But It Was Beautiful
Photo (c) 2006 by John K. Cox
Since the end of communism and the revival of old customs and compulsions, ten thousand people have died from blood feuds in Albania. People caught up in them scarcely ever even leave their homes. The following essay is a companion piece to the author’s interview with John K. Cox in the March 2011 issue of WLT.
The best thing would be to let himself get killed. They should shoot him down with their rifles, the way tradition dictates in this country. A country he hates with all his heart: Albania, armpit of the world. They should just do it. So that their vengeance, after twenty-seven years, is finally complete and their honor restored.
So that peace is restored.
Visati Kolndreu is seventeen years old and doesn’t quite know whether he is crazy or not. Because, if they shot him—so run his thoughts sometimes—his father could once more leave the house, which he surrounded two months ago with a wall, three meters high and ridiculously expensive. And his stepmother would finally stop crying and ringing him up whenever he ventures—only rarely—down into the streets of Shkodër with a friend on either side: “Visati, is everything okay where you are?”
Three months ago they found a note lying in their courtyard. On it was written in small, crooked script:Ndoka’s son has come back from Italy. Be careful.
The avengers have been sowing fear for twenty-seven years. Ndoka and his sons, Ndoka and all his kith and kin. They sowed signs and rumors.
If Visati were dead, then his brothers Edi and Josef, now nine and eleven, could attend school until they were grown. They would not have to hide as soon as they reached age twelve or thirteen. Since in the Kanun, that accursed text that no one really understands and no one reads, it is written that the vengeance of the blood-takers may descend upon all boys and men of the offending clan who are capable of handling a weapon.
The Kanun was written by a devil, Visati thinks.
Twenty-seven years ago, what was at stake was nothing, and everything. The honor of a man—since a woman has none, and her honor is subsumed in a man’s. For the Kanun, the centuries-old code of customary law of the Albanian mountain clans, states: Woman is a vessel by means of which goods are transported. And it was a hot day in the vicinity of Tropojë, in the north of Albania, and someone from Ndoka’s extended family threw a glass full of wine or schnapps into the face of Visati’s great-uncle: God gave us two fingers’ width of honor in the middle of our foreheads, says the Kanun.
A dishonored man is a dead man, as the Kanun tells us. And the dead deserve revenge.
Half a year later, at a rifle drill sponsored by the Party of Labor, all the participants had wooden weapons. Only Visati’s great-uncle, the unit commander, had a real one; the dishonored man shot and killed his dishonorer. The blood-taker shot down the blood-giver.
Since then it has been Ndoka’s turn, his and that of all the men in his clan, the brothers, sons, cousins. They seek the death of the one who in his turn deprived them of honor—Visati’s great-uncle, or someone else from the tribe of the Kolndreu.
Gja per gjak, blood for blood, clan against clan, back and forth, an endless game of table tennis.
The great-uncle, an ardent communist, was sentenced to life in prison and then released after fifteen years.
The great-uncle fled to Italy when, in 1990, the empire that had been put together earlier by Enver Hoxha—that paranoid who had dotted his country’s landscape with 700,000 bunkers and pillboxes—collapsed in chaos.
“But we are still here,” Visati Kolndreu sighs while sitting at the table in the garden of Sokol, his father.
“Do you hate your great-uncle?”
“I don’t know him,” Visati responds.
“But he destroyed your life.”
“I don’t know who is destroying my life,” says Visati, rubbing his face with his hands.
The Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini, usually just referred to as “the Kanun,” is the best-known kind of law, customary law, that has been in force in the remote valleys of northern Albania for centuries, transmitted orally from generation to generation, and it has outlasted all governmental norms up to the present day, from the Ottomans’ edicts to the decrees of the Communists, not to mention the imperatives of the weak young democracy of 1991. The Kanun determines and regulates social behavior—marriage, death, inheritance, property, hospitality, the church—and it is at once both a moral guiding light and a penal code. There are other codes of customary law—the Skanderbeg Kanun, the Kanun of Julius the Priest, the Kanuns of the High Plateau and of Labëria—but the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini, all 1,263 articles, was first assembled in full and committed to paper by the Franciscan priest Shtjefën Gjeçovi in 1913.
Once, back when Visati’s father, Sokol, still used to leave the house on occasion, in order to work as a cabinet-maker, locksmith, welder, or bricklayer, he brought a book home with him.
“What is that?” Visati asked.
“It’s kind of like the Bible. Or its opposite,” his father replied. Then he hurled the Kanun into the stove and watched as it was incinerated.
Some days, when Irena, the second wife of Sokol, listens to the same CD for hours on end—with songs from Germany, Sweden, or France—he gets worked up and shouts through the house: “Turn that noise off already! I sit here and can’t go out, but you, woman, no sooner do you make your merry way home than you put on this music I don’t understand.”
Irena says nothing. She turns off the CD player.
“How can I help you?” she asks at some point, crying.
“Nothing,” says Sokol, the father, who then runs into the courtyard, smacks the dog, and concocts some kind of job for himself so that he won’t go crazy, like relocating stacks of rocks by carrying them from one corner of the yard to the other.
The blood-taker is not allowed to shoot at the children of the blood-giver, nor at his wife or livestock, and not at his house or courtyard.
That much is written in the Kanun, but few observe these provisions anymore. They kill because the Kanun desires it, and they transgress against the Kanun as they are killing. Visati thinks the Kanun produces killers. The Kanun cloaks a great many crimes these days, garden-variety murders, settlings of accounts after traffic accidents—all camouflaged as blood feuds. Recently, since women are allowed to avenge a murder honorably, two women shot a man to death, because in their clan no man remained who was eligible to do the deed. What a fucked-up country, this Albania.
Visati actually knows that Sokol built the wall as high as he did, not only to keep the avengers from seeing who is moving about in the yard, but also so that he no longer has to see what’s going on outside. Papa does not want to know who is standing outside, possibly waiting for him; he doesn’t want to know any of it, he stacks his stones and cuts the grass, and he builds concrete columns and then demolishes them.
Yesterday evening Sokol said to Irena: “Tomorrow I am going out, even if they shoot me.”
Irena wept. “We need you.”
“Then I will wait one more day,” Sokol said.
“Maybe there is a second life,” Visati sighs. The table in the garden stands behind thick green curtains; a donkey brays and garbage is burning somewhere, here on the periphery of the northern Albanian city of Shkodër, 120,000 inhabitants strong.
“A life without fear.”
Visati Kolndreu, born on January 7, 1993, in Barbullush, thirty kilometers south of Shkodër, was four years old when his father took him by the hand. It was October 1997, his oldest memory.
“We’re going to town. You need a new pair of pants.”
“May I go too?” his mother asked.
“You stay here.” His father gave the command. “There’s only enough money for the pants.”
Sokol bought his boy a toy telephone, yellow and not cheap. Visati pushed on a button and a voice said: “Hello? Hello? Who am I talking to?”
They came back home, with Visati proudly pushing the button “Hello? Hello? Who am I talking to?” when suddenly he heard his father cry out. Visati ran into his parents’ bedroom and saw his mother. She was lying on the bed, coated with blood, her face no longer a face. A gun on the floor. The walls bloody.
“Get out,” Sokol said. “Get out of here.”
Visati ran away. He ran and fell down and when he came to, he was in an uncle’s bedroom. He stayed locked up there for two days. He put the chair up on the table, and put a smaller chair on top of the first one, until he could finally get at the window. He knocked out the pane, jumped out, three meters down, and ran home. No one was there, and he ran through the streets of Barbullush until he reached the cemetery. People were standing around there, crying and lamenting. Lying in the grave was a coffin without a lid, and Mama was in it. She wore her wedding dress. Visati wants to go to his mother and jumps into the grave. A man grabs him by the neck and pulls him back out. Sitting here at the table in the garden behind thick green drapes, behind high walls, he remembers this pain.
“It is hard not to go crazy in this life,” Visati says. He has brown skin, short hair, a green T-shirt, donated by Swiss nuns, Seastore Speed North Shore Pier 54.
When Visati speaks of the death of his mother, who killed herself with his father’s rifle because she could no longer cope with the fear, he lowers his face into his hands and tells himself that an accident tore Mama away from this life, some stupid goddamned mishap. Mama accidentally touched Sokol’s weapon that lay there, loaded, on the dresser.
The Albanian National Reconciliation Committee, an NGO in the capital, Tirana, has information on at least 10,000 families that have become embroiled in blood feuds in the course of the last twenty years. At least a thousand of them sought, and found, a settlement, a reconciliation, instead of continuing to murder. According to the NRC, there are currently 1480 families who seldom leave their homes. In order to escape the revenge of their opponents, they live isolated, outlawed, in perpetual fear. In the district of Shkodër alone there are 298 such families. The committee estimates that the number of victims of blood feuds shot since the collapse of the dictatorship, in the period 1990–2010, is around 10,000. The number of those people who took their own lives out of desperation over the past decade is estimated at more than 2,000.
The government of the republic, naturally enough, sees things differently. It claims that the number of blood feud murders is trending steadily downward, from 45 cases in 1998 to a single case in 2009. As for families in hiding, there are supposedly only approximately 130 nationwide.
Sokol, now a widower, fled with his children Lili and Visati to Torovicë, three villages away. He shut himself in and asked a friend to find him a new wife. In short order, the friend was successful: Irena, ten years younger than Sokol. A pretty and intelligent woman, whose father had broken the law and been jailed under the Communists for one sentence: “The bread in this country is so hard you can’t eat it.” Twelve years of prison, then six in a labor camp.
About a year ago, Visati heard Irena whisper to herself that the day of her engagement, in February 1998, was the saddest day of her life because she could not imagine a worse fate than to have to marry a man living in a blood feud, to wed a man who will someday lie in a pool of his own blood.
The Kanun states that a father, or his representative, may force a daughter into marriage but not a son. The Kanun states that it is legal for the father to add a bullet to the trousseau so that the husband can shoot his wife if she attempts to flee, violates the rules of hospitality, or commits adultery.
Irena’s uncle did not include a bullet.
Irena was twenty-five, long overdue for marriage.
“Visati, if your father is shot, will you avenge him?”
Visati scratches his head and looks over at Irena. He sniffles, saying nothing. Finally he shakes his head in the negative: “It will never end, otherwise.”
On April 21, 1998, they brought Irena in a large black Mercedes.
Sokol said: “Children, this is your new mother.”
Visati watched her from a distance.
“I don’t need a new mother, Papa. I don’t want any other mama.”
Sokol said: “There’s no other way. There’s nothing I can do.”
“There is something you can do,” Visati cried.
“I cannot leave the house. But somebody has to do the work for us.”
And Sokol cried.
“Let’s leave here. Go far away,” Visati clamored.
“Give your mother a hug,” Sokol commanded. “Go on, hug her!”
Irena had on a white dress, like Mama when she was lying in the coffin, and she has a face like Mama’s. Mama is here, Mama is back; she is still alive. And five-year-old Visati began to dance and shout, “Mama is here, Mama is back, she’s still alive.”
Sokol threw cold water in his face.
Irena asked, “What’s your name, sweetheart?”
Visati said nothing.
“May I give you a hug?” Irena asked.
“What is your name?” Visati asked.
“What would you like to call me?”
“I won’t call you Mama,” Visati continued.
“Then call me Irena, and come to me whenever you need me.”
That night, when Sokol and Irena were in bed together, Visati left the house and snuck to the graveyard.
He ran away again and again, often for days, eating only what apples he could find and sleeping in stables. Once he stowed away on the ferry headed toward Tropojë, his father’s home region, far away from Shkodër and the grave of his mother.
And then at some point there were five policemen in his house, coming down hard on Sokol.
“It wasn’t suicide,” shouted one of them. “You killed your first wife.”
They beat him until he was bloody and unconscious and then threw him into a car and drove off. Visati ran to one of his uncles. “Papa is dead.”
That same day the uncle sold Sokol’s house and gave the money to the policemen. Sokol, they now said, apparently did not kill his first wife after all, but the weapon that was used by whomever, Sokol’s weapon, was not registered. So: one year of prison. Irena took her stepchildren, Lili and Visati, ages eight and six, and moved into a horse stable in Shkodër where the rain came in through the roof, there was no stove, no glass in the windows. Occasionally a priest came by and brought flour and oil.
“Visati, what is your dream?”
“If you could make a wish!”
He waits, saying nothing. “I can’t make wishes.”
Visati sits at his garden table, one hand supporting his head, sniffling. Somewhere garbage is burning.
And then there is this one other memory: Visati is nine, and he is allowed to go out because he is still too young to be targeted. He is standing by the lake and fishing with his friend Mondi when along comes a stranger, maybe five years older than he, and demands Mondi’s fish. Mondi balks. The stranger has a gun. He shoots Mondi, just like that, right in his face, which is now black. It’s birdshot, and some of the pellets penetrate Visati’s shirt, while Mondi falls mutely into Visati’s arms, dying and dying and dying. Visati has kept the shirt to this day, on the top of the stack in his dresser, full of holes and Mondi’s blood.
The Kanun states that one is to affix the shirt of the dead man to the top of the door frame, for all to see, and the woman of the house is supposed to ask the men after each meal if the dead man has been avenged. At the latest, the revenge should be carried out, in honor of the dead, by the time the bloody stains on the shirt have turned pale and yellow.
“Maybe I’ll wear my calamity,” Visati sobs. He looks at Sokol, his father, and at Irena, his stepmother. She is crying without a sound.
It is only rarely that Visati ventures out into the streets of Shkodër. One friend to his left, another to his right. In his hand he carries a small, round mirror, and every thirty meters he stops and raises the mirror as if looking at himself. He is checking to see if anyone is following. “If I could wish anything for myself, it would be for someone to tell me if I’m crazy.”
Recently, on September 8, when he was traipsing through the streets, he passed a café. Two men leapt up from their seats. One of them had a beard, a beard like Ndoka, whom Visati had never seen. Visati was scared of men with beards, ever since his father told him that Ndoka, the avenger, had one. The two men leapt up from their seats, and Visati started running, and he ran across the wide street in front of the Hotel Colosseo, saving his skin by going into the Church of St. Francis. He stood behind a column, waiting and waiting. Well, he thought, maybe it isn’t true. Two men jumped up, but maybe it wasn’t because of me.
Visati doesn’t know who the people are who are looking for him. He doesn’t know what they look like, what kind of car they drive—but they, he thinks, they know every one of my tears.
Visati thinks that people are staring at him. Everyone is staring, it seems, whenever he walks along the streets of the city he hates, seldom as it is.
As if he had a mark on his brow.
God placed two fingers’ breadth of honor on our foreheads, says the Kanun.
Sometimes Visati believes he is just silly and lazy and stupid. Not made for this life.
Sometimes he believes that he actually deserves to be shot, since he is so stupid and lazy.
One day Irena makes the acquaintance of a Catholic nun, a German from the convent of the Mother of Mercy, the Kuvendi Nëna e Mëshirës. The nun gave her clothes, flour, and money and got the family out of the stall on the edge of the city, at last. She helped them move into a house situated in a large, damp field. It turned into a swamp whenever it rained. Sokol bought two dogs and built a wall around the house, only one and a half meters high at first. Irena found work in the convent, where she cleaned and cooked, bathed patients, and helped in the garden. Three hundred euros a month.
When Visati finally turned thirteen, his father forbade him to go to school, play soccer, take walks. To have any life outside. He stayed in the house and played with his little brothers, Edi and Josef; he fought with his sister, watched TV, and yelled. Sometimes he snuck off, stayed gone for days, sleeping under the stars. He stole bread and fruit, snuck a ride on a boat in the direction of Bajram Curri, far away from Shkodër and its murderers, far away from the house in the swamp with Irena in the kitchen sitting on a sofa of artificial leather. On the wall hung a carpet with the crucified Christ on it; petite swans of white porcelain rested on crocheted doilies. Irena, her face darkened, listened to German or French songs, always the same songs, and his father, outside in the yard, toted rocks from one corner to the other.
In February 2010 the United Nations’ special rapporteur for extralegal executions, Philip Alston, an Australian law professor, accused the Albanian government of investing too little money in the reconciliation of feuding families, even if the number of blood feuds in the five preceding years had been going down. Alston maintained that families who live in blood feuds and isolate themselves tend to maintain this status even when their antagonists are not making any concrete threats. To lock oneself up is also an imperative of honor. For them the simple presumption that an attack is possible suffices, except when the avengers have offered a time-out in the form of the besa, the short-term promise to delay the next round of the vendetta.
One day the nun went to see Ndoka. The avenger sat alone in an empty room, a gun at his side, the old man and the rifle, and the nun requested that he think about whether it wouldn’t be better for everyone to seek life instead of death, good instead of evil. Whether it wouldn’t be better to stop shedding blood.
“It wouldn’t matter if the pope came here from Rome, or if God descended from the heavens,” screamed Ndoka. “I have to do what I have to do.”
The Austrian historian Karl Kaser, director of the Center for the Study of Balkan Societies and Cultures at the University of Graz, is one of those who considers the phenomenon of the blood feud to be more than merely a legal device: it is an expression of ancestor worship. The souls of those killed only find peace when their deaths are avenged.
Sokol’s mother died a few months ago.
He traveled to Torovicë for the funeral, despite all his fears. There sat his five brothers, all of whom had ended up as alcoholics, having shut themselves up for twenty-seven years now in old houses. They despise Sokol because he left the village and ventures out into the street now and again. And because, recently, on the occasion of Lili’s wedding, he had sent them an invitation signed “Irena and Sokol.” It was supposed to have been: “Sokol and Irena.”
And there at his mother’s coffin stood one of Ndoka’s sons. He was drinking coffee.
Sokol shook his hand.
At funerals, there is no killing.
So it is written in the Kanun.
Visati thinks: Now they know exactly what my father looks like. Now they know exactly whom they have to kill, if not me. Papa, who owns a new house, and even an automobile, and has a plucky wife who walks a few steps in front of him so that the bullet, when it comes, gets her first. Sokol, who did not become an alcoholic, in spite of the fear.
One night, under a new moon, Irena stood on the roof of their house and emptied the Kalashnikov’s magazine into the air. Her face is growing ever darker, and her laugh is brittle. She only laughs when she has guests, the German nun and her Swiss colleagues, coming by now and again to inquire how things are going.
Otherwise, nobody visits anymore.
Sokol doesn’t answer the garden door anymore. When someone rattles it, he sends Edi or Josef, both of whom are too young to be blood-givers.
Fortunately, Visati thinks, Sokol has this high wall now, three meters tall, preventing him from looking out all the time.
At least his father sometimes releases him from the house and the yard. Two friends pick him up, the only friends Visati still has, two married men who stick him in the middle. Or a nun drives up in an SUV and takes Visati to the convent, Our Mother of Mercy, so that he can be with other people, clean and cook, play and dance. Then she takes him back to the swamp; one does not fire on nuns.
“Visati, what will things be like in ten years?”
Leaning his head on his hands, he looks at his father, at his stepmother, sniffles and says: “Either or.”
“What do you mean?”
“We will be reconciled with our avengers. Or dead. Maybe my father, maybe me.”
The day before yesterday another note was found lying in the yard. Ndoka’s son, it read, was now back in Italy.
A feint, Visati sighed. The killers’ trick to lure us out of the house.
This morning, October 5, 2010, Visati Kolndreu, now seventeen years old, was in the city. He asked his friends for a favor: five minutes.
For five minutes he sat on a bench, solo, with no one next to him, Visati alone in the middle of the accursed city of Shkodër, surrounded by nothing but potential murderers.
Visati doesn’t know what drove him to do it. Perhaps it was foolhardiness, perhaps a test of courage. Perhaps it was the desire to meet his bullet.
But it was beautiful.
Translation from the German
By John K. Cox