Maria Christina Färber
"We must break the cycle of killing. The first step is that the victims of violence do not become offenders themselves."
Sister Christina has been invited into Albanian houses for Raki countless times, and always politely refused. But here, in the Laçi family house (all clan names have been changed to protect the families) it is impossible. Dede Laçi pours his distilled spirits to the brim. The men in the smoke-filled parlor rise. Only Dede’s wife Mira remains seated in the corner of the sofa, in a black dress of mourning. Her youngest son cries on her lap, too small to understand what his father and the nun from Germany have just discussed and will now confirm with liquor: That the murder of Dede Laçi’s nine year old son Elton will not be avenged with further murders.
Sister Christina had been fighting for this agreement for months. Again and again she tried talking to the men of the Laçi clan in the northern Albanian city of Shkoder, for the first time on the very day that Elton Laçi was shot. And now the father of the family has asserted before witnesses, that he wants to reconcile his family with the family of his son’s murderer. “The first step is that victims of violence do not become offenders themselves,” says the 47 year old. Thoughtfully she adds: “If the promise can be kept.”
Because Dede Laçi does not decide alone. The family is large, with many branches. All of them have to renounce something they see as their right for the sake of reconciliation. A right that, says Christina Färber “is still very much in peoples’ minds” in northern Albania: The right to revenge, faithful to the unwritten law of blood for blood.
The blood avengers invoke the Kanun, a 600 year old body of legislation handed down orally, dating back to Count Lek Dukajini. In the remote Albanian mountains the Kanun governs everything from birth to death. Faithful to the principles of honor and blood relationships, disagreements over inheritance and boundary disputes were settled, bridal dowries were determined. The Kanun was once powerful and is again: more powerful than the individual, the family, the clan, the state. According to the Kanun, in cases of murder only shedding the blood of a male from the offender’s family can restore justice.
“I was really scared,” says the nine year old Vizardi. His friend Elton bled to death in his arms. The two boys had stood with their fishing rods at one of the drainage canals on the outskirts of Shkoder, where poverty reigns and there are too many weapons. The day before there had been a quarrel between Elton and 14 year old Besnik Cali. Overnight the quarrel seemed to be forgotten until the 14 year old Besnik borrowed a neighbor’s shotgun. Several residents saw him walk around with it, but nobody did anything. “He suddenly stood in front of us,” says Vizardi. He only remembers a thudding “bam.” “Then Elton fell on top of me. His face was black and there was blood everywhere.”
The mother and two sisters of the young deadly shooter lived a few kilometers from the crime scene. Sister Christina set off to Paschka Cali, passing by gardens where women dressed in black planted vegetables, by half finished houses behind high stone walls topped with glass shards. “Here almost every other house is under blood,” she says.
Besnik’s mother Paschka opens the door. She looks drawn and suspicious. She cannot understand why she gets a visit from a Catholic nun, “now that we are outlawed.” Now that she has cursed her own son, the murderer, and everyone heard how in front of the church she condemned his soul to the devil.
Christina Färber tells the mother about her visit to Besnik in the prison. He had cried bitter tears in his double barred cell. “He knows he did something terrible, but he is only a child himself.” Besnik’s mother nods, invites her into the house and shows her the empty beds. Besnik was arrested shortly after the act and waits for his trial. His father and younger brothers disappeared right after the act and live hidden somewhere in the distant Dukajin mountains, fearing blood revenge.
In 1999, Christina Färber first heard of the disastrous tradition of “gjak-marrje,” the blood taking. “Until then I thought only the Mafia in Sicily did that.” Then the nurse and therapeutic specialist from Donauwörth moved to Shkoder to help Kosovan refugees in a peace village built by German Catholics. At the end of the war the Kosovans returned to their homes, but Christina Färber stayed. She took a position with Caritas International and since then cares for women and children whose families have become victims of blood vendettas. In 2002, she joined the Swiss order of the Spiritual Community. In the city of Shkoder, which has 110,000 inhabitants, some 500 families have been caught up in vendettas for many years. Some clans have more than ten dead to mourn and as many human lives to answer for.
“But the avengers destroy the families even without their Kalaschnikovs,” says Christina Färber. “They spread a climate of fear.” Families “under the blood” have not left their homes in years for fear. Only inside their four walls, according to the Kanun, are the people protected, but one step out of the house’s gate and a bullet from an ambush can threaten. That is why the men do not go to work anymore and the children do not go to school. The women, exempted according to the Kanun from the blood revenge, have to provide for the family alone. But if they can at all, they find only poorly paid cleaning jobs. These families are totally impoverished. “The people are nervous wrecks,” says Christina Färber. “The men sink into depression, the women do not know what to do with their aggression. The children get beaten and the State looks away.”
Outside the Preza family’s house a peach tree is in bloom, but inside life is dying. Only the television runs without pause, as if to confirm that a world does exist outside one’s own walls. The Prezas are prisoners of blood. At the beginning Rasim Preza still thought that he could go to school again at some point and play football with his friends. But the hopes of the 13 year old were not to be fulfilled. Rasim must suffer because of his Uncle Dod, of whom he says, “I do not even know what he looks like.”
Rasim’s father Gjet asks Sister Christina politely for some money.
Modra, as the Sister is known here, has often helped the family by giving something from her own income for the rent, for medicines or food. However this time the 53 year old needs money for bricks, so the meter-high wall that is supposed to protect the house and garden, can finally be finished. Sister Christina is doubtful. With money for a wall she confirms the insanity of the blood vendetta. On the other hand, a protective wall would lessen the fear of revenge. Because of Rasim, she does not reject the request for money, because the boy will not cross the doorstep anymore. Rasim is sure, “They will shoot me.”
“A life without fear, that is what I long for,” says his mother Lena. Seven years ago she, her husband and the three children had to leave their village in the Kir Mountains. Dod, her husband’s brother, had killed three village residents in a blood feud which thus far has claimed the lives of eight men in the Preza family. Lena’s longing for a life in freedom died last summer with those bullets, which took away her oldest son and Zef, her only brother. Zef was 17. He had lived in isolation for five years. “Then he decided to walk upright, against the insidious death,” said Sister Christina. Zef just went out to a little store. He got only as far as 100 meters. With the firing of a machine gun, a taboo of the Kanun was broken. Zef Preza was not killed by men, but by Katherina and Irene Xhanaj. At their mother’s order, the two sisters made an innocent boy pay for their father’s death. “There are no more men left in the Xhanaj family to take revenge,” says Christina Färber.
Since last autumn she has been working for a reconciliation between the Preza and Xhanaj families. But the chances do not look good. Certainly Anila Xhanaj was once a warm-hearted and gentle woman, before the death of her husband, the nun believes. “Today her eyes show only bitterness and harshness. If she acknowledged her pain, I think she would cry for a hundred years.”
Following the law of “an eye for an eye,” it would now be up to Rasim to avenge his brother Zef. But Rasim does not want to: “I want to live and not kill,” he says determinedly. And least of all Mark Xhanaj, a boy his age whom he met by chance at one of the gatherings that Sister Christina holds regularly for children from families locked in blood vendettas. “Mark is my friend.” The therapy sessions have strengthened Rasim. He could grieve. He learned that tears are not a sign of weakness.
As she follows her consistent path of nonviolence, Modra Christina also feels hatred from ardent advocates of the Kanun. She has already received half a dozen death threats. “But mostly these are only macho acts,” she says. When a man threatened recently that he would cut her throat, she said, “then my soul will haunt you every night.” The man then sheepishly wished her: may you live a hundred years. “Whoever wants to kill me,” she says, “will not announce it.”
One time she heard a mournful whimper by the front door of her small house. When she went to look, she discovered her three little cats lying in their blood near a rock. Someone had killed them. Why? For what reason? Christina Färber buried the animals and thought, “this is how people treat each other here.” Sometimes she looks tired, worn down by the senseless violence.
How does she stand it? “With my faith,” she says, “with that I can withstand a lot.” She has now moved to a small convent where victims of blood vendettas can hide: “for women, whose self-confidence has been beaten out of them and for frightened, neglected children.” It is in Dobrac, a swelling unplanned settlement on the edge of Shkoder where 90 percent of the men are unemployed and almost everyone is armed.
The children are brought secretly over winding paths from Caritas to Sister Christina’s children’s gatherings. They do not laugh when they sit together. They do not chatter. No arguments, not even harmless squabbling. And when they draw, disturbing pictures emerge. Krishan, eight years old and withdrawn inside himself he was three, draws himself without arms. And the giant car, in which Klodi would like to leave, cannot be driven as it has no wheels.
Sister Christina plants trees and flowers with the children, reads them fairy tales and stories and invites the boys and girls on dream trips, to magical countries ruled by good fairies and guardian angels, who are much more powerful than all the men with their pistols and guns. When they return to their families in the evening, their faces are lighter and they even laugh.
For three months, 13 year old Sokol Laçi found no words to lead him out of sorrow, pain and fear after his brother Elton died. Sokol talks about it when he draws: a flower, emerging from the dark earth as a black-red hand. After three months together with Modra Christina, something else appears in Sokol’s picture. In the upper left corner a sun is shining. Only a dividing roof beam prevents its rays from reaching the black-red flower. “The beam will disappear,” said Sister Christina, “but only when Sokol’s father keeps his promise, when his family drops revenge and reconciles at last.
Sr. Maria Christina Färber enters homes where curtains are drawn over the windows, women wear black, the children’s laughter has gone silent, and men sit in front of the television with stony faces. Fear reigns in these homes. “There are too many of them in Albania,” she says. In the city of Shkodra with a population of 110,000, more than 500 families live shut up in their own four walls. The reason is the fatal tradition of blood vendetta. “In the name of blood relationships and family honor, vicious circles of murder are set in motion, which escalate more and more,” she explains.
As her uncompromising path of nonviolence leads her to the homes of offenders as well as victims, she has won not only friends. From time to time, she also meets with hate. Going as far as death threats. “But with my faith,” she says, “I can stick it out.” For the prevention of violence, a committee of men was gathered discussing the most urgent needs of the population in village meetings. Eventually, the people of Dobrac started to repair their streets, organize refuse disposal.
For a long time, Sr. Maria Christina has experienced her chosen home country of Albania as the place of her calling, as only someone with strong spiritual roots can do. That is also why she entered the Catholic order of the "Spirituelle Weggemeinschaft." Every now and then, she spends a few weeks in the community’s Swiss center to draw strength for her life in Dobrac. She is convinced that "without the others, without my religious community, without our Albanian colleagues and everybody who is making one more step towards peace, without so many prayers by so many friends, without so many people constantly helping, without God, I could not achieve anything in this country, nothing at all."
In the remote Albanian mountains the Kanun governs everything. A 600-year-old body of legislation handed down orally, the Kanun was powerful and is once again. According to the Kanun, in cases of murder only shedding the blood of a male from the offender’s family can restore justice.
International | Germany