resolved if the family was prepared for reconciliation. "But neither will ever happen," he whispers.

When the most recent shots in the feud were fired on April 8, 2014, Leonard was out in the yard. His mother called him inside and said that his uncle had just tried to take revenge for Marija's death with his Kalashnikov, firing 30 shots from a distance at the Prroj clan leader. The man was hit, but he survived. "Uncle did his duty," said Leonard's mother.

The news didn't surprise Leonard. He grew up knowing that his was one of the some 3,000 Albanian families that are involved in blood feuds. Since the end of communism, around 10,000 people have lost their lives in this manner, according to an estimate by the Committee of Nationwide Reconciliation. During the country's deep crisis in 1997, many Albanians plundered the army's weapons depots; only a small fraction of the firearms was ever recovered.

The state has played down the problem for years. The police chief of Shkoder claims that cases of blood revenge have fallen dramatically, with only 208 reported in the region since 1991. And yet, he says, thousands of Albanians have sought asylum abroad, claiming their lives were in danger because of a feud. It's his belief that they have abused the tradition in order to seek better lives in Europe. But the government has nonetheless tightened penalties for blood feud crimes. Until very recently, perpetrators faced maximum prison sentences of 25 years, but the figure has now been increased to 40.

But people like Leonard, his cousins and his brother are still hunted as a result of this tradition. Non-governmental organizations estimate that around 1,500 young men around the country are forced to hide in their homes because they are targeted. If they reach adulthood, they often become killers themselves to avenge their families.

White Knuckles

Leonard says he didn't feel anything when he heard about the shots fired by his uncle. "I went into the house," he says. Although the Qukajs' property is protected against intruders, he suddenly no longer felt safe in the yard. He walked inside, sat down on the sofa, threw his arms around his scrunched up legs and began waiting -- for what, he didn't know.

That evening, his father didn't come home. Instead, he called and said he would be hiding at a friend's place for a few months. His mother cried quietly and his little brother played silently with toy cars on the floor. Leonard became afraid, and then angry. As he lay in bed that night, he pressed his knuckles against the wall so hard that they turned white.

Shortly after the first murder four years ago, Leonard's family moved from the mountain village down to the city. Life appeared to be safer for them there. Despite the perils the family faced, their father began working in construction and the children even attended school. They made a home for themselves and surrounded it with a high wall. Still today, laundry hangs out to dry and the onions and lettuce flourish in well-tended beds. From above, the scene would be one of perfect normality. But then the Prroj family moved into town and the fear returned.

The Kanun originates from a time when there were neither laws nor judges in Albania. Its 1,263 paragraphs include some good rules, like provisions for hospitality or keeping one's word. But it also holds an antiquated view of honor, which holds that a killing can only be atoned through a retaliatory murder. "I just don't get it," says Leonard.

On the afternoon of the day of our April visit, Leonard's 10-year-old brother, who is still allowed to go to school, returns home. His mother says he'll be able to leave the house for two more years, but "once he's a man, he'll also have to hide. That's what will happen and we can't do anything to change it." Women and children are supposed to be excluded from feuds, but few seem to follow the rules anymore and recent years have seen adolescents targeted as well.

As his mother talks about his brother, Leonard runs out of the house and into the garden. It's too much for him. He can't bear to listen to Florian's stories about his classmates and the girls. His own friends stopped visiting him long ago and don't know why he is forced to stay at home. He's so weak and pale that he doesn't want them to see him like this anyway. Though he will be 15 this year, he hasn't kissed his first girl yet.

When asked what he would like most, he answers, "A normal life." But in order to end the feud, the family would have to pay the victims' relatives several thousand euros. It's a lot of money in an impoverished country like Albania, and Leonard's family doesn't have it.

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