SHKODER, Albania: Christian Luli, a soft-spoken 17-year-old, has spent the past 10 years imprisoned inside his family's small, spartan house, fearing he will be killed if he walks outside the front door.
To pass the time, he plays video games and sketches houses. Unable to attend high school, he reads at the level of a 12-year-old. A girlfriend is out of the question. He would like to become an architect, but he despairs of a future locked inside, staring at the same four walls.
"This is the situation of my life," Christian said, looking plaintively through a window at the forbidden world outside. "I have known nothing else since I was a boy. I dream of freedom and of going to school. If I was not so afraid, I would walk out the door. Living like this is worse than a prison sentence."
Christian's misfortune is to have been born the son of a father who killed a man in this poor northern region of Albania, where the ancient ritual of the blood feud still holds sway.
Under the Kanun, an Albanian code that has been passed on for more than 500 years, "blood must be paid with blood." A victim's family is authorized to avenge a slaying by killing any of the killer's male relatives.The National Reconciliation Committee, an Albanian nonprofit organization that works to eliminate the practice of blood feuds, estimates that 20,000 people have been ensnared by blood feuds since they resurfaced after the collapse of Communism in the country in 1991.
Since that time, 9,500 people have been killed and nearly 1,000 children deprived of schooling because they have been locked indoors.
By tradition, any man old enough to wield a hunting rifle is considered a fair target for vengeance, making 17 male members of Christian's family vulnerable. They, too, are stuck in their homes.
The sole restriction is that the boundaries of the family home must not be breached. Women and children also have immunity, though some, like Christian, who matured early, begin their confinement as boys.
Members of victims' families are usually the avengers, though some families outsource the revenge to contract killers.
Blood feuds have been common in other societies, like southern Italy with its Mafia vendettas; Iraq with its retaliatory violence between Shiite and Sunni families; and parts of the Appalachian Mountains in the United States.
But they have been particularly prevalent in Albania, a desperately poor country struggling to uphold the rule of law after decades of a brutal Stalinist regime.
Blood feuds all but disappeared in Albania during the 40-year rule of Enver Hoxha, the Communist dictator who outlawed the practice, sometimes burying those who disobeyed alive in the coffins of their victims. But legal experts in Albania say the feuds erupted again after the fall of Communism ushered in a new period of lawlessness.
Nearly a thousand men involved in feuds have escaped abroad, some of them applying for asylum. But dozens of people have been hunted down outside Albania and killed by avenging families.
Ismet Elezi, a professor of criminal law at the University of Tirana, who advises the government and the police on how to tackle the problem, said recent changes in the Albanian penal code, including sentences of 25 years to life in prison for those who kill in a blood feud and stiff penalties for individuals who threaten to retaliate, had helped diminish the practice.
Yet he noted that some still gave greater credence to the Kanun than to the criminal justice system, often with devastating social consequences.
"The younger generation is no longer looking to the older generation's codes of behavior," he said. "But blood feuds are still causing misery because the men stuck inside their homes can't work, the children can't go to school and entire families are cut off from the outside world."
Alexander Kola, a mediator who works to resolve blood feuds, said the most common causes of feuds were disputes over property or land. But he said feuds could also erupt over seemingly minor affronts. He recalled a recent case in which a dozen men had been forced indoors after a male family member killed a shopkeeper who refused to sell his child an ice cream cone. In another case, a feud exploded when a sheep grazed on a neighbor's land, precipitating a deadly fight.
Sociologists in Albania said the feuds had inverted traditional gender roles in rural Albania, with women becoming the breadwinners of the family while the men were forced to stay home and do housework.
Christian's mother, Vitoria, 37, said she had ordered him to remain indoors from the age of 7 after her husband and his brother killed a man in their village following a drunken argument. She said her other son, Klingsman, 7, was attending school but would soon be forced to join his brother's life of confinement. Her husband and brother-in-law are serving 20-year prison sentences for murder.
"I live in constant fear and anxiety that Christian will be killed, that they are hunting my children," said the mother, who relies on charity to support her, the two boys and their two sisters. "I just wish the other family would kill someone in our family so that this nightmare would finally be over."
She said she had sent a mediator to the other family in an effort to seek forgiveness, but to no avail.
The family of the victim, Simon Vuka, declined to comment. But Kola, who is mediating the case, said that the family was not prepared to forgive because the victim had two young sons who had been left fatherless. "Many victims' families feel that imprisoning all the men in the killer's family inside their homes is a better revenge than killing them."
Kola, a former gym instructor who studied conflict resolution in Norway, said he tried to reconcile feuding families by identifying influential friends or relatives of the victim who could implore the family to forgive and forget. He said the plea for forgiveness was often accompanied with an offering of gold coins or other gifts from the killer's family. "I tell the families of the victims that forgiveness is more important than revenge," he said.
Christian, lanky and stoic with a maturity beyond his years, said he blamed his father, his uncle and an outmoded code for destroying his life. He said it was unfair that he was being punished for the sins of his relatives.
His only contact with the outside world comes once a month, when a group of nuns who do charity work in the community form a protective circle around him and whisk him into a car for a 30-minute trip to a nearby community center. He said he had fantasized about escaping from Albania, but his family was too poor to send him abroad. He could arm himself and flee, but he fears that the risks could be deadly.
"The Kanun is full of idiot rules for another age," he said. "It is totally unfair and senseless."
In addition to affecting the young, blood feuds have meant that some aging members of the Albanian population go without adequate health care because they cannot leave their homes.
Sherif Kurtaj, 62, has been forced to live with an untreated back tumor and rotten teeth. He has been trapped inside his house for eight years, ever since his two sons killed a neighbor who he said had ridiculed the boys because they were planning to emigrate to Germany. He said he needed life-saving surgery, but feared that if he went to the hospital, he would die from an avenger's bullet.
Kurtaj said his two sons, both of whom face 16-year prison sentences, had been on the run since the killing.
Even if they turned themselves in, he lamented, he would still have to remain indoors.
He said his friends were afraid to visit for fear of being shot accidentally.
Kurtaj could file a complaint under Albanian law against the family of the victim for threatening to kill him; such an offense carries a prison sentence of as much as three years. But he said he was afraid that would only bring reprisals.
"The Kanun must be obeyed," he said. "The blood needs to be avenged."