These three children have spent their lives trapped within the confines of their home in northern Albania because of a blood feud.
For the last 10 years, twelve-year-old Zefi, seven-year-old Marsel, and nine-year-old Marsela have not ventured more than a few meters outside their house or yard to avoid being killed by another family in revenge for an earlier killing.
"The kids went into the cow’s manure-covered room as they would into a playground."
Visiting an Albanian family forced to live entirely within the walls of their own home because of a blood feud is something that always borders on the surreal.
The three kids I photographed for this story had grown up inside their leaky house without ever knowing what the world outside was like. They had lived inside their house in northern Albania for the last 10 years. For two months I had been trying to get in touch with a teacher to help me take pictures of them.
The teacher is one of the few people allowed into the house twice or three times a week to help the two sons and one daughter keep abreast of the curriculum. I thought she made things harder for me until I met the family myself on Friday.
The mother and the 19-year-old daughter grew fearful seeing me and barely concealed their opposition when I took out the camera. But they trusted Liljana, the teacher, and did not throw me out after we made it clear we meant no harm to them. The little kids also warmed to me.
They loved to be hugged and the presence of a stranger was welcome entertainment. Zef is twelve, Marsela is nine and Marsel, the youngest, is seven. Marsela and Marsel were born after the family had been confined inside their home and have not seen much of the world – nothing more than a few meters beyond their walls.
I was told the family had locked themselves up 10 years ago because a relative had killed someone by accident. They have many problems, the teacher said. No one wished to say more.
They now hide inside their home because the aggrieved family has imposed the harsh rule of the Kanun, a 15th Century Balkan code that gives the dead man’s family the right to kill the man who pulled the trigger in retribution.
But a modern-day interpretation of the Kanun — something that came back after Albania toppled Communism, which almost stamped out the feuds — means that not just men from the offending family but even children and women might not be spared. Some have been gunned down.
Liljana had apparently not made it clear enough a photographer would be visiting and she asked me not to show their faces. The mother refused to reveal the family name or give any more details about why they feared retaliation from the aggrieved family. The children went around barefoot or with torn socks over a floor that appeared to be rough concrete. They did not talk much and paused to stare for a long time when spoken to.
Children and women are considered untouchable under the medieval code that many use to justify the killings, which have increased over the past two decades. No one is considered safe nowadays unless the aggrieved family expressly pledges to honour their freedom and spare them.
The government, which has been unsuccessfully trying to stamp out the phenomenon, provides the family with a subsidy of 22 euros a month and visits by teachers for the children.
Next to the children’s bedroom, the family kept the cow in a separate room strewn with manure. All of them took great care of the cow, and cleaned, fed and patted it as if it was one of them. It seemed to me they treated the cow as if it was not just a gift, but Santa Claus himself. The kids went into the cow’s manure-covered room as they would into a playground. There was also a haystack in the yard for the cow.
Except for the cow, the only other entertainment the children got came from a TV and digital platform donated by a television crew who took pity on their plight. They also ventured a few meters outside the fence around the house to collect wood for their fire.
My stay inside lasted no more than 20 minutes because the more pictures I snapped the more the mother became stressed, almost shouting questions in desperation. Why doesn’t the government take measures to stop the blood feuds, she asked. She also worried about her children because they suffered from allergies and rheumatism, as a result of the leaks and humidity in their house.
It was one of those moments when you feel powerless at not being able to change things instantly. The least you can do is part with whatever banknotes you find in your wallet and tell the world about their existence.
Back at home in Tirana, I was told about a foreign-made film about the victims of the Kanun. It was about a 17-year-old boy sending text messages and playing video games. He was living in captivity in the 21st century because of 15th century rules.