Three years ago Beta’s brother killed another boy in her village in northern Albania, triggering a blood vendetta against her family.
While her brother was sent to prison by the Albanian courts, the threat of revenge against the family remains due to widespread adherence to a 15th-century code known as the “Kanun”. This alternative justice system maintains that killing must be avenged in order to restore family honour.
After the incident, Beta’s father fled to London where he hopes to get asylum, leaving Beta and her sister confined to the family home for their own protection.
Beta is growing increasingly frustrated by her confinement, which has also prevented her from going to school. The only hope now is that her father will be granted asylum and she and her sister can escape their self-imposed prison sentence.
|Three generations of women: Migena, Rezarta, Beta and Liza wait inside their family home in northern Albania for news of their father’s asylum application in London, UK [Al Jazeera]|
By Simon Hipkins
I have a very distinct memory of something that happened during the research for this film which will stay with me for a long time to come. I was standing by Lake Shkodra in northern Albania, filming landscape shots in the evening light. Looking through the camera, I could see the image of a ruined house across the water reflected in the red light of the fading day.
I had just spent the last three weeks travelling through the surrounding towns and villages with my co-producer, Dominic. We had been searching for a family affected by Albania’s infamous blood feuds and had met numerous families whose members were marked for death because their relatives had murdered someone.
|The stories we had heard were disturbing: there were families who had lived in hiding for decades, teenagers who had never been to school, frustrated men who had turned to alcoholism, high levels of domestic violence and incidents of suicide.|
The stories we had heard were disturbing: there were families who had lived in hiding for decades, teenagers who had never been to school, frustrated men who had turned to alcoholism, high levels of domestic violence and incidents of suicide.
In nearly every case, the only hope seemed to be the possibility of escaping Albania. But what was even more disturbing was just how many of these families accepted their situation as part of their destiny.
“And so it was written,” were the words we heard time and time again. In a situation without hope or end, fatalism had become reassuring.I found this both upsetting and fascinating. As a storyteller, I was struggling to imagine how I could capture and explore such a complicated psychological state.
And then it happened: I looked up from the viewfinder of my camera and saw two children, a boy and a girl, sitting on their bikes beside me by the water’s edge. They looked across at me, curious about the foreigner with the video camera. The girl turned to the boy, “Why is he filming?” The boy simply replied, “Gjakmarrja”, which literally translates to “blood-taking”.
I had to laugh – why else would a foreign documentary-maker come to Albania? But then it also occurred to me that for the children who grow up here, this tradition of blood feuds is a part of everyday life. In fact, it’s something Albania is known for.
That night, I realised I should make a film about children like these. If I could see the world through their eyes, I might have a chance to show how something so extraordinary can become ordinary.
|Lake Shkodra in northern Albania [Al Jazeera]|
‘Kanun’ as an alternative form of justice
The very next day, I met sisters Beta and Migena, their mother Rezarta, and grandmother Liza for the first time. I was immediately drawn to the strong dynamic between these three generations of women.
Their lives had been heavily shaped by Albania’s difficult past: Liza had lived under oppression during the communist age and Rezarta had come of age amid the chaos of the post-communist era. Beta and Migena were part of Albania’s next generation and – despite their confinement – had a growing awareness of life outside of Albania through access to television and the internet.
Later that evening, I spoke on the phone to Beta and Migena’s father, Paulin, who was living in London. Paulin told me about his ongoing battle to try and get asylum for the family in the UK. He gave his blessing to the film, saying he hoped it would prevent other people from experiencing what his family was going through.
Since the fall of communism in 1991, life for most Albanian people has been extraordinarily hard. After a series of corrupt pyramid schemes collapsed in 1997, hundreds of thousands were left penniless.
In the unrest that followed, more than 650,000 weapons were looted from military stockpiles. Confidence in the state was lost, criminality soared, and people began to revert back to traditional tribal laws which had been suppressed under communism.
In the north of Albania, this meant the resurgence of the “Kanun” as an alternative form of justice. Blood feuds are perhaps the most dramatic example of this: in cases of murder, family honour must be upheld through the retaliatory killing of either the perpetrator or one of his male relatives.
With an abundance of weapons and crime in Albania, the modern interpretation of this was extremely violent and not always limited to male members of the family.
Beta’s family are a prime example of a family suffering the consequences of a modern day blood feud. All the male members of the family fled abroad after an attempted reprisal attack, leaving Beta, her sister, mother and grandmother alone.
Their home and surroundings are a beguiling place, beautiful but nevertheless a prison guarded by fear of what the other family might do.
|Beta’s father Paulin at work selling peanuts on Millennium Bridge, London [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]|
Ignoring Albania’s blood feud problem
It’s hard to know just how many families like Beta’s live in isolation due to blood feuds in Albania. Local NGOs claim some 398 families continue to live in self-confinement (with over 12,100 people murdered in blood feuds since 1991), but the Albanian government’s official data, limited to police records, shows much lower figures.
In 2015, the Albanian government stated there is no reason for any of its citizens to seek asylum abroad and declared Albania a “safe country”. A year later the European Commission included Albania as part of its proposed migration regulations which aims to create a common EU list of “safe countries of origin”.
If this legislation comes into effect, it will allow EU member states to fast-track processing rules for asylum seekers from these countries. This will make it a lot more difficult for Albanian citizens to claim asylum in EU countries.
The creation of such a list of “safe countries” has been criticised by human rights organisations for potentially institutionalising a practice by which EU member states could deny their responsibilities towards asylum seekers, in violation of their international obligations.
The Albanian government is currently pursuing membership of the European Union and the EU is spending 650 million euros on new infrastructure and development projects in the country. One of the criteria for EU membership is a transparent justice system and the rule of law. With this in mind, it’s easy to imagine why some might choose to ignore the phenomenon of blood feuds.
And while the denial of such a societal problem definitely doesn’t make it go away, it can mean the stories of families like Beta’s become easily forgotten.
With the help of our translator Stela, we slowly got to know Beta’s family, who had had very little contact with the outside world for the past three years. It became clear that while Migena and her mother had lost much of their hope, Beta remained positive and somewhat naive about the family’s situation.
Beta reminded me of the little girl I had seen by the lake. She had an incredible excitement and curiosity for life despite not having left her home for three years. So I decided I would try to make the film through her eyes – and learn as she did about the fate of her family.
Over the two months of filming, Beta never stopped surprising me. I could never have imagined finding such a remarkable individual, or a family whose story was so revealing.
The result, I hope, is not just a film about life in present-day Albania but a universal story about what can happen to a family after a killing and what price they must pay to keep hope alive.
I am grateful to Beta, Migena, Rezarta, Liza and Paulin for opening their lives to me as a filmmaker and allowing me to tell their story.
Source: Al Jazeera