Haki Neziri, 77, sits in silence at his house in the village of Gracke
Gracke - AFP
Outside the Neziri family compound in this Kosovo hamlet there is no sign of life, not even a sound indicating that 45 relatives with seven children are holed up inside afraid of a vendetta attack.
His eyes darting from side to side, the head of the clan, Haki Neziri, 77, emerged cautiously from the house to receive AFP journalists.
\"My family has not been able to go out for 17 months. Men and women cannot go to work on the field. Children cannot go to school,\" he complained bitterly.
The Neziris fear any one of them could be shot by members of the rival Veseli family in an \"honour killing\" to avenge a murder, in this ethnic Albanian area that broke away from Serbia in 2008.
The ancient Albanian tradition of the blood feud has forced the Neziri family even the children to barricade themselves inside their homes, the only place they are safe. Under the old customs, a vendetta killing of someone inside their own home would bring shame on the perpetrator.
The drama in Gracke, set on the slopes of the Nerodime mountains some 50 kilometres (31 miles) south of the capital Pristina, started in February 2010 when an old dispute between the two families culminated in the killing of Brahim Veseli, 40.
Four Neziri brothers were arrested and are currently on trial for murder.
So-called \"honour killings\" known as gjakmarrja, the Albanian law of vendetta have been deeply rooted in local lore for centuries as part of mediaeval tribal laws known as the \"Code of Leke Dukagjini\".
The code, or \"Kanun\", says \"if one man kills another, a male member of the victim\'s family must respond in kind.\"
Prominent human rights activist Behxhet Shala described \"gjakmarrja\" as \"a relic of the past that was used to settle disputes by meting out justice by yourself\" in stateless societies.
\"It is an anomaly nowadays,\" he said. \"But it has resurfaced as there is no strong and functional rule of law\" in Kosovo, where the EU rule of law mission (EULEX) is still monitoring and mentoring authorities.
Other observers also said such \"honour killings\" had risen in recent years though there are no official figures available.
Under the code, drawn up by an Albanian aristocrat during the 14th-century struggle against Ottoman rule, a murderer\'s family can request assurances from the victim\'s family -- in the form of their word of honour known as \"besa\" -- that they will not be shot if they step outside.
In the Neziris\' case, the family of the dead man has refused to make any such pledge, even for children aged seven to 14.
\"They did not give us \'besa\',\" said Haki\'s 13-year-old grandson Arijan, who eyed the strangers in his home suspiciously. \"I would love to go to school, but I cannot.\"
His 10-year-old brother Fatum, bounding with pent-up energy, also wants to return to school, \"not to take classes but to play with friends.\"
Despite repeated efforts by influential locals, the Veseli family has refused to exclude the children from the feud.
\"I went with local authorities more than five times to the Veselis to try to mediate reconciliation and solve the problem of my students. They did even not accept to talk about \'besa\',\" said school principal Ejup Shabani.
Local police say they are equally frustrated.
\"We are helpless in the fight against the \'Kanun\' tradition as there is no offence we can prove,\" officer Agim Gashi told AFP. He said when authorities have contacted the Veseli family, they insist they are not keeping the children from attending school.
\"Still, the kids are afraid,\" he said.
Shabani\'s school has tried to help by sending teachers to the Neziri household weekly so the children do not fall behind. Police also escort the children to school when they have to take exams.
Under local rules the principal should expel the children for not attending classes, but \"we are breaking the law on purpose in order not to endanger their education.\"
Shyqeri Neziri, 49 and father of two of the children, said he understood the anger of the victim\'s family but begged to keep the youngsters out of it.
\"An evil happened. It is up to the justice system to address it now. The harmed family has to be compensated but without involving the children. They have to go to school,\" he told AFP.
Fidan Veseli, the 20-year-old nephew of the murder victim, said that for now the prevailing view was that the Veselis would not touch the Neziris.
\"Let\'s see what the justice will do,\" he said, referring to the court case though justice moves slowly in Kosovo and it was uncertain when the trial would end.
The nephew would not explain why his family would not agree to a pledge not to harm the Neziri children.
As the oldest Neziri brother, Shyqeri, with his father, feels the weight of responsibility for getting the family out of a situation with \"no future\". Blocked in their compound, they have started selling off property and cattle piece by piece \"to earn a living\".
The frustration shows on Shyqeri\'s face and the desperation in his words
\"I will send word to them. Let them chose the time and place and I will go there.
\"If it is a condition for my family to get rid of \'gjakmarrja\' let them kill me,\" he said. \"They will be forgiven by my family.\"