A Tooth for a Tooth


by Brendan I. Koerner

In certain precincts of Albania, where familial ties still mean everything, minor grudges have a way of spiraling seriously out of control. Take the the sad case of the Morevataj clan, which has been embroiled in a decade-long blood feud thanks to a drunken spat that ended in murder. According to the Kanun, the 15th-century legal code that still governs certain aspects of Albanian society, vengeance for such a crime can be exacted not only on the perpetrator himself, but on any of his male relatives, regardless of their age. As a result, thousands of Albanian boys must live in total seclusion, lest they be gunned down while heading to school or playing soccer in the street.

So how is the Albanian government dealing with these blood feuds? In part by accepting the harsh reality:

The Albanian government has taken steps to curb blood feuds, imposing severe penalties for retaliations, and funding the "Second Chance' schooling programme, where children who are in isolation get home tuition. The five boys in the Morevataj clan have a governess who visits three times per week, and have made good progress. But while some want more state funding for governesses and mediators, others say that simply entrenches recognition of the Kanun, when the real priority should be building up the government justice system.

When I first read about Second Chance, it didn't make sense. The program basically amounts to a tacit endorsement of the blood-feud system, correct? But the more I've thought about it, the more I've come to see it as a prime example of smart short-term pragmatism. So often, we let our idealism cloud our ability to help those most in need of assistance. Because we recognize the cruelty of the circumstances that landed them in dire straits, we resolve to change those circumstances in the most dramatic fashion possible. But that's almost always easier said than done.

The American parallel that immediately pops to mind is needle-exchange programs--we know they work from a public-health standpoint, but they're still widely opposed by those who will accept nothing less than an addiction-free society. A lovely goal, perhaps, but not something that should drive day-to-day policy, which must deal with human beings as they are, not as we want them to be.

No one disputes that the blood-feud system has become a drag on Albania's development, much as the cocktail of petty squabbling and stubborn pride ruins communities the world over. The long-term goal should obviously be to extinguish the Kanun's approach to venegance. But that dream doesn't do much good for the Morevataj boys right now. And unless the impoverished Albanian government can suddenly prove itself able to guarantee those kids' security, Second Chance is probably their best shot at achieving some small measure of normalcy.

Learn more about blood feuding, Albanian and otherwise, on Microkhan.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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