Albanian Blood Revenge

When Killing is a crime

(Extract from When Killing is a Crime (2007) by Tony Waters.  Lynne Rienner Publishers)

During the early 20th century, the small Balkan country of Albania was a remote corner of the Ottoman Empire, a principality ruled by a warlord king after World War I, and occupied by Italy during World War II. For most of the century it was a reclusive Stalinist state sealed off from the rest of the world, and ruled by one of the most severe, controlling, and totalitarian governments. Since 1991 Albania has become an anarchic state, in which the government lost legitimacy, and a range of mafias, clans, and businesspeople assumed control. It is an unusually good place to illustrate the range of roles the state plays in state violence and control. Principles dealing with the role of legitimated third parties, and the threat of totalitarian violence are well illustrated.

As is the case in many places where the government is weak, extra-governmental institutions emerged in Albania. These include norms and rules to both further peaceful relations between groups, and provide compensation or justice when an offense occurs. The kanun of Albania is a code of traditional rules for feuding, which are contained in books and oral traditions. But there are no courts for the kanun; each side in a dispute is left to evaluate the rights and the wrongs visited upon them. This system is inherently imperfect, and as a result each clan traditionally had a three-story stone tower known as a kula to which the men would retreat when a dispute was unsettled. There, they were “locked” meaning that they could be killed if the offended party encountered them. By the 1990s, the kula towers were gone, but the members of the clan against which there is a kanun declared are effectively “locked” and either restricted their movements or risked death. Even in the 1990s, wandering about in town can be a fatal mistake, as will be described below. As a result, the men restrict their movements to areas where in-coming paths can be easily monitored.

Scott Anderson (1999) described the murder of Shtjefen Lamthi, on a street of Shkoder, Albania in 1998. Some 200 people witnessed the killing in which Leka Rrushkadolis pumped 31 bullets into Lamthi, in retaliation for the killing of his father by Lamthi’s father in 1985. No one cooperated with the police to make an arrest even though the identity of the killer was well-known. Indeed, the identity of the killer was so well known that Anderson, a foreign reporter, was eventually able to find and interview the killer, and publish his pictures in the New York Times Magazine. What Anderson found was that death delivered on the open street to people like Lamthi, had its origins in a modern kanun. As will be described below, the sharpness and lethality of such a feud is related to the weakness of the 1990s Albanian government, and its inability to assert a legitimated monopoly over the use of coercive force. In the absence of such a monopoly, the lips of potential witnesses were sealed because they fear the courts could not protect them from revenge attacks.

An Albanian Feud: The Kanun

The kanun killing of Shjtefen Lamthi had its origins during the Communist period when state control was strong. Lamthi’s father, Preka Lamthi, was an official in the government. One day in 1985, Noue Rrushkadoli, a neighbor and fellow member of the Communist Party, visited to play cards and drink raki at his friend’s house. There was a lot of drinking, and Noue, who was known for his temper, ended up turning over the table of his host, a particularly strong Albanian insult. Preka, the elder Lamthi, ordered him out of the house, but Noue Rrushakadoli responded by attacking Lamthi’s son Shtejfen, stabbing him six times. Following this, someone—it is not clear who—stabbed Noue. The knife hit his heart, and he died.

A government inquest into the death of Noue Rrushakadolis decided that whoever held the knife, the killing was in self-defense. No case was prosecuted, and Shjtefen survived. Noue’s sons Leka and Angelo Rrushakadolis, quietly nursed their grudge, wary of a man they perceived to be a powerful government official of an all-powerful state. The practice of blood vengeance had been effectively stamped out by the Communist government, which ruled with an iron fist between 1945 and 1991. Indeed, the penalty for a kanun-based attack was that the perpetrator was buried alive with his victim.

In 1988, with the control of the Communist party slipping in Albania, Leka Rrushakadoli made his first attack, stabbing Preka Lamthi in one of the town lanes. In response, the two families became wary of each other, even while Albania was changing quickly. Both families moved to a new town, and entered the new free-wheeling capitalist economy. Then, in 1997, the economy collapsed, and Leka began to nurse his old grudge against the Lamthi family. He bought a Kalashnikov automatic weapon, and waited. Shtejfen crossed his path on August 3, 1998, and Leka shot him in the marketplace. From the Rrushakadoli perspective, the score was now even, but they knew that the Lamthi family would seek revenge. As a result, all of the males of the Rrushakadoli family found themselves “locked,” afraid to be seen in public. One member of the Rrushakadoli family who had emigrated to Canada ten years previously, and returned found himself “locked” and unable to return to Canada.

Assessing the Kanun of the Lamthi and Rrushakadoi Families

In 1999 when Anderson wrote, the score was one Lamthi and one Rrushakadoli. But both clans still felt wronged. The end result of Noue Rrushakadoli’s 1985 death was a feud in which 14 years later, two entire clans had removed themselves from the broader community, afraid to move about, or engage in other types of normal social and economic activity. But this was not an inevitable result. Examples of the “what ifs” in this situation highlight some of the broader social conditions that led to the murder of Noue Rrushakadoli in 1985 becoming framed as part of a kanun, and not another way. For example:

What if the death of Noue Rrushakadoli had occurred in 1955 instead of 1985? The strong Communist government would have effectively stopped Noue’s sons from responding. In the event that a revenge killing had occurred, the all-powerful Communist government would have stepped in, buried Leka with Shtejfan, and that the feud would not have gone further.

What if there had been a more powerful government installed in Albania in the 1990s, as indeed there was in a number of ex-Communist countries at that time? Preka Lamthi (or whoever held the knife that killed Noue) might have been tried for manslaughter, sentenced to prison for a few years, and the passions of the Rrushakadoli sons cooled. Alternatively, if the central government had been more powerful, they would not have been hesitant about arresting Leka Rrushakadoli, after he fell from grace, and perhaps try him for the crime.

What if the Albanian economy had boomed, and all had held good jobs? Would the Rrushakadoli’s minds have turned to revenge? Even had Leka killed Shtejfen, perhaps his family have turned on him, and handed him over to the police, so that they could get back to the business of prosperity?

The biggest What If? question is about the role that revival of traditions like kanun play in the assertion of what is right, wrong, and moral in a society undergoing rapid social change. Following the collapse of any established order, a new one emerges. This is inevitably contested, as the society struggles to establish new norms for understanding itself. The attempt to assert (or reassert) an old tradition like kanun becomes a potent tool to define who is part of whatever group is emerging, and who is not.


Further Reading

Anderson, Scott (1999). “The Curse of Blood and Violence.” The New York Times Magazine, December 26, 1999.