As Heard on PPR: Albanian Blood Feuds

As mentioned by Michael Nagler in “Nonviolence in the News” section on January 23, 2015 episode of Peace Paradigm Radio (PPR), The Art of Nonviolence, Operazione Colomba (Operation Dove) is a project by the Pope John Paul XXIII community to promote nonviolence, peacekeeping, and peace-building in conflict zones. Currently, Operative Dove is operating in several countries: Israel, Palestine, Colombia, and as Michael mentioned, Albania, a country suffering tremendously by the horrific culture of blood feuds.

Blood feuds are based on brutal eye-for-an-eye vengeance dictated by the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini, an ancient Albanian code of law. “The Kanun was transmitted orally for generations, and it served as a foundation of social behavior and self-government for the clans of Northern Albania for more than five centuries (it was collected and put in writing during the first quarter of the 20th century). The importance of the Kanun in the history of the Albanian people can scarcely be overestimated, and its precepts continue to exert a significant influence on a significant number of Albanian families living in Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, as well as in other countries to which Albanians have emigrated.” (excerpt from Blood-Feud – Internally Displacing Because of Life Security Threat)


“Once  a bloodletting has set the wheel of vengeance in motion, only the annihilation of the other party could bring it to a stop, for obligations of badal passed from father to son. One vendetta in the province had claimed more than a hundred lives, yet no one could remember how it started.”

-Excerpt from: Nonviolent Soldier of Islam

Kanun had the role of strengthening the cohesion of Albanian people, which had been oppressed for centuries by external incursions and invasions, through the regulation of private and public relationships. This judicial code collects the history of the judicial and institutional tradition of Albanian people. It is important to highlight the central role honor plays in Albanian culture.  Honor is the constitutive factor of the relationship between individuals and membership community. To maintain intact one’s own honor became an absolute individual and collective prescription. According to the Kanun, the blood of a murder victim should be avenged with the blood of the killer. The resulting feuds can last generations and affect whole families. Affected families are confined to their homes, unable to leave for fear of immediate death and retribution. This violence is gender-based. Men hold the family honor and when murdered, the men of the family must get retribution through the killing of any male member of the perpetrator’s family. Women are also greatly affected through the Kanun. Traditionally exempt from retribution killing, women are expected to work and handle out of the house duties. This unusual gender responsibility adds another layer of conflict both within the home and out. Women are not provided the same opportunities as men. Part of familial honor in Albania is derived from the male’s ability to provide for his family: stripped of that honor men are subject to judgment of cultural and social norms. It has been observed by Operation Dove that women and children have become victims in retribution killing. The effects of blood feuds particularly affect children, who are confined to their homes, unable to receive education unless a home tutor is provided by the school. The devastating ripples of blood feuds cannot be overstated.

The Albanian state acknowledges the prominence of blood feuds in Albanian society, but cannot provide protection or justice to those threatened by the phenomenon. The Albanian National Reconciliation Committee was created to document blood feuds and offer professional mediators to diffuse conflict, but there are not enough resources or trust in the system to provide adequate resolution. The lack of institutional protection has strengthened the power and influence of the Kanun as a rule of law. It has been largely left up to NGOs and the community to do the groundwork necessary to foster resolution and restorative justice. Operation Dove has been working in northern Albanian communities, particularly in the Shkodër area since 2010 to promote reconciliation and peace. Their practice is oriented in restorative justice, reconciliation, and community building. Operation Dove’s methods are diverse: they carry out monthly demonstrations against blood revenge in main social areas in the Shkodër area, provide medical support, ensure access to medical care via nonviolent escorts, education and activities for families living in isolation, hold roundtable discussions with local civil society members intended to collaborate against a culture of revenge. The organization focuses on providing opportunities for storytelling; for both victims and perpetrators to have a safe space where their stories can be heard. There is a “Youth Group” that creates short films on revenge and  reconciliation, promoting the importance of knowing the other in order to overcome prejudice. Through Sisters of Ravasco, nonviolence trainings are available for students of Operation Dove so they can independently pursue the path of reconciliation within Albania. Empowering individuals by building skills in nonviolence and reconciliation are essential in fostering foundational changes in conflict practices. Operation Dove also provides accompaniments, a very successful and vital peacekeeping strategy world wide in which a third party accompanies a person in danger. This has been a very powerful tactic as it raises the stakes of an attack against the threatened individual. An accompaniment is a powerful nonviolent tactic because the presence of a third party, especially one risking their own safety for the sake of peace in an impartial (non-partisan) spirit, changes the psychological dynamic of a dualistic, victim/victimizer situation.  There may be additional costs due to public or international exposure.

The Khudai Khidmatgars or "Servants of God" were the world's first "army of peace". (Wikimedia).

The Khudai Khidmatgars or “Servants of God” were the world’s first “army of peace”. (Wikimedia).

Moves towards constructive program in Albania are critical to heal the violence of blood feuds and redefine a culture without violence. With government failing to adequately address the situation, Albanians themselves must own and create new systems in order to move towards a society ingrained with empathy and nonviolence. The story of Badshah Khan comes to mind. From Utmanzai, a town also ruled by cultural rules, called Pushtunwali (the unwritten law of the Pathan). Pushtunwali dictated a strict revenge code, Badal, that obligated a Pathan to avenge at the slightest insult. Eknath Easwaran describes in Nonviolent Soldier of Islam,

Badshah Khan was able to elevate the Pathan culture through constructive program mainly in the areas of education and gender equality. Through a foundation of constructive program, Khan was able to found the Khudai Khidmatgars (Servants of God), a successful nonviolent army to rid India of British rule. Khan also promoted svadeshi (local development) as a way to furnish strength as people develop self-reliance and solve their own problems better than a distant government. Creating parallel institutions that serve the community is a powerful and successful method of peacebuilding.

By promoting svadeshi, individuals and communities can develop a capacity for self-reliance based on human dignity and empathy, leading to a sense of community which would be a strong protection against internecine feuding, especially when coupled with restorative methods of resolving inevitable conflicts.

While the work of Operation Dove in N. Albania deals with a specific kind of vengeance, we feel that much of their work could be applied to the phenomenon of vengeance as a whole. Revenge practices have dictated world conflict culture. When I reflect on history, and current headlines, I see harmful cycles of revenge in many areas. The vengeance that occurs on a much larger scale could be addressed through some of the mechanisms listed above, as the fundamental dynamics of vengeance obtain everywhere.


[1] Resta P. (2000), Il Kanun, Nardò: Besa editrice; Martucci D. (2009), Il Kanun di Lek Dukagjini, le basi morali e giuridiche della società albanese, Nardò: Besa editrice.

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