SHKODRA, Albania - Where most people, even police, fear to set foot, Liljana Luani takes books, household supplies, and a lifetime of experience helping families marked for death.
The 56-year-old school teacher from Shkodra in northern Albania uses her spare time to travel to remote hillside villages where children trapped in a centuries-old tradition of blood feuds are hidden by their families.
The feuds, often related to criminal rivalry, stem from an ancient code of conduct known as the Kanun, a detailed but primitive form of self-administration. A cycle of reciprocal killings that lasts for generations may start from an incident as serious as murder or as minor as a land dispute.
When Luani visits a village, the guard dogs recognize her and the people who live there barely react as she opens the metal gate and steps into a house.
But the sense of danger is constant.
“I am aware that my job is like walking through land mines. If I slip somewhere my family will pay for it,” Luani told The Associated Press, speaking in the home of a young boy hidden away to protect him from a vendetta. She gave him a lesson in math, grammar and the ancient Greek tale of “The Odyssey.”
“I am a teacher and teaching is not a profession for me. It’s a mission.”
Typically only men are targeted in blood feuds. The feuds were largely suppressed during communism, but have been revived mainly in remote areas where the rule of law is perceived as weak. Victims are typically pursued over years and eventually ambushed, gunned down in the street, in a country awash with unlicensed weapons.
Police don’t report figures on the motives for murders, but revenge killings are blamed for dozens of deaths every year.
Women are generally exempt, allowing Luani to travel without being targeted or followed. But post-communist revenge killings have occasionally strayed from traditional rules and the male bloodline to include women, minors, multiple killings and the use of assassins.
Luani says she is still haunted by the memory of a teenage boy who insisted on attending school and was shot dead in an ambush. For that reason, she doesn’t give specifics about the students she visits or why they are embroiled in blood feuds, because she’s scared that they will be identified. AP journalists also met with some blood feud targets who asked not to be identified for fear they would be found and killed.
On a typical weekday, Luani finishes classes, cooks at home for her family, and then sets off into what locals call the “accursed mountains,” steep and inhospitable, traveling by taxi van for up to an hour to reach the stranded children.
Several years ago, she helped start and support a pioneer shelter school in southern Albania, in some cases taking additional risks to persuade parents to let their children travel.
“The school was a miracle, but it closed after three years due to corruption in public administration,” she said.
She fought in court to have it reopened, insisting that private donations were squandered through mismanagement by regional authorities. She won the case, but no action was taken.
Groups that track blood feuds estimate that several thousand people, including young children, live in isolation because of them. Treated by many as outcasts, they often only venture out at night to get firewood, food and other supplies.
“Confined children do not grow up the way normal children do,” Luani said. “They miss everything. They miss freedom. They grow up fearing they will be killed or are focused on how to kill ... Imagine that life.”
One recent visit was to a rundown house where a 40-year-old woman lives with her three sons, ages 14 to 19. They use a small yard to grow vegetables, and keep chickens and a cow.
Neighbors and relatives provided some assistance, while Luani persuaded the power company to offer electricity at a discount.
The woman’s husband is in jail for murder and the family is unaccustomed to visitors. The mother cried frequently, while the two older boys disappeared into another room.
Luani teaches the youngest son, in the hope it will help him escape the cycle of violence.
“I believe that when people are educated they usually do not fall prey to the blood feud phenomenon,” she said.
Much of her effort, Luani says, is now focused on trying to persuade mothers not to bring up their sons to continue the vendettas. She accompanies them to municipal classes to that teach basic cooking, hygiene and personal care skills.
“Many say ‘well done’ to me, and make me out to be a hero. I don’t want that. I want much, much more to be done for these people,” she says. “As long as I am physically able to walk and talk, I will be with my students, my children.”