Kosovo’s Ethnography (II): Marriage And Banditry

Part I

Ethos, Guns, and Demography

In remote mountainous Balkan areas, far away from law and state’s control, wealth and security of a family rest on the number of guns it possesses or better to say on the number of people they are capable of shooting and fighting in general. Guns are needed for many purposes, in fact, but the following three are the most important in the Balkan case but primarily concerning Albania, Montenegro, and Herzegovina:

  1. It secures the house from the neighbors, from plunders, like highwaymen, from wild beasts like wolfs, jackals, bears, mountain lions, etc.
  2. It enables the family to plunder its neighbors, plane people, to execute blood feud, etc.
  3. In the case of a common threat from the outside, like a foreign invasion, join efforts of many families, tribes, etc., secure the successful defense.

However, in the case of ethnic Albanians, in addition to all three mentioned purposes, the principal rationale for keeping the house well-armed is the imposition of a blood feud (vendetta) and protection from the same. Strong family secures its authority and hierarchical position within the tribe (Alb. fis) and many guns deter eventual aggression from other tribes. Therefore, it is imperative to have as many sons as possible and also as many guns as the family can afford. This condition sine qua non has imposed a particular social ethos among the Albanian highlanders which they brought to Kosovo-Metochia (KosMet), both with respect to the outside and inside of the family.[1] The response to this requirement has been simple: the women are supposed to give as many births as possible but particularly to the sons. As a consequence of such ethos, the highlanders’ women spend the best years of their life by giving births and raising the children. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced among the Muslims, due to the already subordinate position of women in the Islamic society in general.[2] And when this anthropological affair is combined with political aims, as the case with the Albanians in KosMet, in fact, is, then the high birthrate passes into the demographic explosion. And here we come to the crux of the Albanian Question in general and the KosMet issue in particular.

Under primitive, poor conditions and lack of proper medical care, the majority of births are either abortive or the babies fall victims of improper care. As testified by Edith Durham,[3] she was shocked by the treatment of the Albanian babies, who were held in their cradles covered by blankets, so that babies could hardly breathe. All this resulted in a very high proportion of baby mortality. If we recall that hundred years ago only three or four of 8 children would have survived, we can understand the origin of the demographic explosion going on with ethnic Albanians. However, for even under modern medical and other conditions the Albanian couple would not stop at three children if they are daughters, and it is only males that matter in the rural traditional society. Nevertheless, another peculiar feature of the ethnic Albanians’ breeding attributes is that the first children are usually females, so that males appear minority in the Albanian society, at least in KosMet. This has given rise to a peculiar custom, known particularly among Albania’s Albanians.

If the wife does not stop giving birth to daughters, all siblings consist of female offspring. The farther feels humiliated, with grim prospects for his family. In that case, one daughter, usually the eldest or boy-like one,[4] takes over the role of (an unborn) son (in Dalmatia, the so-called Virdžina).[5] She (Virdžina) dresses as male, carries a gun, smoking tobacco, getting more food, and gradually becomes indistinguishable from males. It is her/his duty to protect the family as well as to exercise blood feud, if necessary. She/he is accepted by the whole community as male, never marries and dies as a man.

The Ethnic Map of KosovoIt is fair to say that the whole Dinaric region of ex-Yugoslavia and North and Central present-day Albania have been notorious for high fertility. These mountainous areas appear to be a traditional source of surplus population, which moves down to fertile planes and assimilates gradually into the indigenous people.  All regions of West Balkans are populated by a mixture of the autochthonous and incoming populations. If the migration is reasonably gradual, the process takes on acceptable socio-demographic forms. However, in practice, the problem arises in two cases:

  1. If the migration (in fact, occupation) is massive and relatively within a short period of time as, for instance, it was the case of the First Serbian Migration in 1689−1690 from KosMet to the Habsburg Monarchy.[6]
  2. If the newcomers are ethnically different, speaking a distinctly different language as, for instance, in the KosMet case (the Albanian newcomers of highlanders vs. the Serb autochthonous lowlanders).[7]

Marriage and Family

The physical geography conditions surely have shaped the mental and physical structures of these two distinct populations – the Serbs and the Albanians. In the fertile plane, which provides easily living goods, people tend to be mild, industrious, and not very cute. Their social motto is “take it easy” and tensions between the members of kuća − the traditional counterpart of a Dinaric zadruga (in the Serbian) and fis (in the Albanian) regions − are rare and resolved in a reasonable manner. Although this kind of old society has been largely disintegrated in modern times, the tame features of these rural people can still be recognized. However, on the contrary, harsh and strict rules which were governing internal and external relationships among the highlanders are still present in the Dinaric regions, especially the Albanophonic. The severe living conditions, on the soil largely devastated by cutting woods, sheep and goats grazing, etc., have shaped a tough and violent mental structure of these inhabitants in the mountainous areas. The ethos of these people might well be summarized by Hobbs’ homo homini lupus.[8]

Unlike the lowland regions where the division on male and female is very weak and where the head of the (extended) family, elected regularly yearly, might be a woman, a separation between male and female members of highlanders’ zadruga (fis) appears strong and strict. Generally, women constitute a subordinated part of the highlanders’ community, both within family and tribe. This is particularly pronounced among the Muslim Albanians, where a female member of fis is regarded almost as domestic cattle. They live in separate parts of the house, never appear before a stranger, and go out only on exceptional occasions and even in this case under attentive supervision of a male member (usually with the gun). Before WWII, women used to wear feredža, a kind of chador of the contemporary fundamentalist Muslim (Arab) women. The Communist Governments, both in ex-Yugoslavia (Titoslavia)[9] and neighboring Enver Hoxha’s Albania,[10] managed with great difficulties to remove feredžas from Muslim women faces. Generally, in the urban areas, the situation is much more favorable concerning this issue, but in rural regions, the old customs and conservative traditions still prevail. Girls are married at an early age, for the boy they sometimes never met before, all arranged by the older male members of the family. If a woman has to go to the doctor, she is escorted by a male member of family, husband and like. The latter ensures that she will be treated by a female doctor and even then the male supervises the examination. Marriage appears as a business affair rather than a social event.[11] Father of the girl to be married gives to groom’s family a substantial amount of money and goods (usually in the form of cattle, eventually land). If marriage is to be broken for the husband’s “guilt”, this money must be given back to the girl’s family, together with the girl herself.

However, what makes the life of the Muslim women in general and ethnic Albanian in particular, often unbearable, is the pathological jealousy of husbands.[12] It is sufficient to look at somebody’s woman to provoke a nervous reaction. Such sensitivity to women attraction provokes troubles, including murder. Almost all disputes and murders among ethnic Albanians are caused by “women affairs”, which usually triggers crime and the curse of blood revenge. The same sensitivity prevents the disputed parties even to mention women at court and the disputes are regularly disguised as innocent quarrels over borders, trespassing and like that. It should be stressed here that women themselves are never direct victims in these disputes. The common law (Leka Dukagjini’s Codex) strictly forbids killing female members of the society and if it does happen it is strongly condemned.[13]

Blood revenge in Kosovo
Three generations of women: Migena, Rezarta, Beta and Liza wait inside their family home in northern Albania for news of their father’s asylum application in London. A blood feud keeps them trapped at home, hoping their father’s bid for asylum can provide an escape (2017).

This situation is further strongly aggravated by the institution of Gastarbeit, going to West Europe, particularly to Germany, for work. While some other nations, like the Turks, for instance, take along their family, the ethnic Albanians never do that. They live in a foreign country and send home part of their earnings, visiting the family twice a year, on average. Upon arriving home, the first thing to do is to make another child, leaving then the wife pregnant behind. Besides gaining another member of the family, hopefully male, he secures that his wife will remain faithful during his absence. From her side, she is satisfied by the course of events, for a new child means her bigger security in the family.

Contrary to what is described above, the lowlanders suppress maximally their fertility. In order to preserve the family estate intact, the institution “one family, one child” has been practiced in modern time in ex-Yugoslavia in Vojvodina, Slavonija, Šumadija,[14] Zagorje,[15] etc. The outcome of this suicidal practice has been the decrease of populations, at least of the autochthonous one, in these areas. The phenomenon has been dubbed “white plague”, for good reasons, for the rural regions of the non-Dinaric Balkans have been in the process of biological dying for the last century. The process has been slowed down to some extent by the influx from Dinaric regions. The relations in this matter between the highlanders and lowlanders are like ”predator–pray” correlation, for good reasons. The highlanders have always looked down to the lowlanders as the “fertile soil” for robbing and plundering. It is this outlook that has prompted Hannibal and Bonaparte, to mention just two examples, to urge their soldiers, while looking at the reach Lombardy from the high Alps, to descend and “collect the harvest”. In the Balkan western Dinaric region, during the Ottoman occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Herzegovinians regularly made guerrilla invasions to the lowlanders and robbed them. These plunders were called uskoks,[16]  and used to be highly valued by the local epic poets. The reason for the latter was that it was mainly the Turks that were attacked and these exploits were painted by patriotic colors.

A “Patriotic” Banditry

Here, two more phenomena of our interest have to be mentioned. Both belong to the highwaymen movements and were common to the Balkan history of the highlanders generally. In the Slavonic-speaking Balkan regions these highwaymen were called as the hayduks and in the Albanian-speaking areas as the katchacks (from the Turkish language kaçak, highwayman or simply bandit).[17] Their common practice was to make an ambush and rob the trade caravans, usually killing the tradesmen and escorts. Since these banditry movements were very prominent during the time of the Ottoman Empire, the hayduks were considered national heroes and freedom fighters for the national liberation. The best illustration of the last point is the epic poem Gorski vijenac,[18] written by a Montenegrin theocratic ruler Petar II Petrović-Njegoš (1813−1851) in 1847. The political motivation for the writing this poetic drama was the acute threat of bishop’s subjects converting into Muslims, under the pressure of economic poverty and famine.[19] The subject of the poem was “the extermination of poturice[20], a sort of “religious cleansing”. In fact, the event the poet referred is consisted of five families killing their Muslim neighbors (and relatives at the same time). However, this historical event was hardly noticed at the time when it occurred. This point, nevertheless, illustrated well another important feature of a Balkan highlanders’ mentality – they are prone to the exaggerations out of all proportions. But, in essence, it was the silent message of the legalized highwaymen’s banditry (more precisely of uskoks’ practice).[21] This aspect has never been exposed in the Serb/Montenegrin exegesis of this poetic drama, though the latter is extensively worked out at the grammar schools in Serbia and Montenegro.[22] Njegoš’s Gorski vijenac (The Mountain Wreath) has, by the way, the reputation among the Serbs as the Serbian Iliad.[23]

However, in fact, the Ottoman Turks themselves used to use this practice in a well-organized manner as a means to extend their state’s territory and authority. Their infamous bashi-bazouks, cavalry bandits, who used to plunder areas across the borders by brutal and sudden assaults are well-known in the history of the Ottoman Empire.[24] This practice resulted in emptying the ranger territories from the indigenous inhabitants, which enabled the Ottoman forces to occupy these areas easily when an official war was initiated. It is important to mention this practice here because it was exactly the same tactics which KosMet’s Albanians exercised after the UNMIK (the United Nations Mission in Kosovo) occupied KosMet in June 1999 and when the local army control was handed over to the ethnic Albanians who did ethnic cleansing of the Serbs.[25] Here has to be mentioned as well as banditry raids made by the Albanians from the newly founded state of Albania, after WWI. These raids into KosMet become so annoying that the regular army of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes[26] was forced to enter Albania’s territory for the sake to pacify the region from the aggressive bandits of North Albania’s highlanders. The Albanian Government then addressed the newly founded League of Nations for the protection and the latter ordered Yugoslav armed forces to withdraw from North Albania. However, the Yugoslav Government did not take it seriously and newspapers in Serbia commented on the requirements by “Let us see who is stronger – the Serbian army or the League of Nation?” In fact, it was the first intervention of newly established international organization founded to ensure the world’s peace and it was important that the intervention succeed. The Yugoslav Government in Belgrade had to comply and withdraw its military forces from North Albania.[27]

Skanderbeg square
Skanderbeg square, Tirana, Albania

The practice of the hayduk banditry remained in the Balkans even after the rule of the Ottoman Empire and was uprooted, for instance, in Serbia only in the very late 19th century. However, in KosMet this tradition has been alive even up today among Muslim Albanians. One of the permanent testimonies of the practice of robbery is the gorge Kačanik (Kaçanik), between Serbia’s southern province of KosMet and the Republic of North Macedonia. The name of this unavoidable passage for those traveling between these regions has been derived exactly from the term katchak or the highwayman (bandit, robber) in the Albanian language. Only under a heavily armed escort, it was possible and advisable for caravans to go through the gorge. The Serbian epic poetry has recorded this usage of Kačanik, albeit in an allegorical form, in the poem on duel (megdan) between Marko Kraljević (a Serbian epic hero, otherwise historic ruler of the feudal possessions in Vardar Macedonia around the town of Prilep) and Musa[28] Kesedžija (his ethnic-Albanian counterpart).[29] The duel resembles that one between Achilles and Hector and the (anonymous) poet showed equal sympathy for both adversaries, just as its famous Greek counterpart did the same regarding the Greek and Trojan heroes.

A very undesirable consequence of the hayduk banditry was that state allowed civilians to keep and carry guns, as protection from the highwaymen’s banditry. Even the Ottoman Turks tolerated this in the Christian provinces. However, a state with armed civilians is not a real state at all like the USA (Wild West) is not, for example. It is well illustrated by uprisings within the Ottoman Empire, which were successful, at least temporarily, just owing to the armed rebellious populations, as the case of the First and Second Serbian Uprisings in1804−1813 and 1815 shows well.[30] When king of Serbia Milan Obrenović in the newly independent after the 1878 Berlin Congress tried in 1883 to collect weaponry from the peasants in East Serbia on the border with Bulgaria (Timok region), since he established the regular army, it resulted in an armed rebellion (the 1883 Timok Rebellion from November 2nd to 13th), which the Government suppressed only with great efforts.[31] Тhis phenomenon will be the cause of many troubles with the ethnic Albanian population, both in Serbia and Albania. If one realizes that it is the highlanders who are troublemakers in West Balkans, with their cult of weaponry, he/she can appreciate this devastating effect on the weakly civilized societies in the region.

Prishtina Kosovo
Skanderbeg square, Prishtina, Kosovo

How much the guerrilla-banditry tradition is esteemed in modern Yugoslavia testifies the number of soccer clubs with the name Hajduk (highwayman), including the most popular one in Croatian Dalmatia from Split (est. in 1911 as the Serb one). At Sinj in Croatia, every year there is the festival called Sinjska alka, with competitors in the traditional military uniforms, trying to pick up a ring by their spears, riding horses, which commemorates the times of the Uskoks and their raids across the Ottoman border in Bosnia-Herzegovina and part of Dalmatia (from the territories at that time of the Habsburg Monarchy and the Republic of Venice). An overwhelming majority of military leaders in the Serb uprisings in the 19th century have been actual or former hayduks,[32] including the supreme commander Karađorđe (1762−1808).[33]

Nevertheless, such guerrilla-banditry tradition was revived in Yugoslavia, first in Vardar Macedonia just before the Balkan Wars (1912−1913), during the WWII (the Partisans of Josip Broz Tito and the Chetniks of the General Dragoljub Draža Mihailović), then in the period of the civil wars (1991−1995) and finally during the 1998−1999 Kosovo War (the US-sponsored Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army).

To be continued

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.


[1] According to the report from the very end of the 19th century, in the Drenica Valley in KosMet every male from 15 years of age had a rifle with himself wherever he was going. The guns were the most valuable things in society [Станковић П. Т., Путне белешке по Старој Србији 1871−1898, Beograd, 1910, 126−128].

[2] About the position of women in the Islamic societies, see in [Mohanty T. Ch., Russo A., Torres L., Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, Bloomington−Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991, 237−270].

[3] Durham M. E., High Albania, London, 1909.

[4] In a Muslim society, term tomboy would be inappropriate.

[5] See, for instance, a Yugoslav feature movie Virdžina made in 1991 by Centar film and directed by Srđan Karanović. The movie was awarded in Berlin and Valencia.

[6] As a matter of historical fact, during the Habsburg-Ottoman peace negotiations in 1699 for the coming the Treaty of Karlowitz (today Sremski Karlovci in North Serbia) which ended the 1683−1699 Great Vienna War, the Serbian Patriarch Arsenije Crnojević sent a request to the Ottoman Sultan to be allowed to return to KosMet with his people but the request was rejected [Malcolm N. Kosovo: A Short History, New York: HarperPerennial, 1999, 163−164].

[7] Самарџић Р. и други, Косово и Метохија у српској историји, Београд: Српска књижевна задруга, 1989, 143−169

[8] Hobbes Th., Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, Wisehouse Classics – Sweden, 2016; Cooper W. K., Thomas Hobbes and the Natural Law, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018.

[9] On Tito’s Yugoslavia up to 1954, see in [Драгнић Н. А., Титова обећана земља Југославија, Београд: Задужбина Студеница−Чигоја штампа, 2004].

[10] On the Communist Albania, see in [Prifti R. P., Socialist Albania since 1944. Domestic and Foreign Developments, Cambridge, Mass., 1978].

[11] On marriage, see in [Russel B., Marriage and Morals, New York: Liveright, 1970].

[12] On this issue, see in [Pines M. A., Romantic Jealousy: Causes, Symptoms, Cures, New York−London: Routledge, 1998].

[13] Бартл, П., Албанци од средњег века до данас, Београд: CLIO, 2001, 58.

[14] The central part of Serbia, the core of the modern state, geographically, historically and ethnically.

[15] The Croatian counterpart of Šumadija.

[16] Raiders, those, who jump in.

[17] It has to be mentioned that the Greeks had their armatolies, as the counterpart of the Slavic hayduks, who had a national reputation of freedom fighters too. In the Bulgarian case, they were called the comits.

[18] The official translation into the English language is The Mountain Wreath. Gorski vijenac was written in the Serb language and published in Vienna in 1847. See [Петровић-Његош П., Горски вијенац, Беч: 1847; Костић М. Л., Сабрана дела. Четврти том: Његош и Српство, Београд: ЗИПС, 2000].

[19] A common phenomenon in all Dinaric regions populated by the highlanders but practically absent among the lowlanders.

[20] The common (pejorative) name of all Slavonic-speaking people who accepted Islam but in particular those who did it for the very opportunistic reasons.

[21] About the uskoks, see more in [Bracewell W. C., The Uskoks of Senj: Piracy, Banditry, and Holy War in the Sixteenth-Century Adriatic, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 2010].

[22] Some people even know the poem by heart, as the case with the most famous of all Dinaroids, Nikola Tesla, was.

[23] We note here that in all probability Troy was a pirate city and that this piracy was the cause of all-Greek massive assault on Priam’s town, with Hellene as an allegorical substitute of robbed goods and money, possibly as a tax. See [Lattimore R. (translator), The Iliad of Homer, London−The University of Chicago Press, 2011].

[24] See, for instance, a general history of the Ottoman Empire [Hammer von J., Historija Turskog/Osmanskog Carstva, I−III, Zagreb: Nerkez Smailagić, 1979].

[25] See, for instance [Чупић М., Отета земља: Косово и Метохија (злочини, прогони, отпори…), Београд: Нолит, 2006].

[26] This kingdom was renamed in 1929 into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. About history of the interwar Yugoslavia, see in [Petranović B., Istorija Jugoslavije 1918−1988. Prva knjiga: Kraljevina Jugoslavija 1914−1941, Beograd: Nolit, 1988].

[27] See: Гаћиновић Ђ. Р., Насиље у Југославији, Београд: ЕВРО, 2002, 111−133.

[28] A Turkish transliteration of Moses, commonly used in Serbia for naming bulls.

[29] Kesedžija in the Serbian language means purse (bag) cutter or simply highwayman (robber, bandit).

[30] On the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottoman authority, see in [Ђорђевић Р. М., Србија у устанку 1804−1813., Београд: Рад, 1979].

[31] Ћоровић В., Историја Срба, Београд: БИГЗ, 1993, 661.

[32] The Arabic for outlaw (pron. hidouc). The Turkish haydud, haydut (highwayman). The Hungarian hayduk, plural of haydu (soldier).

[33] “Black George” in the English language. The nickname speaks about his character for himself. Contrary to popular belief, there were Serbs who gave him this epithet, but not the Turks. See his biography in the context of historical events of the First Serbian Uprising (1804−1813): Љушић Р., Вожд Карађорђе, 1, Смедеревска Паланка: ИнвестЕкспорт, 1993; Љушић Р., Вожд Карађорђе, 2, Београд−Горњи Милановац: Војна књига, 1995.

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