In the north Albanian village of Bluji, deep in the Dukagjin highlands, women and children do most of the work. Grandmothers scrub laundry on the doorsteps of stone cottages. Young wives--some heavily pregnant--lug pails of water from the communal well along the rutted cart track. Five-year-olds spend long days in the fields tending scrawny livestock.
Bluji's menfolk hold antiquated notions of gender roles, but it's mostly fear that keeps them from showing their faces: This is the land of the blood feud, a centuries-old tradition whose resurgence--since the communists' iron grip was broken three years ago--has forced an estimated 10,000 able-bodied breadwinners out of the labor force and into hiding. Albania's population is about 3 million.
GREATER SHAME. "I want blood for blood," spits Nasi Gjini, polishing the pre-1914 Lee Enfield rifle that has been a constant companion since a neighbor shot dead his only two sons last February after an exchange of drunken insults. For the past 10 months, the assassin, his three brothers, and his father have stayed indoors. While a murderer's male kin are fair targets, to gun them down in their own house would incur even greater shame than the original offense. "Here I am safe," acknowledges the Gjinis' teenage killer, peering through the bars on his living-room window. "But this is no kind of life. Only Allah knows how long I'll have to stay here."
The blood feud evolved as means of meting out summary justice in a wild region that even the Ottoman Turks, Albania's former masters, could never bring to heel. Under the postwar rule of communist dictator Enver Hoxha, the practice was ruthlessly suppressed. Murderers were executed and their families ostracized. With the fall of the regime, old ways quickly returned, although the original aim of damage control has been forgotten. "When I was young," remembers 78-year-old Gezim Lesku, "a man took his revenge. Then, the whitebeards of the village would call both families together and tell them to make peace." These days, he laments, personal grudges quickly become endless free-for-alls.
The circle of violence has thwarted plans that might have raised the hot-tempered subsistence farmers from their desperate poverty and given them more to aim for than their neighbors' brains. When Albania's democratic regime opened its doors for business, some multinationals were quick to come courting the Dukagjin highlanders with hard currency. Leisure giants such as Club Med dreamed of bringing ski lifts and hiking lodges to the area's game-packed Alpine slopes and whitewater rafts to its untamed salmon rivers. "But even if they had found local partners they could trust," says Adnan Rama of the Albanian Tourist Ministry, "there would be no guarantee those partners would be alive the next morning." The prospectors took the point and backed off, taking their dollars and Deutschemarks with them.
Concrete statistics are hard to come by, but according to Interior Ministry estimates, the Dukagjin district has seen some 350 revenge killings since 1993. But it's no longer a local problem: The hill people are beginning to migrate in search of work, taking their quarrels with them. In Tirana, the capital, police chief Shkelqim Merdani comments: "I'd say around 20% of our murders this year were connected to the feuds."
In a bid to end the madness, Islamic cleric Ndrek Pjetri formed the Missionaries of Reconciliation, a group of holy men dedicated to achieving settlements. Its members act as go-betweens, often persuading the aggrieved party to accept a cash payment in place ef blood. The mullah has even traveled to Turkey and Germany to settle quarrels between expatriate Albanians, and in 1994 successfully petitioned the U.S. Embassy in Tirana to cancel a visa granted to a man who was bound for New York to carry out a killing.
But while the sprightly 68-year-old Pjetri claims to have resolved more than 170 feuds, he says fresh disputes crop up too fast for the pack mules he uses to travel to isolated villages like Bluji. Now, he has applied for a government grant to buy a four-wheel-drive jeep. "They say there isn't the money," he says with a shrug. "I've told them they should see it as investment."