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The Kanun is a book of laws written in the 15th century by an Albanian lord named Lek Dukagjini. In the Middle Ages, the manuscript was the code of rules for revenge, detailed point by point. When a person was killed, members of the family were entitled to “recover the blood” as part of a specific ritual practice.

Since the fall of the communist regime in Albania in 1991, the tradition has been revived in the north of the country, and with the police and courts quite incapable of imposing law and order, men and women kill one another, citing the Kanun, in reparation of honor violated. Vendettas are now being waged against ten thousand people, including a thousand children. The rules of revenge are quite merciless and the message of the Kanun is being broadcast far and wide, while the voice of the police and judges can scarcely be heard.

Once the dictatorship had come to an end, lands were divided up, giving rise to many disputes between landowners. For more than forty years all references to the Kanun had been banned, but suddenly it moved into the vacuum left by the legal system. Albania is a fragile parliamentary democracy and ill equipped to combat this law of retaliation spreading like gangrene through northern rural areas. People are killed for a few square meters of land, because of an animal grazing outside its fence, or because of money, for poverty is endemic in this part of Europe.

In quite a different context, Shkodra enjoys the same status as other European tourist cities. Some 200 kilometers from the capital, Tirana, the rivers Buna and Kiri meet in the city nestling at the foot of the Albanian Alps where the snow-topped peaks can be seen from the center of town. Yet the city is one of the poorest in the country, with half the population unemployed. Inside the city, more than 600 families are targets of vendettas. They live in isolation, fearful that any family members going out will be murdered. Five hundred women raise their children alone as their husbands have been killed.

The Kanun is an oral tradition passed on from generation to generation, and over the years it has become vague and shadowy. People cite it as a reference, without actually knowing what is stated in it. According to the original manuscript by Lek Dukagjini, only the assassin should die. But today, women and children, and basically any of the offender’s relations, may be killed. The fear of being struck down in cold blood means that men and women barricade themselves inside what were once family houses open to the winds, but are now unassailable fortresses.

Bruno Masi

The report was conducted with support from the magazine Marie-Claire and L’Actualité-Québec. The exhibition was commissioned by the French National Center for Visual Arts (Ministry for Culture and Communication).

Guillaume Herbaut

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