MY HOME, MY PRISON

The Vukaj family (Noja, his wife Angje and their 4 children) of northern Albania, have been trapped in a cycle of Blood Feud for 20 years. They are innocent of any wrong doing, and are implicated simply because they belong to the "wrong" clan. Isolated, unconsidered, and depending on corrupted public administrations and associations, they still are longing for a change and a better life - ALBANIA,  APRIL 2014.

"My home, my prison" depicts the ever-present Blood Feud phenomenon of northern Albania. For this story, I found it important to focus on how an ancient tradition, which still exists in a modern country, deprives the life of an ordinary family

 

Historical facts

Clans in northern Albania are very deeply rooted culturally and historically within Blood Feud conflicts. To belong to a “clan” or family group within these conflicts either by blood, marriage, or even simply strong social ties, forces its members to abide by the traditional social code, called the “Kanun”. 

The Kanun is a defining feature of Albanian culture, based on the Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit, created by Lek Dukagjin in the 15th century to establish peace among quarrelling clans of the mountainous region of present-day northern Albania. It attempted to regulate interpersonal interactions, a codified means of preserving cultural traditions, and also provides a framework to govern every aspect of life. The concept of honour is crucial to the Kanun and Blood Feuds are the means of defending and re-establishing honour. They are part of a centuries-old Albanian system of reciprocal honour killings, which serve as a form of self-administered justice to absolve a loss of individual life or family honour. Those who do not seek blood retaliation for transgressions against their clan are considered to have fallen into social disgrace. In this way, the tradition of vengeance killings to restore honour creates a cyclical pattern of murder.

Although these vicious customs originated long ago,  vengeance killings are still part of everyday life today, where the Kanun has been given priority over national legislation in many communities. The institutional justice system in Albania is weak, corrupt, unenforced, and often unsuitable for dealing with murders related to Blood Feuds. This justice system leaves the family of Noja without basic human rights: the right to education, social life, and freedom. Their house, the only place where they are safe, according to the Kanun, is becoming their prison.

The VUKAJ family story

Are they prisoners? Hostages? Hopeless? Victims or future criminals? All those words suit them but none really describe them. First of all they are teenagers, kids, girls or boys, mothers and fathers who unfortunately are in a family that lives according  to the Kanun, an honor code enacted by a feudal overlord of the time, Lek Dukagjini, to regulate daily life in the 15th century. This ancestral social code obligates, amongst other actions, to commit murder in order to salvage honor questioned by an earlier murder or moral humiliation. It is called in Albanian language: Gjakmarrja (blood feud) or Hakmarrja (revenge). It sounds like stories from another age, but they're only two hours away by plane from Geneva or Milan. North of Albania, although close geographically, remains definitely mainly unknown and impenetrable from the rest of Europe.

Under this code lie a variety of tragic stories, which can be difficult for those living outside Albania to understand. Noja Vukaj, his wife Angje and their children have been trapped in one of those tragic stories for 20 years. Their destiny was sealed in May 1994, during a late dinner when Simon, the brother of Noja, was killed when intervening in a fight between a father and son. Since this day, Death is playing the referee of a game with an unfair ending. While one person has been murdered in the enemy family, four have murdered in the Vukaj family. However, the desire for revenge from the enemy family is still unsatisfied and for years they have been continuing their threats toward the whole family Vukaj.

The situation worsened on November 20th, 2012. A nephew of Noja Vukaj, 16 year-old Alfredi, decided to take revenge  by open firing in the middle of Shkodra. His decision was probably fueled by social and familial pressure to act. Alfredi missed his target and killed Aleksander Qarrit. This plunged  the family into another blood feud conflict.  Alfredi Vukaj is still serving his eight year sentence since the incident.

All family members of Alfredi, including the family of Noja, have been closed inside their houses. Noja's only son, Paulo, escaped in Belgium in February 2014. The rest of the family remains in Bardhaj, a small village five kilometers from Shkodra, and try to not sink into despair.

The centuries-old tradition of blood vengeance has seen a resurgence over the past decades. The law-and-order vacuum created by the collapse of Communism in 1991 has brought the return of many Albanians to the Kanun code. However, the modern ways of the code is different from the past. What now passes as the legacy of the Kanun is actually a degenerated version without boundaries and exceptions. 

It has become total confusion, a deep social wound with too many bitter consequences, and a flagrant violation to human rights - Right to life, freedom and justice, to education and social security.

Reportage realized in Avril 2014.

 

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