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The land
of the living past

project

Transmitted orally for generations, the laws of the “Kanun” – or code – of Leke Dukagjini served for more than five centuries as the foundation of social behaviour and self government for the clans of Northern Albania, even while the region was nominally under Ottoman rule. However, these laws, customs and values had evolved over a period of many centuries, both before and after the lifetime (1410–1481) of the historical personage to whom they are ascribed. Some laws, particularly those regarding the concept of honour governing blood feuds, may have originated among the Illyrians, the Albanians’ ancestors. The “Kanun” was first codified and written down in a comprehensible and practicle form in the 1920ies by a Franciscan priest, Shtjefën Gjecov.

Despite the harsh and extensive programmes to abolish its authority over the people during Hoxha’s fifty year long communist dictatorship, the “Kanun’s” precepts continue to exercise a very significant influence, especially among the Northern Catholic highlanders. This influence becomes particularly evident during political and/or social crises. When the northern highlanders are faced with a meltdown or absence of centralized power and authority they naturally turn to the “Kanun” for guidance.

Today, most of the highlanders have moved to Albania’s towns and cities or have emigrated. Coming from a social structure based arond the extended family or clan they feel little allegiance to any other authority other than that of the family hierarchy. Unfortunately, some clans have distorted the original values of the “Kanun” and use the concepts of ‘honour’ and ‘family allegiance’ in international illegal activities (everything from contract killing, armed robbery and prostitution to people, arms and drug smuggling) much as the Sicilian  “Cosa Nostra”.

This is the story of a people bound by their past and confused by the contradictions this creates with the realities they are facing at the turn of a new century. This is the story of a living museum; the land of the living past.

The photographs presented here were taken during numerous visits to Albania between 1992 and 2000.

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Poet's Funeral

‘Gjemma' during the full traditional funeral ceremony held in honour of Martin Camaj at his family's home. After an exile of 46 years, Martin died in Munchen, Bavaria, where he had been Professor of Albanian studies. His body was buried in Lenggries, however the locals wanted to show their respects by holding the traditional funeral at his home - clothes were taken from various households and instead of his head they had a picture of him at age 18 and books that had been banned under the Hoxha regime. Telume village. Just before he was due to return to Albania for the first time after an exile of 46 years, the poet and dissident, Martin Camaj died in Munchen, Bavaria, where he had been Professor of Albanian studies. His body was buried in Lengries, Germany, however the locals wanted to show their respects by holding a traditional funeral ceremony - clothes were taken from various households and to replace his head they used a photo of him aged 18 and books that had been banned under the Hoxha regime. The Gjemma during the funeral ceremony held in honour of Martin Camaj, at his family home, Telume village.
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Access to the villages

Access to the villages is a major problem. The three Drin hydroelectric reservoirs serve as the only access to some, which are again three hours from the lakes. Koman reservoir.
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Ndue at Shnanandoj

Pagan faith. Ndue enters into trance as she begs for her illness to be healed. Not only Catholics but also Orthodox Christians and even Muslims visit the Shnanandoj pilgrimage for miraculous cures. Shnanandoj or Saint Anthony (of Padua) is supposed to have lived as a hermit on this site for several years. Lac.
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Bardhok 's Fueral

The mountain men, being renowned for their courage have always hired out their services as soldiers or mercenaries. Bardhok was a young army officer shot by deserters in 1997. The women crying around his body are not relatives, only those outside the family may openly show their emotions at a traditional funeral. Kajval village.
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Target practise

Target practise during a traditional village feast for the local patron saint which family and friends attend. All mountain men are proud of their marksmanship skills. Kajval village.
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Graveyard

At the beginning of the 20th century about 25% of males died in blood feud killings. No one knows exactly how many deaths there have since the communist regime collapsed in 1991, but they are in the hundreds - many old feuds going back generations re-opened. Some of the older crosses in graveyards still bare ancient sun designs; these are symbols of the ancient Illyrian faith, before the local population's conversion to Christianity in the 4thC. Much of the Kanun also dates back to that period if not before. Ndrejaj village.
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Vergjinesh

Lule, one of the youngest surviving Vergjinesh, ploughing - normally only a man's job. The Vergjinesh are women who voluntarily take an oath of life long virginity thereby renouncing marriage. After a trial period approved by the village elders they then lead the life of a man; dressing as one, doing men's work and even having the right to sit on the village council. The origins of this tradition are probably due to the large number of premature male deaths caused by blood feud killings, many families lost all their male members to feuding yet needed to be represented in the community, this role could not be played by a woman. Kroni Madhe village.
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Lulietta,The Bride

The bride, Lulietta, is taken away from her home after a feast that she does not participate in. In arranged marriages (as this one) the women of the household and the bride's friends also cry, lamenting her loss. The bride must remain veiled till arrival at the home of her future husband, who she has met only on one previous occasion. According to the 'Kanun', Book Three (Marriage), Chapter XII, paragraph 31 (the rights of women): "The young woman, even if her parents are not alive, does not have the right to concern herself about her own marriage, this right is held by her brother or other relatives. The young woman does not have the right (a) to choose her own husband; she must go to the man to whom she has been betrothed (b) to interfere in the selection of a match- maker or in the engagement arrangements". Malagji village.
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Boge Village

A man leads his oxen cart home after a day's work. Boge village.
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Taking 'Bessa'

Taking 'Bessa' (the oath) ending the blood feud. Book Seven in the 'Kanun' is dedicated to the "Spoken Word" (bessa) and claims; "the oath washes away blood". Malgji village.
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Firearm at Home

A young man cleans his prize possession; a Chinese automatic rifle. Every family has at least one firearm in the home. The 'Kanun' says that that all men of age should have the right to bare arms. In fact the gun was the only possession a man could buy and sell without the head of the family's permission. Malagji village.
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School Yard

Kids playing a local version of 'catch'. Much of the highland youth is growing up barely literate or totally illiterate; many parents simply do not send them to school, preferring them to mind the livestock. Qeret village.
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Man with Table

A man carries his home's tables to a funeral feast. Kroni Madhe village.
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Home fire

The woman of the house hold lights the fire early in the morning. Palaj village.
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Confession

In 1967 Albania, following China's example, embarked on its own 'Cultural Revolution'. The communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, outlawed all religions and declared Albania; "The world's first atheist state". Dozens of priests were killed and many others imprisoned. The northern Highlanders, staunch conservative Catholics who had for centuries withstood forced conversion to Orthodox Christianity and Islam, were no longer capable of defending their faith. A Polish Franciscan monk in Rrapsh village’s makeshift church confesses a youth.
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Shnanandoj

Moments of reflection at Albania’s most important pilgrimage shortly after religious practises were legalized. Shnanandoj, Lac.
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Michele

Michele Zef Nika (18mnths). Children are still swaddled in their cots and not allowed to crawl in the belief that this will help them grow with strong straight limbs.
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Zef Camaj

Zef Camaj spent several years in prison and was then 'internally exiled' after his younger brother, Martin Camaj, fled the country in 1946. Martin went on to become an internationally recognized linguist, poet and author while Zef and all his clan were banned from higher education. Telume village.
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Woman's Portrait

According to the 'Kanun', Book Three (Marriage), Chapter XXIX: "A woman is known as a sack made to endure as long as she lives in her husband's house". The condition for women living in the northern highlands is particularly harsh. A portrait of a married woman on the Drin lake.
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Kim Zef Pepa

Kim Zef Pepa (28 years) was killed while fetching water from the village spring. The murder was done 'according to the book', the killer waiting in ambush for his victim, ending life with one shot to the heart. However, no one knew that Kim 'owed blood', he was not the argumentative type and his family were not involved in a feud, perhaps it was a case of mistaken identity. After the funeral his father took me aside: "You see the old ways are being lost, we can't even take our blood debt. The man who killed my son ia a coward; he has not declared himself": Kroni Madhe village.
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Bride's Portrait

Portrait of a bride in modern dress. According to the 'Kanun', Book Three (Marriage), Chapter XII, paragraph 31 (the rights of women): "The young woman, even if her parents are not alive, does not have the right to concern herself about her own marriage, this right is held by her brother or other relatives. The young woman does not have the right (a) to choose her own husband; she must go to the man to whom she has been betrothed (b) to interfere in the selection of a match- maker or in the engagement arrangements". This was not an arranged marriage, however the customs of the ceremony were observed. Rrapsh village.
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'Vergjinesh' Portrait

Pashque Agraja was born in 1939 and declared herself a 'Vergjinesh' in 1963. The 'Vergjinesh' are women who voluntarily take an oath of life long virginity thereby renouncing marriage. After a trial period approved by the village elders they then lead the life of a man; dressing as one, doing men's work and even having the right to sit on the village council. The origins of this tradition are probably due to the large number of premature male deaths caused by blood feud killings, many families lost all their male members to feuding yet needed to be represented in the community, this role could not be played by a woman. Theth village.
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Mother and Child Portrait

After fifty years of one of the world's harshest dictatorial regimes, poverty was extreme in the isolated northern Albanian highlands. A mother with her severely malnourished child. Qeret Village.
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Bother and Sister Portrait

After fifty years of one of the world's harshest dictatorial regimes poverty was extreme in the isolated northern Albanian highlands. Brother and sister in Qeret Village in Jan. 1992.
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'Bajraktar' Portrait

Zef Sokoli is the ' Bajraktar' (literally 'standard bearer') of Shala. The 'Bajraktars' are the highest officials and chief interpreters of the 'Kanun'. In the past they were responsible for ensuring the 'Kanun's' laws were upheld and, in times of war, commanding the men in battle. Today their role in the community is diminished to settling local land and water disputes and, more importantly, organizing the reconciliation of blood feuds. Zef's great grandfather (in the photo he holds) was killed by Zog, Albania's first dictator. Zog, who ruled from 1925-1939 (declaring himself king in 1928), had to unofficially accept the 'Kanun' as a parallel authority to that of the state in the highlands. However Hoxha, who killed Zef's father in the fifties, had no intention of doing so, although many of the 'Kanun's' practises did continue, in secret until 1967. Zef himself spent much of his youth in prisons and labour camps simply because he had inherited the title of 'Bajraktar'. Nicaj village.
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'Bure ne Gjak' Portrait

Guns are not only used for recreation. It is easy to recognize a 'bure ne gjak' (lit. translation: 'a man in blood'). There is a whole book in the 'Kanun' dealing with personal honour: Chapter Seventeen, Paragraph 597: "There is no fine to an offence of honour". Paragraph 598: "An offence to honour is not paid for with property, but by the spilling of blood or by a magnanimous pardon", i.e. by killing the offender or by offering him reconciliation. Book Ten, Chapter CXXVI is entitled: "Blood is paid for with blood". In fact feuds are common in the Dukagjin and sometimes go on for generations. Koman
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Bar Owner and Mother

Zek Gjeka and his mother outside the bar he recently opened: "Sooner or later the tourists will arrive, after all this place is as beautiful as the photos I have seen in Swiss calendars". In the background his new satellite dish. Boge village.
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Youth on Boat

A youth listens to his radio on one of the now numerous motorized boats used for ferrying people and goats on the Drin reservoirs.