A child killing is still big news in Britain. When we hear of such a murder in South Wales we ask ourselves what was missed and what could have been done to save an innocent life. So when Cardiff journalist Tim Hartley read about the premeditated, cold blooded killing of children in modern day Europe he was shocked. On a recent visit to Albania with Wales football supporters’ charity Gol! he had the chance to learn more.
Blood feuds?” said Marsida as she held her coffee cup just below her lip.
“Sure they still go on here. It’s a big deal and it’s the children who suffer most of all.”
I’d been wary of asking about blood feuds, fearing they were Albania’s dirty secret.
But Marsida Cela from the Children Today charity seemed more than willing to fill me in as we chatted in the shaded garden of my hostel in downtown Tirana.
Marsida was unabashed at my questioning and explained how a dispute between families in Albania can lead to murder and then a cycle of bloody revenge. And in the middle of all this are the children.
I’d heard the horrific tale of Marsela, a nine-year-old girl who now lives in hiding in Shkoder in the northern Albania.
Marsela can’t go to school or go out to play with her friends – for fear of being killed.
She’s an innocent victim of a family blood feud.
Eighteen years ago her father got blind drunk and shot a friend. That set off a string of retaliatory killings which have left five people dead. I’d driven through Shkoder the previous day on the main road south to the capital Tirana.
The town itself seemed normal and busy if a bit of a downbeat place.
But in this area alone 120 children like Marsela are reported to be living in isolation because of blood feuds.
Men in Albania abide by a centuries old code of law called the Kanun, which says that a death in the family must be avenged.
I hadn’t been sure what to expect from Albania. But it was certainly not this.
Only after the communists were overthrown and democracy brought in did we hear about the blood feuds. It was difficult to balance this grim story of medieval ‘justice’ with the modern and very 21st century city I saw about me.
Despite the shiny new shops and fancy restaurants there are still chronic problems in Albania.
Thirty percent of children under the age of five suffer from stunted growth through malnutrition and despite high enrolment levels, secondary school attendance rates are only 40% for boys and girls.
A quarter of five to 14 year olds are actually working.
And then of course, there are the blood feuds. Whole families can be left destitute or at best isolated when the main bread winner is forced to flee the village for his own safety.
Official figures show that more than 200 people have died in feuds over the last 14 years, though some say the real figure is much higher.
“These blood feuds are barbaric and it’s got to stop,” she says.
“It’s not easy. They’re a deeply engrained part of our culture. But we do what we can.”
It was a bitter sweet visit to Tirana. I am still finding it difficult to reconcile this modern, bustling city and a country desperate to become part of the European Union with the stories Marsida told us of hatred and murder.
I may read about a horrific stabbing on the streets of Cardiff but I am not going to hear that a nine-year-old child will have to pay for it with her life.
Some believe that there was a breakdown of law and order in Albania in the early 1990s, after the communist system collapsed, and that only then did people resort to traditional ways of resolving conflicts. Albert Rakipi, writing in the Tirana Times, said that because of its history and isolation, the process of trying to get a functioning liberal democracy in Albania “will go on for generations”.