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Blood Feuds Revive in Unstable Kosovo

Rise in “Honour killings” blamed on collapse of respect for law and order.
By Fatos Bytyci

There are no signs of life outside the Murati house in Duzhnje village in south-west Kosovo. The windows are closed and there are no footprints in the snow in the front of the door.


Sixty-year-old Osman Murati opens the main gate only enough to put his head out and see who is knocking. He fears people might be out to shoot him as an “honour killing” to avenge the double murder recently committed by his 20-year-old son Valon.


Honour killings are deeply rooted in Albanian society and were given formal recognition in the collection of medieval tribal laws known as the “Canon of Lekë Dukagjini”. This states that “if one man kills another, a male member of the victim’s family must respond in kind”.


In the communist era, blood feuds were relatively rare among Albanians either in Kosovo or Albania. But after the turmoil of the 1990s, the ideas contained in Leke’s canon revived, first in the chaos of post-communist Albania and then in neighbouring Kosovo, too, after the NATO strikes and withdrawal of Serbian forces.


For more than three months, neither Valon Murati, nor his brother, father and grandfather have stirred from their home out of fear that the murders might incurr a vendetta.


The killings occured on November 10 when Valon, a member of the Kosovo Police Service, KPS, in Gjakova, shot dead Sadik and Safedin Zeneli, aged 55 and 30 respectively, while returning from work. The victims were Veton’s cousins and came from the same village.


Isak Zeneli heard the shots. “I saw two people lying on the ground,” he recalled. “Valon was running towrads the village street shouting ‘I have killed two people’.’’


While awaiting trial, Murati has been released on bail. The Zeneli family is furious and believes Murati was released because he was a KPS officer. Now they are threatening to take the law into their own hands. Sadik Dobruna, their lawyer, says the court acted foolishly. “This decision has put the suspect in great danger,” he said. “It will do him more harm than good.”


Xhafer Zeneli, Sadik’s brother, has not dispelled suspicions that the family may take revenge on Valon Murati. “There is no justice in Kosovo,” he said. “He murdered my brother and yet he is free. Sadik has many sons in Germany. They may take revenge when they return.”


Under the Canon of Lekë Dukagjini, a murderer must request security from the victim’s family - in the form of a word of honour known as “besa” - that he will not be shot if he steps outside his home.


In Murati’s case, the deceased’s family has refused to subscribe to such a pledge, leaving the men of the Murati family wondereing if they will be victims of a vendetta killing.


Valon fears precisely such an outcome. Appearing at his front door, he insists he shot the two men in self-defence and urges the Zelenis to understand. “How can I convince them I was attacked and only defended myself?” he asked.


From the end of the war in Kosovo in 1999 until late 2003, Kosovo recorded around 40 murders related to blood feuds, according to the Council for the Defence of Human Rights and Freedoms, KLMDNJ.


“Cases of blood vengenance are reappearing as a consequence of the poor functioning of law and order and the institutions that regulate the law,” said Pajazit Nushi, the council’s president.


Some local experts blame the legal and political vacuum that has prevailed since 1999, when Serb officialdom withdrew, and the international community proved reluctant to hand power to Kosovo Albanian institutions that might assert their independence. The legal system itself, including judges, public prosecutors and police, is widely viewed as corrupt and open to intimidation.


As murders go unpunished, many people openly say neither the law nor the courts deserve respect. In November 2002, Radio Television Kosovo broadcast a crime programme in which a father whose son was murdered warned that if killers were not punished “we will solve the issue without police according to the Canon (of Leke)”.


From 1990 to 1997, hundreds of families involved in bloodfeuds were reconciled through a mass campaign initiated by the late Anton Cetta, a retired professor from the University of Pristina. Cetta toured hundreds of villages, convincing men to forget their family feuds and organising ceremonies of reconciliation that featured feasting, music and dance.


It was tough work. Cetta said at the time, “It is not easy for families required to draw blood to forgive, because for many centuries, families who did not take vengeance were considered cowards.” But they were helped by a widespread feeling that Albanians needed to unite against the Serbian government.


That feeling has not survived the transition to a new century or the departure of the Serbs. “Many people who became reconciled in the 1990s have become enemies again and restarted the old family blood feud,” said Pajazit Nushi said.


Sadik Dobruna says that members of the Zeneli family are not after a blood feud, if justice can be seen to be done. But there is a veiled warning, when he adds, “If the court takes the side of the police officer, then the situation might change.”


Fatos Bytyci is a journalist with Radio Television Kosova, RTK.


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