Nearly twice as many people are killed by guns in Albania, a candidate to join the EU, than in the US.
By JACK DAVIES 1/18/16
Gjin Marku, chairman of the Committee of Nationwide Reconciliation, estimates that 12,000 people have died in Albania's blood feuds since 1991. Photo by Damon Kinmond
TIRANA, Albania — “Guns were the first thing we went for, then flour for bread,” said Aleksander Marleci, a local politician in the town of Shkodra, in northern Albania.
That was in 1997, the year Albania teetered on the brink of civil war. The pyramid scheme that suckered in most of the population had collapsed and half of Albania’s GDP disappeared overnight. Protests gave way to street fighting and looting. At the top of looters’ shopping list were the country’s bountiful arms depots.
No one knows how many weapons were seized in those lawless months. The government’s estimate is in excess of half a million; other sources suggest a number nearly twice as high. What is certain: By year’s end, the stolen guns had contributed to more than 1,000 deaths.
“I remember I was crying and angry because my dad never brought a gun into the house” — Aleksander Marleci
In those days, guns were everywhere. Kalashnikovs changed hands on Shkodra’s high street for as little as $5. Marleci was 11 years old then. “I remember I was crying and angry because my dad never brought a gun into the house,” he said. His friends’ fathers all owned guns.
The intervening years saw a series of U.N.-backed gun amnesties. But there are still at least 210,000 illegally held firearms in Albania, a country of just under 3 million people. At first glance, the fact that there is one illegal firearm for every 13 citizens appears to explain the soaring rate of gun deaths in Albania. In 2013, there were 5.86 gun-related killings for every 100,000 people, according to Washington University’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
The local media often uses the notoriously trigger-happy United States, with 3.55 gun-related killings, as a point of comparison. More meaningful, perhaps, are similar statistics from Albania’s ex-Yugoslav neighbors, where guns are just as prominent but the rate of gun crime is far lower.
Albania is a candidate to join the EU. The gun-crime problem is not in itself Brussels’ most serious concern. It is, however, a barometer for organized crime and corruption, both of which feature prominently in Albania’s yearly EU progress reports.
“The Albanian government does not have a clear policy on addressing gun crimes,” said Andi Hoxhaj, a researcher at Warwick University. “They are more focused on addressing organized crime and illegal drugs, as Brussels is mainly pressing the Albanian government [on these issues].”
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Ask people across Albania why so many of their countrymen settle their differences at gunpoint, and they’ll tell you about the Kanun — an ancient, violent set of customs that rural Albania reverted after the fall of the communist regime. Its entrenched tradition of blood feuds between families and the absence of adequate law enforcement brought back a culture of lawlessness, violence and fear.
“I don’t think a gun at home will save you,” former deputy interior minister Gent Strazimiri said in an interview. “But of course, I cannot blame [these people]. How can a normal citizen have confidence in the police and judiciary? How can you convince them they don’t need a gun?”
Albania’s courts are notoriously corrupt. When the U.S. ambassador addressed a judiciary conference in December 2015, he offered the following test: “If you look down at your wrist and you have a watch that costs more than my car, you are probably a corrupt judge.”
“Whoever has money is un-guilty” — Gent Strazimiri
Strazimiri put it more bluntly: “Whoever has money is un-guilty.”
Part of the current problem of gun violence is the example set by the highest tiers of Albanian society.
Recent charges filed by the General Prosecutor’s Office against Armando Prenga, a deputy from the governing parliamentary coalition, read like the screenplay for an episode of “The Sopranos:” Prenga walks into a bar on a Friday night, he gets into an argument with the owner’s son and nephew, they argue, the situation escalates and the politician pistol-whips the pub owner, leaving what a forensic report will later describe as a flesh wound.
When Prenga arrives at the police station with his brother and a small group of associates, he pulls a gun on four members of the bar owner’s family, shouting, “We will eradicate your tribe,” before discharging several rounds of automatic gunfire. Prenga spent two months in prison awaiting trial, before being placed under house arrest.
Tales of politicians dispensing bullets like loose change are common.
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Nothing better illustrates the limited reach of Albania’s law enforcement than the hillside village of Lazarat.
Ismail Kadare, the country’s unofficial national novelist, once described the town as “the most stubborn and vicious village imaginable.” In the economic devastation and juridical vacuum of 1997, its inhabitants established what would arguably become the country’s most profitable business: They began to cultivate hundreds of acres of marijuana.
An elderly Albanian woman brings out of her home in Lazarat seized marijuana plants in 2014. Gent Shkullaku/AFP/Getty
It was not long before the otherwise unremarkable Lazarat became a byword for quality in the coffee shops of Amsterdam. At peak production, the town was estimated to be turning out 900 tons of marijuana a year, with a street value of $6.1 billion. In 1999, Albania’s GDP was equivalent to just $3.4 billion.
To protect their investment, and the ostentatious houses many had built, the villagers armed themselves to the teeth. And it worked. Police raids were fended off with machine-gun fire. Leaving Lazarat to its business became the unofficial policy.
But Italian law enforcement grew wary of the hundreds of tons of marijuana turning up on their Adriatic shoreline. In June 2014, when Albania was about to be granted candidate-country status by the European Union, 800 Albanian police officers lay siege to the village of outlaws. Inhabitants responded with mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades. Two weeks later, the siege was broken and police razed Lazarat’s growing fields to the ground. Shutting down Lazarat’s illegal operations was widely believed to be an implicit condition to Albania’s EU candidacy.
Evidence of heavy weaponry other visitors claim to see in the village is sparse; much of it was confiscated by police during the 2014 raid. But no sooner had I closed the door to my car on a recent visit to Lazarat than a teenage boy offered, “Cannabis?” Everywhere I went, there were clear signs that marijuana was still readily available, illustrative of the government’s inability to adequately police the region.
Strazimiri, the former deputy interior minister, laughed at the mention of the raid. “It was only show,” he said.
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While the rich and powerful discharge their weapons without fear of repercussions, many ordinary citizens resort to guns precisely because they don’t trust the law to dole out justice.
For half a millennium until 1912, Albania was a province of the Ottoman Empire. Despite extracting taxes and conscripting boys as janissaries — the empire’s elite shock troops — Constantinople had done little to enforce law and order. Instead, communities developed their own laws, known as the Kanun. Without a stronger state presence to keep the peace, people relied on principles of honor to maintain social cohesion. The most famous element of Kanun law are the blood feuds, known as Gjakmarrja, which dictate the circumstances under which murder must be committed in order to maintain family honor.
One explanation for the rise in gun deaths is poverty, but there’s little evidence that Albania’s poor are more prone to violence.
Gunsmiths flourished and their wares became household items. “Shooting is almost the only amusement of the young men and women in Albania,” the New York Times wrote in 1911. “Both boys and girls learn to shoot when they are 12 years old.… The people use their rifles by day and sleep with them at their side by night.”
In the years of Communist rule after the end of World War II, both firearms and the Kanun were rigidly prohibited, and guns all but disappeared from daily life. When the regime conceded to popular protests in 1991, both Kanun law and guns reasserted themselves in Albanian society. As the judiciary became increasingly corrupt, people hungered for security and took justice into their own hands. Six years later, with the looting of the arms depots, firearm ownership was once again commonplace.
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The violence caused by blood feuds in Albania reached a peak in the late 1990s. The Committee of Nationwide Reconciliation (CNR), founded in 1990 to reconcile feuding families, estimates 12,000 people have died as a result of blood feuds since 1991.
According to CNR Chairman Gjin Marku, the majority of post-communist blood feuds fail to observe the specific conditions set out by Kanun law, including prohibitions on targeting women, children and priests.
Because Kanun prohibits executing a feud within the home, many chose to endure years of isolation rather than face ambush and murder. Children are often caught in the crossfire, and CNR estimates there are currently 900 children confined to their homes as a result.
For as long as there have been violent feuds in Albania, people have also attempted to put an end to them. These people are known as “missionaries.” I met Pjeter Gjoka, a missionary operating under the auspices of the CNR, in his hometown of Lezha.
Gjoka dresses almost entirely in black; his face is serious and weathered but its expression benevolent. He is not a lawyer, and is not paid for his work. He voluntarily places himself between families that have sworn to kill one another, entreating them to practice forgiveness.
The police don’t provide Gjoka and his colleagues with much protection. Gjoka has been threatened with kidnapping and torture. His colleague, a missionary from the town of Shkodra, was gunned down in the early hours one August morning in 2004.
Gjoka took me to visit a woman named Dila Niklekaj. She shares her small apartment with her 41-year-old son, Gezim, who has lived in some form of captivity since 1991. Their family home, in Bajram Curri, is 200 kilometers away — but they cannot return.
Pjeter Gjoka, center, with Dila Niklekaj and her son, Gezim in their small apartment. Mother and son were forced to leave their hometown of Bajram Curri after threats of violence from the family of a victim stabbed by a then-17-year-old Gezim. Photographs by Damon Kinmond
Niklekaj dining table
In 1991, Gezim, then 17 years old, fatally stabbed a man in a bar fight. He was sentenced to 12 years in jail. He was granted early release after six years on account of severe depression while he was imprisoned.
After his release in 1997, Gezim and Dila were forced to leave their hometown. The family of the victim — a professional wrestler — had found no solace in the intervening six years. Their grief could only be appeased with Gezim’s death at their hands.
Talking now in his mother’s living room, the marks of trauma and isolation are written across his face. His attention oscillates, his voice flickers from firm baritone to trembling tenor.
Mother and son relocated to Lezha, leaving behind two houses, their extended family and all of their friends. Most have long ceased visiting, though family members drop by when they can. Asked how he spends his days, Gezim answers, “When there is electricity I watch TV.”
He could offer no conception of what his life might have looked like had the bar brawl ended differently, except for that “being free, everyone thinks of making a family.”
Despite their misery, the Niklekajs bear the victim’s family no ill will for their inability to forgive. “He was a mother’s son, too,” Dila said.
Their situation is not unique. According to Gjoka, the mediator, there are 35 other families living in isolation as the result of blood feuds in Lezha alone. There is no state organization to help them. Approximately once a year a Red Cross-style food parcel arrives at the Niklekaj home, but it is not enough. “It is not modest of me to say this, but I have bought essentials for these families because no one else will,” he said.
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According to data collected by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, homicides in Albania spiked in 2010 and have stayed high ever since.
“It is not because we have more guns,” said Artan Hoxha, a statistician and dean of the Business University of Tirana. “Guns are a constant.”
He links the sudden uptick in violence to the 2008 global financial crash, when Albanian companies were hit with reduced access to credit, the associated rises in unemployment and reduced tax revenues. Albania’s remittance economy also received a damaging blow.
An oft-proffered explanation for the rise in gun deaths is poverty. But reading the data, Hoxha finds no evidence that Albania’s poor are more prone to violence.
“I don’t see a link between poverty and homicide,” he said. In his view, murders tend to be committed by business and property owners. “These are the people who have something to lose.”
In 2014, Albania was hit with dozens of bombings targeting businessmen and government officials. Two self-professed hitmen gave testimony that exposed the degree to which Albania’s legitimate business sphere relies on professional assassins to settle disputes.
Albanian police officers take pictures of seized heavy guns in Lazarat on June 20, 2014. Gent Shkullaku/AFP/Getty
The financial crisis left businesses struggling to take out bank loans. Many turn to the informal debt market, whose collection methods are often less civil. The problem is exacerbated by the fact many lenders borrowed themselves to offer their black-market loans, said Hoxha.
That same year, EU granted Albania candidate status. The most optimistic observers don’t see Albania entering the European club before 2020. If it fails to make steps toward fixing its gun problem by then, it would be in good company. The Baltic members of the EU, Estonia and Lithuania, have gun homicide rates far in excess of any other EU nation, 5 and 6.9 per 100,000 head of population in 2011, respectively.
The current government has promised serious reforms to root out corrupt elements from Albania’s justice sector, reforms that are cheered by U.S. Ambassador Donald Lu.
Former deputy interior minister Strazimiri is not so optimistic. The reforms, he believes, are nothing more than a way for the current government to consolidate control over the judiciary.
“These reforms are not curing the corruption disease but adding another disease — political control.”
This article was corrected to remove reference to the castration of janissaries.
Jack Davies is a freelance journalist based in Kosovo. He is a member of the Cevapi Club, a collective of journalists collaborating across South-East Europe, and can be found on Twitter @jackoozell.