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Breaking a blood oath


WORLD Radio - Breaking a blood oath

An Albanian family struggles desperately to avoid getting caught up in “blood feud”

LES SILLARS, HOST: From WORLD Radio, this is Doubletake.

MUSIC: Shkelzen Doli

ELONA PRROJ: This is a very Albanian-Greek style. It’s a type of lasagna, but we call it pastico.

On a Monday evening last January, Elona Prroj served dinner to guests at her home in Tirana, Albania. Among the visitors was WORLD Radio correspondent Jenny Rough. You’ve probably heard her on Legal Docket.

After a prayer and a toast to good cheers—

ROUGH: Amen!

ELONA: Amen!

ROUGH: True disciples of your word.

ELONA: Welcome! Gëzuar!

—Elona told a story.

In September of 2005 Elona and her husband, Tani, were living in northern Albania. A region called Shkodër. Tani was the pastor of a local church. Elona was a stay-at-home mom to their two kids. Sarah, 2, and Gabriel, 4. It was a pretty normal weekday.

ELONA: We were living life. Tani was pastoring the church. Both kids were sick. They were getting an injection on that day.

A nurse was supposed to stop by the apartment. But as Elona and her kids waited …

ELONA: And we heard guns. We heard guns. What has happened?

… the nurse finally arrived with some news.

ELONA: The nurse came to do injections.

Somebody killed somebody, she said.

ELONA: We don’t know who he is.

That somebody firing the gun turned out to be Elona’s husband’s uncle, Nikola Prroj. He owned a nearby restaurant.

MUSIC: Saloon Brawl

According to Elona, that day a man from the mountain area had come into the restaurant. At one point he said to Nikola something like, “You’re not a man. Give me your wife.”

Nikola rightly regarded this as an insult. They got into a shouting match. Nikola hid behind a table with a Russian assault rifle and began pulling the trigger. After decades of war in the Balkans, military weapons are all over the place.

ELONA: Just shooting in the air.

Nikola was trying to shoo the mountain man away, keep him outside. But the man was drunk … and cocky. He kept walking toward Nikola, right into the bullets …

ELONA: … with his head back saying to his friend, Come on in. Why are you staying out? Come in.

One of the bullets hit the mountain man in the face. Killed him. That was the first murder.

It locked two families in a blood-feud. The family of the mountain man. And the family of Elona’s husband, Tani. The Prrojs.

Albania is one of the last places on earth where people still practice blood-feud. A cycle of revenge that can go on for generations.

I’m Les Sillars. Today on Doubletake we have a story about a Christian family struggling desperately against a centuries-old custom. One of their culture’s strongest imperatives. With roots in the beginning of human history. It’s an impulse that most of us still recognize all too well: the desire for justice–and then some.

We sent Jenny Rough to Albania to bring us this story. She’ll be back in just a minute.

SPONSOR: Doubletake is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from P&R Publishing. Celebrating the release of two new children’s books - Pilipinto by Valerie Elliot Shepard and God’s Servant Ruth by Doug Bond. Use promo code WORLD at

ELONA: Grandchildren killing grandchildren because your grandfather killed my grandfather. Even though they never met their grandfathers.

JENNY ROUGH: During dinner, Elona explained that blood-feud is a fight between two clans or families. It begins with a murder. But the victim’s family doesn’t rely on the government to punish the killer.

MUSIC: Forgotten Ring

Instead they take revenge into their own hands. They hunt down a relative of the killer and murder him. It doesn’t stop there. The back-and-forth killings continue. Disproportionate revenge that goes on for generations.

And let me just mention here something about how Elona and other Albanians understand the term “blood-feud.” “Gjakmarrja” in Albanian. To them, it’s more than just a noun, a thing. Like a fistfight. Blood-feud is also a state of being. You’re not just in a blood-feud. You’re in blood-feud. Like being in limbo. It defines your life.

When Tani’s uncle Nikola shot the mountain man, every male related to the uncle by bloodline became a potential target. Elona’s innocent husband, Tani, could be murdered at any moment. Their son, Gabriel, could be murdered. He was 4. Tani’s father. Tani’s brother. A total of 25 Prroj men were at risk.

The first 24 hours of blood-feud are the most dangerous. The avenger may kill by any means necessary.

ELONA: Now it was their turn. In 24 hours, they can burn you alive. I mean, literally.

But the avenger can’t kill the men if they’re inside their houses. He’s not allowed. Yes, blood-feud has rules. A code of conduct. The houses serve as a safe haven, similar to the Old Testament cities of refuge where someone who had committed a murder could flee and avoid blood revenge. Historically, Albania had towers of refuge.

So as soon as the Prroj family realized what their uncle had done, they rushed to collect all their male relatives.

ELONA: Tani gathered his father, his brother, his uncles, just to bring them in the house.

By then it was about 7 o’clock in the evening. Nobody slept that night.

ELONA: Four o’clock in the morning, Me and Tani’s mom, we will go in all the area with a torch to check every entrance of the apartment.

Checking to make sure nobody was lying in wait.

MUSIC: Organic Anxiety

To ambush and kill Tani, or Gabriel, or any of the male relatives who might step outside. Blood-feud typically ends in one of two ways. Sometimes it peters out. All the males on both sides have fled or been blotted out. There’s nobody left to kill or be killed. Or one side forgives the other. That almost never happens in Albania’s honor-and-shame-based culture. Forgiveness is seen as weakness.

Sitting in that crowded house that night, the Prrojs faced a seemingly impossible task: keeping Tani and four-year-old Gabriel alive. Until one of their male relatives was murdered. But even if they managed that, another member of their family might retaliate. And so on. And so on.

Elona Prroj has silky dark hair and a kind smile. She grew up on the coast of Albania, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet.

ELONA: I come from the south. I come from Vlorë. … It’s a beautiful city.

Albania is a small country in southeast Europe. It’s known for its castles, mountains, and a liquor called raki. Made with plums and other fruits. But Albania is perhaps best known for Mother Teresa, whose parents were from there.

For the first 11 years of Elona’s life, she lived under Communist rule. She remembers standing in line for bread when she was six years old.

ELONA: … and my dream every day was to get bread for my family. … I mean, like plain bread. … All we had was bread. … Bread and a thin sugar layer. If you put over the sugar some oil, you were rich. If you would stick the sugar with water, you were poor.

She remembers husbands spying on wives. Wives turning against husbands. Warnings not to talk.

ELONA: Even walls have ears to hear, so don’t talk. Don’t talk anything. Don’t speak anything. … Even if you said, This bread is bad, you are—you are offending the bread of the communist party.

In 1967, Prime Minister Enver Hoxha declared Albania the first atheist country in the world. Churches and mosques became basketball courts and cultural centers. But after communism fell in the early 1990s, Christians could meet and speak freely again. Elona’s older sister attended university in Tirana and met Swedish missionaries. In an earlier interview, Elona told me that when her sister …

PRROJ: So when she gave her life to Jesus, she came home in the summer holidays, she preached Jesus to all the family.

Including Elona. She describes her own relationship with Christ as love at first sight.  By 1996, her sister was married with a baby and plans to move to northern Albania to work in a church.

ELONA: They had a little baby. So, my sister asked my dad that I would go to live with them and take care of the baby.

So that year, Elona moved to Shkodër at age 14. The first person she met? The pastor of the church. Dritan Prroj. Nickname: Tani. He had become a Christian as a youth and planted a church at age 17. When Elona turned 16, they were engaged. But Elona’s dad wasn’t thrilled with the news. Not because she was so young. But because of blood-feud.

MUSIC: Muzik dhe valle Shqiptare

ELONA: I mean like the moment I was engaged with my husband, and I told my dad that I’m marrying Tani, he said “What about blood-feud?” And I was like “What is this?” … I didn’t know what blood-feud was. I’ve never heard blood-feud before.

That’s because most blood-feuds are in the northern mountains and villages. Not in Vlorë, down south, where Elona was raised. Elona told her dad not to worry. Tani was a good man. Serving God.

ELONA: And he said, “Yeah, yeah. But what about his uncles?” You know, like what do we have to do with the uncles? So that was the first time I heard about blood-feud.

Still, she wasn’t worried. Their lives were ingrained in the church. They had one goal: preach the gospel. Ancient oaths, codes of honor, and murderous traditions … such customs rarely crossed their minds. But when Tani’s uncle shot the mountain man, the Prrojs were thrust right in the middle of all of it.

History and Hollywood are filled with stories of revenge, from Beowulf to the Hatfields versus the McCoys. In the 2008 movie Taken, Liam Neeson plays an ex-CIA agent whose daughter is kidnapped by an Albanian sex trafficker named Marko. Neeson’s character tracks down Marko and–spoiler alert–kills him.

The opening scene of Taken 2, the sequel, takes place at Marko’s funeral. As his father and brothers throw dirt on his grave, they swear a deadly oath.

CLIP: On their souls I swear to you, the man who took our loved ones from us, the man who has brought us such pain and sorrow, we will find him. We will not rest until his blood flows into this very ground. We will have our revenge.

That’s Hollywood’s version of Albanian blood-feud. Reality is a bit different.

GIRL: [Speaking Albanian]

That’s a small Albanian girl. The daughter of a man who’s in blood-feud.

GIRL: [Speaking Albanian]

She’s featured in the documentary Sons of Cain by Albanian filmmaker Keti Stamo. The girl describes what it’s like to be imprisoned at home.

GIRL: [Speaking Albanian]

She says: “The place where I live, there is no garden. It’s the darkness. I mean … it’s like living inside an egg. It’s a golden egg outside. But there is like a black hole inside.” The oath to take blood revenge is based on an ancient code called the Kanun.

DAVID HOSAFLOOK: Old oral traditions … according to rules that are sort of dictated and decided on by village elders.

David Hosaflook is an American missionary, humanitarian, and historian. He’s lived and worked in Albania since 1992. He says the Kanun’s set of unwritten rules mandated many aspects of life. Everything from how to set property boundaries to when you have to bring a sheep as a wedding gift.

HOSAFLOOK: I mean, you just name it, there's all sorts of things. Hospitality. There's a whole lot of discussion just about honor, how honor is shown, how it's not shown.

The Kanun was useful back when Albania didn’t have a recognized central government. And during the 500 years of foreign occupation by the Ottoman Empire, an Islamic caliphate.

HOSAFLOOK: And it really flourished in a time when the Albanians did not want to accept the dominion of a foreign government, and they preferred to govern their own affairs as Albanians.

Many Catholics retreated to the mountains and created their own communities. Those villages were very hard to get to.

HOSAFLOOK: The more remote you get, the more difficult it is to take your armies and really establish law and order.

David’s point is that the ancient Albanians weren’t barbarians. The Kanun was how they produced order. In a way, the Kanun shows the Albanians valued the sanctity of life. The rules of blood-feud served as a deterrent to murder.

HOSAFLOOK: And, you know, you see some similarity to this even in things in the Old Testament.

One of the most famous laws of Moses is repeated in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy: An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The area where the Kanun flourished has historically been a largely Catholic region.

He noticed the Catholic influence when he moved to northern Albania in the early 1990s.

HOSAFLOOK: And I would go talk to the village leaders, and I'd share Bible proverbs with them. I just read Proverbs. The men of the village loved the proverbs. And they would always say, “Yeah, you know, that comes from one of our proverbs!” When I think it was the other way around. That they had gotten it at some point from perhaps a Catholic priest.

But I wondered, why doesn’t the blood-feud stop after two murders? The original and the revenge?

HOSAFLOOK: Like if you took my eyeball, and I take your eyeball, that should be the end of it. Is that what you mean?


HOSAFLOOK: Well, you’re probably going to say, I took your eye because you offended me first. I mean, it's just like, my kids, you know, “But he did it first, Daddy!”

In other words, the first killer thinks he’s justified. That he had a legitimate reason for taking a life. But the victim’s family disagrees. So they take revenge. And the killings continue.

The Kanun was compiled into a book in 1872 and named after an Albanian prince.

HOSAFLOOK: Lekë Dukagjinit lived in the fifteenth century, and he's one of one of several who kind of were known for gathering these oral codes. But it's not the only canon.

Lekë Dukagjinit’s Kanun became the most well-known and well-studied. I decided to find a copy and see for myself what it says.

Tirana’s main square has a fabulous bookstore. I heard it had copies of the Kanun, so I headed over on a Sunday night. I bumped into Marsel Lela.


Marsel pastors one of the few evangelical churches in Albania. The English translation of its name is Church of Evangelical Disciples. Today Albania is very secular. Many hungered for God after communism fell. But almost all the missionaries left after civil war broke out in 1997.

After browsing the shelves a bit …

ROUGH: Look, I found it. I found it. The blood-feud book. But it’s not in English. Can you point out the blood-feud part?

Soon Marsel found another copy. This one in Albanian but with a parallel English translation. Marsel grew up in the north. Family lore says his relatives may have been in blood-feud centuries ago, but he’s not sure. Still, he knows the code. We flipped through the book together.

LELA: Okay I hope it has—

ROUGH: An index. This one has an index.

LELA: Yeah.

LELA: Vrasa. Murder. Yes. …

JENNY: Chapter 22.

LELA: Chapter 22.

Marsel walked me through the rules of blood-feud at a coffee shop. Over a couple of cappuccinos.

For example, only men can avenge a murder.

LELA: A woman cannot take revenge, cannot kill. If a woman kills someone for his brother, the vendetta is not done.

Neither can a woman be the target of revenge. The Kanun prohibits it.

LELA: Or if you kill a woman, the whole village will burn the house and destroy the land. And the person with his family will have to flee from the village with shame.


LELA: Or if you kill the priest, you’ll be banished. Everything of yours will be destroyed.

So no revenge against women or children. No revenge against a priest or cleric or man of God. But as he explained this, I was wondering why Elona’s husband, Pastor Tani, and their little boy, Gabriel, were even at risk.

The reason is that Albanians today often violate the historical kanun. Historian David Hosaflook told me that many ignore or revise the rules to their liking.

HOSAFLOOK: In Albanian, there's two words that are used. One is gjakmarrje, which is literally the taking of blood. And then there's a word that sounds like gjakmarrje. It's hakmarrje, and that's just plain old revenge.

David says these days, hakmarrje has taken the place of gjakmarrje.

HOSAFLOOK: So much of the blood-feud in my view today is more of the hakmarrje, the plain old revenge than the blood-feud or gjakmarrje, which actually isn't, when you look at all of the historical context it's actually quite a code that's built on honor.

And that brings up another passage from the Bible: Genesis 4. Lamech brags to his two wives that he killed a man for wounding him. And he says, “If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.”

HOSAFLOOK: So he's like a great-great-great-grandson of Cain. So he, Lamech, knows how God sort of dealt with his great-grandfather.

Cain murdered Abel and then went back to God to ask for mercy and help. Not Lamech.

HOSAFLOOK: And I think he's just being very arrogant and saying, he's claiming self-defense and he kills a man. So kind of what I was telling you in the blood-feud about how human nature is to say, well, I was justified in doing the crime I did. I think he's one of the first guys in scripture who's doing that. …

David doesn’t know whether the story of Lamech affected the Albanian codes. But he sees the parallels.

HOSAFLOOK: And it was almost like a preemptive statement to all of his potential avengers. …

David lived in the city of Shkodër when Elona and Tani lived there. Tani was the pastor of a local church.

HOSAFLOOK: Meeting Tani was one of the greatest blessings of my life. And Elona. And the only reason I met him is because I went up to Shkodra to plant a church, and I didn’t know there were any evangelical churches at all.

The two men came from different denominational backgrounds. But they would often confer about how to best work together as Christians in the community.

HOSAFLOOK: We just began having coffees together from time to time. He would ask me for counsel on different things.

In addition to the Prrojs, David met other families in blood-feud.

HOSAFLOOK: It definitely still goes on in Albania.

Here’s why:

HOSAFLOOK: The reason that people would give you for it continuing in Albania today is the weakness of the state to actually take action.

The Albanian government is not just weak. It’s corrupt. Everyone I spoke with believes so. They told me that the guilty can easily get out of prison for the price of a bribe.

HOSAFLOOK: So the rationale is if the government won't do it, there's no deterrent. And my brother's killer is on the loose, that's not right. And therefore, you know, we've gotta take it into our own hands.

It always perplexes me why we have so much corruption in Albania. I think that there's a bit of a curse involved in a way that a country that has declared itself in a very arrogant way, that we are the only constitutionally atheist government. You declare yourself as having no God publicly brazenly for many years. There are consequences to that.

Let’s get back to Elona and Tani. The initial 24 hours after Tani’s uncle Nikola shot the mountain man passed without incident. But this fight was far from over.

David remembers when the Prrojs’ blood-feud started.

HOSAFLOOK: The whole, all of the men in the family are really required to go into their home and not leave the home.

Not even able to walk into their own yard. So he went to visit Tani.

HOSAFLOOK: I remember spending about an hour with Tani in his living room on his old couch. And we just talked, and we prayed. And sweet Elona, very young at that time, so she's having to deal with all of this and brought us out some coffee or whatever. And, yeah, I just, my heart was broken. And I think that was one of the times when I realized how serious—like, you can't even go out to buy eggs across the street.

You’d think that Tani’s uncle, who started it all, would be the prime target. Kill the killer. But that’s not how blood-feud works. Here’s Elona:

ELONA: The strategy of blood-feud is, in 90 percent of the cases, they never kill the first killer. The first murderer.

Of the 25 men who were potential targets, Tani’s dad was the oldest. He used to leave the house hoping to be killed. Ready to give his life to protect his sons and grandsons.

ELONA: Tani’s father. He went out. And didn’t stay imprisoned in the house. Because he wanted himself to be killed and the blood to be forgiven. And he is my hero. He’s the most faithful man in the church. He wanted the family to take revenge on him. And when we asked him and we said, “Dad, you should be careful,” he said, “I’m the oldest. Let them kill me.”

But killing the oldest isn’t the strategy of blood-feud either.

ELONA: The strategy is to find the youngest and the best of the family to cause the deepest pain.

That’s why Tani and Gabriel were in such danger. David says Tani would occasionally leave his home. Very carefully.

HOSAFLOOK: He had people in the church that would look out and make sure, you know, kind of clear the path and he'd kind of go undercover. Not, not because he was so afraid, so to speak, but you know, in true deference to the other family. I mean, they've lost somebody, and he recognized that.

At the time of the first killing, the mountain man’s brother was 16. His name is Mark. The duty to avenge fell on his shoulders. And in the Albanian honor-and-shame culture, the weight of that responsibility is intense.

HOSAFLOOK: The pressure is incredible on members of the family to act, to take the revenge. And I've been told by a number of young men whose families were in blood-feuds, that the greatest psychological pressure comes from their mothers, especially if it's like the father who's been murdered. Like, how can you eat that meal that I just made for you? How can you even eat it knowing that your husband, you know, your father's corpse is rotting in the grave? That's what they're hearing over dinner.

It becomes an obsession. They must kill. Elona says that’s true overall, and it was true for Mark.

ELONA: This guy Mark was 16. Every time he was eating the mom was saying, “You are eating food, my son is eating dirt. What are you doing? Go out and take revenge.” So, you imagine a teenager. He doesn’t have a safe environment even in the presence of his own mom.

For four years, Tani and Gabriel hid in their house. Tani could at least work from home. But Gabriel? He couldn’t even play outside freely with friends.

Elders and mediators try to reconcile families in blood-feud through a formal process. They’re the wise men who are supposed to bring peace to the families. But Elona says the approach doesn’t work. Conflict of interest. Blood-feud is how the elders and mediators make a living.

ELONA: I don’t like the elders because for them it’s a way of living. Blood-feud is a way of living. They get money.

ROUGH: Even though they’re trying to reconcile.

ELONA: Yeah, so he’s paid.

Even so, the Prrojs tried to negotiate with the mountain man’s family.

ELONA: We sent elders and mediators and said, “Please, release the children. We want to send children to school. Release children.” And they will not.

The Prrojs scraped together more money to try again.

ELONA: Every time we sent elders, we paid about $2000. And we were without bread. Because nobody was working. All the men were in the house. So you can imagine a family. And we tried to send elders every Christmas, every Easter.

Each time they thought maybe, maybe the avenger’s family would forgive. But they didn’t.

ELONA: It’s corruption to the heart. A society without God.

If they can afford it, a family in blood-feud will relocate. Tani’s brother went to a different part of Albania where he and his family could live more freely. Elona and Tani also decided to move.

ELONA: So after four years of being imprisoned in the house, we decided to go to England.

Tani took a new position helping a pastor in Kent.

ELONA: So for us it was time to go. And we went in England. And it was our free time. So then when we went there after four years of being in blood-feud, I was hoping we’d be there for two years.

But just as the family started to find a rhythm of life in a new country, plans changed.

​​ELONA: But two months later, Tani comes to me and he says, “It’s time to go home and fulfill the calling.”

Many families caught in blood-feud are simply forgotten. They move about behind closed doors or sneak out in the dark of night. Tani had an idea: He wanted to start a foundation to pressure the Albanian government about blood-feud. And to help families in blood-feud by easing their pain. Find a way for Christians to provide food, mental health, and spiritual support to Albanian families isolated at home.

TANI PRROJ: [Speaking Albanian]

That’s Tani, speaking about his decision to return to Albania.

TANI PRROJ: [Speaking Albanian]

He’s saying the Holy scriptures have taught him to forgive no matter the consequences, and to love his enemies. And he goes on to say he wants to bring that message to others.

Elona and Tani prayed about whether they should serve in this way, and an answer seemed to come through the Bible.

ELONA: And God gave us a word through Genesis 28:15: God said to Jacob: I’ll protect you wherever you go. But I’ll bring you back to fulfill the calling I have for you. I didn’t know what the calling was. For me it was like maybe the other family will forgive us. Maybe God is calling us back because I will be free to serve the church and serve God.

That’s not what happened.

ELONA: When we came here hoping the situation would be better, it was awful. It was even worse when we left it. They wanted to take revenge.

But this time, instead of hiding, the Prrojs took a different tactic.

They moved back to Shkodër. Tani resumed his role as church pastor. And after a time of prayer, he decided to no longer hide away in his home. He believed God had called him to serve other families who had fallen into blood-feud.

Elona had been 14 years old when she first met Tani. Sixteen when she got engaged, and 18 when she married him. She’d never even heard of blood-feud. Now 28, she knew it too well. And she had educated herself.

PRROJ: For me as a wife, I started to go wherever he was because I read stories that if a target of revenge is accompanied by their wife or children, they never kill them.

An avenger can’t kill a man when the man is with his wife. So Elona walked by Tani’s side each time he left their home. But of course it was still risky. So even hand-in-hand with Elona, Tani took precautions. In restaurants, he sat with his back to the corner. He never turned on the car with his family inside.

Instead, he made Elona and the kids stand at a distance. Every day he hugged Gabriel and Sarah goodbye, knowing his life was at risk.

Historian David Hosaflook remembers hearing that his friend Tani had decided to move back to Shkodër.

HOSAFLOOK: I had been learning more and more about the blood-feud, and I was not happy with that decision. But after talking to Tani, he told me, and I still see the fire and the conviction in his eyes, I can still remember it. He knew God wanted him back. And he knew that it might cost.

Tani moved forward with plans for his foundation to stop blood-feud.

HOSAFLOOK: He knew that they might try something. But his focus was: God called me to a mission. God called me to serve Shkodra, to evangelize and to pastor here. And I'm not gonna let, I'm gonna be respectful, but I'm not gonna let fear drive me and leave it in God's hands.

David remembers gathering with a group for coffee one Sunday after church. Tani was there.

HOSAFLOOK: Elona and some of the other members of their church were at another table. And I was just speaking to him alone, and we were talking about these things. And I remember myself feeling fear that someone was gonna walk in the coffee shop with a machine gun.

He was afraid of being hurt by a stray bullet. And he was a little ashamed of himself.

HOSAFLOOK: And I felt so small in his shadow just by like, looking around the coffee shop saying, what am I gonna do if somebody walks in? Like, I felt guilty for having those fears. And then I realized, what must this man and his family be living with every day? And yet he counted the cost, and he said, God called me to serve my people, and he did it.

October 8, 2010.

Elona remembers that day. How it started as a Friday morning like any other. In the early hours, the city began to wake up. Shkodër is a beautiful city and the cradle of the culture. Rozafa castle sits on the outskirts and was built before Christ walked the Earth. The marketplace has been around for thousands of years. When the sun begins to rise, the street dogs that yap all night finally stop barking. A man unlocks his store and throws one of the dogs a sausage.

The mosque delivers its call to prayer.

The bells start ringing at the Franciscan Church. Before long, the pedonalja, the pedestrian street, is alive with busy shops, music from restaurants, and locals milling around.

ELONA: And for him, it was his day off. It was a Friday that he was preparing for the sermon on Sunday.

But Tani needed to pick up something he’d left at the church. He told Elona that this one time she didn’t have to go with him.

ELONA: He was like, don't come, I'll just be fast. Just go to the church and I'll be home. So to me, I was, you know, relaxed and preparing lunch in the house.

Tani headed out the door.

ELONA: It was a Friday, the day. And he went to the church. There was a girl working there. She said when he came to church, he was restless. And then 1 o’clock, he left the church, walked in this street to go to the car with his bag.

As Elona told me this story, we were retracing Tani’s steps. The church where he worked is a block off the pedestrian corridor. Tani had parked his car at the end of it, in front of a store now called Beauty Point.

ELONA: He always parked there and walked here to come to the church. Every day.

MUSIC: Waiting for Resolution

But this time, when Tani returned to his car, a guy was waiting.

Back at home, Elona started to wonder what was going on with Tani. Her phone kept ringing. People from the church were looking for him, and Tani wasn’t picking up. Elona tried calling him, too. Then her brother-in-law called and said he was coming over. That’s when Elona began to worry.

ELONA: So I just went out in the streets and I was stopping every police in the street asking, “What has happened?” And he was like, somebody, a Prroj, a Prroj has been shot. And I was like, “Is he alive? Where is he?” And he said, “Go to the hospital.”

So she ran to the hospital. But Tani wasn’t in the ER. Or in the operating room. She found him in the morgue. Elona later learned that when Tani came back to his car …

ELONA: And the guy that is the brother of the victim that Tani’s uncle killed, was waiting for him … where the car was parked.

He asked Tani a question.

ELONA: Are you Dritan Prroj? And Tani said, “Yes, what do you need?” And then he shot him.

MUSIC: Troublesome

Tani tried to flee. But Mark followed him into a nearby restaurant. Eight times, he shot with a pistol in broad daylight.  Stray bullets wounded two others.

GABRIEL: I remember a lot of things that happened as a kid.

That’s Gabriel. Tani and Elona’s son. Today, he’s 21, and in college. But the day his dad was murdered, he was 9. His sister, Sarah, was 7.

That day, a friend from church picked up Gabriel and Sarah from school.

GABRIEL: But they were all quiet so I didn’t know what was going on.

Elona hadn’t told her kids anything yet. She needed to deal with the fiery trial of the moment. Elona’s sister picked them up and brought them home to Tirana, two hours away. Away from the newspapers and television.

Gabriel remembers talking to his mom on the phone.

GABRIEL: Our mom called … “Do you want to come home?” And I was like, “No, I don’t want to. I’m having a lot of fun.” And then I hear her voice crack and say, “But I want you here.” And I started crying because I heard the voice crack. I didn’t know what was going on.

Gabriel and Sarah returned home.

GABRIEL: Then the next day I came back to Shkoder and the first thing I noticed was my dad wasn’t in the house because he was always in the house. And he usually would be in the office. And I asked where my dad is. So, we sat down and they just explained that your dad isn’t here. He’s not in Tirana. He went up to be with the Lord.

ELONA: I remember I said, “Do you know how old Jesus was when he went to the cross? He said, “Mom, don’t preach to us now. I miss home.” And I said, “No, no tell me.” He said, “33.” And I said, “Dad has gone on a long journey.” He was like, “Don’t tell me that Dad has gone to be with the Lord.”

Tani was 34.

The moment Tani was killed, the 24 remaining male relatives in his family were free. No longer locked in their homes.

ELONA: These men that were free the moment Tani was killed, blood was paid with blood. Everybody that was in the house went out. They didn’t need anybody to tell them you’re free. They knew they were free.

It was the Prrojs turn to kill. The burden of deciding whether to take revenge fell squarely on Tani’s immediate family: Gabriel, Tani’s brother, Paolo, and Tani’s dad. They knew that if they did decide to continue the cycle of revenge, people would understand.

It’s hard for us in the U.S. to grasp how a culture could accept the idea of blood-feud. So I took to the streets of Tirana with some friends to ask folks what they think of it today. We walked into a bakery.

MARIO: I am Mario.

He was running the place.

ROUGH: Have you heard of the blood-feud before?

MARIO: When I was in high school, I had a friend who was from north. And he said this thing that his uncle said to him, if you kill someone else he will come kill from your family. So in order to end it you have to kill everybody!

Mario said the mentality of blood-feud is going away as the laws change. He said it’s an old tradition that’s caused a lot of problems.

MARIO: Many problems with courts, going to jail, and things like this, and it didn’t go positively, you know? …

ROUGH: What do you think should happen when one person murders another person?

MARIO: Mostly the other person should go to prison, but it’s hard to say that when it’s someone you lost.

Revenge, he told me,

MARIO:… is very, very sweet.

The people I spoke with frowned on revenge killings. One woman named Shpresa, or “Hope,” said she knows people in blood-feud. Denila Lela served as my translator.

ROUGH: What do you think should happen if a person kills another person?

SHPRESA: [Speaking Albanian]

DENILA: It has to be decided by the law and not by the people.

Aida spoke of forgiveness and said the killers should go to jail.

DENILA: [Speaking Albanian].

AIDA: [Speaking Albanian]

DENILA: For sure. He needs to go to jail for what he’s done and to think and to reflect.

Clara runs a clothing store in Tirana.

CLARA: [Speaking Albanian]

DENILA: If we had justice, we would not have blood-feud.

CLARA: [Speaking Albanian]

DENILA: We’ve heard a lot of cases where people were killing other people and they were going to jail for just two years. Then they come out. So it’s not functioning.

I heard that a lot. Albania needs a better justice system. One that’s not corrupt.

Vaska Zeka is Elona’s sister. She summed up Albanians’ views of blood-feud this way:

VASKA: If you are saying to them … you ask them, what do you think of blood-feud? Is it good? They’ll say it is terrible. It is not good. It should end. But when they are in the situation and place the honor on one side and their lives and their family lives on the other, they would choose honor. And for them, honor is much more pressure than life itself.

But Tani valued Christ more highly than honor. The week before Mark killed him, Tani had coffee with his brother, Paolo.

ELONA: And he asked his brother, he said to him, “You promise me that if I'm killed because of vendetta, you'll forgive my blood.” And his brother promised him. And this was his last meeting with his brother. A week later he was killed.

So Tani had refused his culture’s demands. He asked his family to stop the cycle of blood-feud. To forgive. The day Tani died, he had his briefcase with him.

ELONA: When he was killed, he had his Bible and the project against blood-feud.

So the Prroj family decided: they would forgive. Tani’s friend David Hosaflook says that had a profound effect on the community:

HOSAFLOOK: Whenever there is a forgiveness pronounced, it is praised all over. Like it goes viral. Not not on social media, but you know, from mountain to mountain, that there was a forgiveness pronounced.

But it’s one thing to talk about forgiveness. It’s another to forgive. When Elona saw Tani's uncles hugging and praising the Lord they were alive, she felt the injustice rise up inside of her. She began to pray.

ELONA: The moment I was conscious Tani was killed, my first prayer to the Lord was: “God put an angel in my mouth that I will never speak against you.” … My mouth is speaking, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”

Learning how to forgive took time.

ELONA: This is the name to call through the valley of death.

About six months after his dad died, Gabriel and his mom were walking home from school. Gabriel had just turned 10.

GABRIEL: We were walking by the Court of Appeal, and I was just curious about the court because I didn’t know what it was. And then I asked what is this building?

Elona explained that if a family wasn’t happy with the punishment given to a criminal, the family could come to the appeals court and ask for a longer sentence. She told him that the man who had killed his father was sentenced here. Mark was in jail.

GABRIEL: And I said I feel bad for the criminals because they are criminals that have done the crime once and never get a second chance. She told me, “What would you do with him? He’s only done one crime so what would you do with him?” And I said I would forgive him. God has taught us to forgive, and revenge belongs to God, so it’s not in our hands to take revenge.

So many times, Elona thought she’d forgiven Mark, only to discover she was back at square one.

ELONA: You said, okay, I forgive once. And why am I feeling like this? I see my enemy, and there is all this trouble rising up inside of you. But this is the wrong expectation. Forgiveness is not a one-time event. It happens every day. I chose to forgive every morning.

In Elona’s grief, she found comfort in God.

ELONA: It was beautiful because it was like I’ve known God like never before in my grieving process. The grieving valley was my preparation time for what God had after that.

On what would have been Tani’s 35th birthday, Elona fulfilled his vision. She launched the foundation No to Blood-Feud, Yes to Life.

She opened a school and daycare called Future Generation at the church Tani planted.

ELONA: The whole first floor there were children of blood-feud that will come, will be fed, will be helped with homework, English. Will do sports. So for us, if this was the last door closed and he went to meet the Father, we opened the door with little kids, the fruits of that seed that died.

Educating young boys is critical. Elona’s sister, Vaska, says it’s hard for the men in the country to see the moral wrong of taking revenge in a blood-feud.

VASKA: We believe this is something that is rooted inside of them, and it is very deep. And only a miracle from God can change this from the heart of a man. But when it comes to the little ones,

The young sons and nephews of those men

VASKA: … we believe they are like, very soft, and you can shape them, so this is why we have Future Generation. We want them to be educated and to see the potential that God has put inside of them to change their reality and the reality of their families and the country.

Six years ago, Elona moved the church and school to a new location that’s five times bigger.

ELONA: So we will visit two families.

On a Friday afternoon, she packs bags full of Italian cake, Pepsi, and sparkling orange juice. She often also brings food staples, like rice and sugar, and things like soap. Loads the bags into the back of her Toyota Rav4 and heads out of the city. Down a bumpy dirt road.  It’s hard to pinpoint how many families in Albania are in blood-feud.

ELONA: We don’t know the numbers. But we support about 50 of them. And only in this region, I mean like five kilometers far from Shkoder.

She’s in the village of Bardhaj. And one of her many stops is at the home of an elderly woman named Groshë, which means beans. Groshë greets us outside her home.  She’s 68-years-old. She wears a black skirt, a bright blue jacket, and a sheer headscarf, tied below her chin.

Inside her house, she invites us to sit in her kitchen. She has set out orange slices from her orange tree. A loaf of bread, made from scratch. Her homemade cheese is still bubbling on the wood stove.

Elona translates as Groshë tells me how her family wound up in blood-feud. But within moments, she’s in tears. She’s grateful Elona has been helping her through the difficult and dangerous time.

GROSHË: [Crying and speaking Albanian]

GROSHË: [Speaking Albanian]

ELONA: She has preached us the word of God. I’ve never heard the word of God like her. It comes out of her soul. I love her so much.

Groshë’s grandparents were Christians. They prayed when they ate, when they slept, and when they worked. But they prayed with their mouths closed because it was forbidden under the communist regime. If they were caught, they would be put in prison.

Groshë met her husband through her aunt.

GROSHË: [Speaking Albanian]

ELONA: He came to ask for me.

GROSHË: [Speaking Albanian]

ELONA: I was not concerned that he was poor. To me, “Is he a good man?” Then we have everything.

Groshë said God gave them five children. Three sons and two daughters. But Groshë’s husband died when their youngest daughter was only 2-years-old.

Groshë raised her kids as a widow. Then, one day, Groshë’s oldest son got into a fight with another family member. His cousin, the son of Groshë’s sister.

GROSHË: [Speaking Albanian]

ELONA: It happened in a moment. In the blink of an eye.

The murder took place a few feet away from where I sat in Groshë’s kitchen. The two young men had been drinking raki. An argument turned heated. The cousin hit Groshë’s son with the bottle of raki. That drew blood. So Groshë’s son grabbed a knife from the kitchen.

ELONA: It was out of control. Just in a hot-blooded moment it happened.

The cousin was dead. The blood-feud had begun. Groshë’s son fled.

ELONA: He was in the mountains for about 40 days. Almost died. Frozen. And then the police caught him up in the mountains.

And he went to prison.

Groshë has 11 siblings. But they all sided with her sister. They left Groshë alone to take care of her oldest’s son’s wife and two kids. One of them, a 3-year-old boy. And remember: avengers don’t necessarily kill the killer. They want him to suffer.

GROSHË: [Speaking Albanian.]

ELONA: I had my grandson that was 3-year-old. I was terrified they would come in the house and kill my grandson, who was 3.

Groshë’s two younger sons were also potential targets. They both fled the country. Now she has no pension. Nobody to work for the family. And grandchildren to support.

GROSHË: [Speaking Albanian]

ELONA: I don’t know how I am alive.

Elona’s younger sister Vaska says Groshë was torn apart.

VASKA ZEKA: You can think of what she feels, Groshe. She loves her sister. She loves her son. And she loves her nephew who is not living anymore. So you can imagine her heart.

Groshë says God kept her mind in the right place.

GROSHË: [Speaking Albanian]

ELONA: The mouth doesn’t know how to tell it because words don’t have power to say.

Her son is now out of prison. He sought asylum in Italy, but he was turned away. So he returned home and faced the same choice Tani did: imprison himself inside or risk his life by going out.

This is where Elona steps in. She worked on forgiveness with both sides of the family. Unlike the elders and mediators, Elona doesn’t take money for her work.

GROSHË: [Speaking Albanian]

ELONA: She knew what I was suffering because she went through that also.

Elona has managed to get the sister’s family to agree they won’t avenge the murder … on one condition. Groshë’s son can’t live in the village near the family.

ELONA: “Make sure that he leaves the village. If he leaves the village, we will not follow him. We will not go after him.”

So Groshë’s son now rents a place in Shkodër.

HOSAFLOOK: I think that God has made it clear that when you take someone's life intentionally, or through gross disrespect of other laws, you forfeit the right to live just on a principle level. …

David Hosaflook points out that forgiving someone doesn’t mean there are no consequences. The whole idea is that life is so valuable that we show the value of life by saying, yes, you forfeited your life, your right to live, certainly to live in freedom.

When Tani was killed, current Albanian law held that a man who killed in blood-feud got 30 years in prison. But because of government corruption and a weak justice system, that rarely happens. Tani’s uncle, who started the blood feud, never served a day in prison.

ELONA: He’s free, because he paid the bribery to the court to free him. Forty thousand euros.

But Mark, who killed Tani, did go to prison. For Elona, forgiveness was a bit easier knowing Mark was locked up.

In the years since Tani’s death, she has traveled all over the world telling her story. A few months ago, I saw Elona speak at a multicultural church in Baltimore. She said after Tani’s death, she felt the injustice rise up inside of her.

ELONA: You know I was bitter in the first months, and I was asking the Lord, God, I’ve got all the right to be bitter. This is my power. I want to have bitterness! Because this is not just what is happening.

She knew the desire for justice wasn’t wrong. But she also knew it wasn’t her place to mete out absolute justice. Only God can do that. To refuse forgiveness—

ELONA: The prison of unforgiveness, it is the worst prison that a follower of Jesus can be.

Gabriel was in the audience, too. She looked at her son.

ELONA: My son today is free because his father paid for him.

As those words sunk in, she then turned to the core of the Christian faith. How humans are deeply flawed, but Christ forgives us of a debt we could never pay back. How His blood offers us the ultimate forgiveness.

David points out that to refuse to forgive … to instead demand payback … and then some … brings us into Lamech’s trap. But Jesus quoted Lamech’s words to teach the exact opposite.

HOSAFLOOK: When Peter asked Jesus about forgiveness, “Should I forgive seven times?” Is Jesus referring back to this when he says, “No. Seventy times seven.”

Elona encouraged people to obey Jesus’ command.

ELONA: It is easy to follow Jesus on the top of the mountains. But the challenge is are you following Jesus in the hardest, the darkest, and most the painful times of your life? I couldn’t forgive without the help of God.

After the service I ran out of the auditorium to catch her. But I got lost in a maze of hallways. As I stood there looking around, I saw a woman trembling in the arms of a friend. Through tears and hiccups, she kept saying, “I know I need to forgive. I know what Elona says is true …” The friend started praying for her. I left. But it got me thinking of all the different ways we hurt one another … whether the offense is a murdered husband, or careless words.

Last year, Elona was invited to speak at a church in Serbia. After she told her story, the church began to sing and worship God.

ELONA: And I see Tani hugging Mark in a vision and I was worshiping and I was like, God what is this? And God said to me the greatest favor you can do to your husband is give Jesus to this man that they might meet again. So if they met in an environment when darkness overcame they will meet again in an environment where light always overcomes.

Elona later found out the day she had the vision was the day Mark was released from prison. He only served 12 years of 30.

She’s okay with that. She sees both Tani’s uncle and Mark as victims of their community. And the Prrojs have long known what’s most important.

ELONA: Nobody has the right to take lives. Because God has given lives. But in the end, it was like if Tani would’ve been alive, the only thing he wants for you is to follow Jesus.

LES: This episode of Doubletake was reported and written by Jenny Rough. Produced by Emma Perley and me, Les Sillars, with the help of the creative team at World Radio.

Next time on Doubletake:

J. ROBERTS: And then I noticed these wanted posters had my face on them.

LABERGE: TIt’s not something that once you know, “Oh, this is a dream,” then you know how to do everything.

M. ROBERTS: How do I know, so goes the question, that I’m not actually a brain in a vat that’s having all of these experiences right now?

CONNOR: There was like a month, straight, when I got shot in my dreams like every single night. And every single night, I was aware that I was dreaming, and it was terrifying.

Thanks for listening. I hope that you’ll follow us on your favorite podcast app, and don’t forget to rate and review us. Email a note to us at Better yet, record your comments on your phone and email those, or just call our listener line at 202-709-9595.

We’ll see you next time.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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