Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Feuds Hold Kosovo Families in Thrall

Years after the United Nations introduced a modern legal system in Kosovo, many still believe true justice is done by the old rules of honour and blood.
By Jeton Musliu

Jeton Mehmeti, aged seven, spends his days sitting bored beside the wooden stove in his house in Llausa, 25 kilometres north of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo.

He cannot venture outside because there is a murderous blood feud between his family and the Jonuzi family who live 300 metres away.

It has been more than a year since any of the Mehmeti men left the house. The feud began after Jeton’s brother Besim shot dead his sister’s husband, Selatin Jonuzi.

Jeton’s father Shahin fears the neighbours might shoot the little boy if he stepped outside the door.

This inter-family war has its roots in the Canon of Lekë Dukagjini, the medieval law code that regulates revenge killings in Albania and Kosovo.

In theory, the code prohibits the killing of children, but in practice, changing interpretations of the rules can mean the young are also vulnerable to revenge attacks.

It is also forbidden to murder women, the elderly, the mentally ill, or anyone in the vicinity of a mosque or church.

The yard outside the Mehmeti house, surrounded by a high mud-brick wall, is as far as the men and boys dare to go.

The justice system that governs the family’s life is, in theory, the modern legal framework set up and overseen by the United Nations administration which is in charge of Kosovo.

But while the new legal system does function, it has to compete with Leke’s code in spheres such as family honour.

When it comes to murder, the canon’s provisions are precise. The family of a murder victim is obliged to eliminate a male member of the killer’s family. “Blood is paid for by blood,” says the canon.

The rules can result in the men of the family being picked off one by one in a series of tit-for-tat killings.

The men of a family held responsible for a murder may only leave their homes if the victim’s family grants them a pledge of security known as “besa”. Without this, they must remain confined or risk an ambush.

According to law student Florim Qarolli, the canon counted as fairly progressive in its day, given the lawlessness that prevailed in this region in the Middle Ages.

“The system arose in order to minimise the number of killings,” he explained.

Many centuries on, it retains much of its power. The writ of the official legal system scarcely runs in many regions, especially in remote, mountainous or undeveloped areas.

“In some places in Kosovo these customs are applied much more than the law,” said Tome Gashi, a lawyer from Pristina.

Few international officials are willing to talk about the canon’s continuing strength, and local officials also refuse to comment.

The fact that these feuds continue to plague rural society is a disappointment to some Kosovo activists. In 1989, they set up a commission of volunteers which set out to reconcile families locked into murderous feuds. They halted around 2,000 blood feuds in two years.

But many families cooperated only for as long as Serbia governed Kosovo and Albanians were united against it. When Serbian rule ended after the 1999 conflict, blood feuds started to reappear.

Fadil Maloku, sociology professor at Pristina University, says the new legal system has failed to take root in many people’s minds. “It does not comply with traditional norms, so many people are turning back to old customs,” he said.

In the case of the Mehmeti family, little Jeton remains in danger because the Jonuzi family has not granted them a besa ensuring their safety if they go out. They fear the Jonuzis are out for retaliation even though two of Jeton’s brothers have already been jailed for the killing.

As a result, Jeton’s two sisters Valdete and Shqipe have to work to keep the menfolk alive.

They cut firewood in a mountain near the village and sell it in the town of Besiana. They are of school age but cannot attend as they have to support the family.

Three hundred metres away, the victim’s family feel no pity for their neighbours’ plight.

Bislim Jonuzi, brother of the deceased Selatin, says he will never forgive his brother’s killing, as he was shot dead in his own yard.

The Mehmeti family has sent many emissaries to the Jonuzi household seeking forgiveness, but in vain.

“They have rejected all these people and now I have no besa,” said Shahin Mehmeti.

So, five years after the war ended and Kosovo came under an international administration, a seven-year-old boy still cannot go to school because his brother killed his brother-in law.

Jeton Musliu is a reporter for the daily newspaper Express, and Bajram Lani works for the Kosovo daily Epoka e re.