In seeking justice sometimes the legal system is not enough. The story must be told and allow the public in, show what turmoil and injustices are being inflicted. To this end, we want to briefly share with you the story about our family who through the centuries has had to endure prejudices and losses, all the while defending itself and its people from the perpetrators. A story that, although may not be unique in today’s greedy climate, is certainly one which has a particular national history that cannot be denied. A story of survival and rebirth of a family which through the centuries was defeated and rose again to face the brutality of its aggressors and has never given up on the hope of ultimate justice, democracy and freedom, not only for their sake but for all Albanians.
PRINCE LEK DUKAGJINI
The beginning of the sovereignty of the Gjomarkaj dynasty dates to the early centuries, as the descendants of Prince Lek Dukagjini. The Dukagjini princes were one of the oldest and most noble Albanian families, their principality was established at the end of the 12th century. The greatest legacy that Dukagjini left to his people is the “Kanun of Lek Dukagjini”, a set of customary laws of the highlands, which is preserved as a great value to the highlanders. Mirdita, the seat of the Gjomarkaj dynasty, has always been governed according to this principle of the Kanun and the House of Gjomarku submitted to the Kanun as the traditional law of the country, especially since it was the foundation of the Kanun. This code was embedded in the culture of the highlanders; they lived and died by it. Our family was the keeper of this code and bound by honor would not, under any circumstance, dare to deviate from it.
In Mirdita, the Gjomarkajs continued their anti-Ottoman wars, proud of their Catholic religion, until they forced the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire into agreements with their province, which was quite different from other provinces of Albania. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Christian religion was preserved intact only in Mirdita and in defense of Catholicism and independence Mirditans constantly lived between wars and bloodshed, with the Gjomarkajs consistently ready to defend their homeland against the enemies of the nation. When their help was sought, at the unification of the Albanian lands, they were unfailingly ready to oblige as shown in the years 1444, 1878-1912, 1920, 1944-1990.
Throughout the centuries they endured prison, defied death in thousands of wars and suffered losses, forever leaving their heroic name engraved in history. Such Kapidans to be mentioned are: Gjon Marku I; Lleshi I Zi; Bib Doda; Preng Bib Doda; Marka Gjoni, President of the Republic of Mirdita; Gjon Markagjoni; Dr. Mark Gjon Gjomarkaj, Minister of Interior 1943; Ndue Gjon Gjomarkaj, founding Member of the National Independent Bloc; Sander Gjon Gjomarkaj, successor to his brother Mark in the fight against the communists; Dede Gjon Gjomarkaj, imprisoned and interned during the communist regime 1945-1990 and Nikoll Gjon Gjomarkaj, bravely escaped the concentration camp in Tepelene in 1949.
Our family suffered brutally under the communist dictatorship regime which engulfed Albania in 1945. A regime that sought to destroy it and eradicate it from the face of the earth. The hatred felt for our name was like no other. We were stigmatized as the ‘enemies of the people’. Children were taught in school that the name Gjon Markagjoni was to be reviled. Our properties and personal goods were confiscated by the regime, the seat of our House in Orosh, Mirdita, was burned to the ground. While our other home in Shkoder was sequestered and turned into ‘sigurimi’ headquarters, destroying all our possessions. Our uncles, Mark and Sander, were killed fighting against the invading communist forces trying to hold off what would become the darkest period in Albanian history. Our other uncles, aunts and cousins were jailed and interned in concentration camps. Our families were kept apart for 45 long years, those left behind in Albania lived under brutal conditions and sustained unimaginable tortures and unspeakable acts.
The house in Shkoder has an important history. It dates to the early 19th century and is the most prominent house in the city with a five story tower rising up above it, a tower designed by the famous architect Kol Idromeno and known nationally as the Kulla Markagjoni (Resistance Tower of Markagjoni). The total property measures 2,650m2, while the house itself is 819m2. The house originally belonged to Prince Preng Bib Doda, Kapidan of Mirdita and head of the Gjomarkaj Household. Upon his death in 1919, which left no heirs, his legal successor became his cousin, our grandfather, Gjon Markagjoni. Preng Bib Doda’s wife, Lucia, was allowed to remain in the house until he proceeded to take steps to reclaim it. In 1929, through a legal agreement between him and Lucia, the house transferred title to Gjon Markagjoni and remained as such until the communists confiscated it in 1945.
In its heyday the house was lived in and loved. The family came to Shkoder during the winters, in order for the children to attend school and returned to Mirdita in the summers, with the exception of the older sons; Mark, Ndue and Sander. In a family as large as ours the house was truly a hamlet. It houses 25 rooms on the interior, comprising the tower and the cellar (running the whole length of the house) which housed the servants’ quarters and a modern day kitchen. The upstairs was decorated with antiques, Persian rugs and opulent chandeliers and the library, where our grandfather conducted business and hosted guests from all walks of life, was the centerpiece. It has a wood carved ceiling, wall panels and bookshelf and now a non working fireplace.
When the house was confiscated in 1945 all interior furniture and accessories were burned. The house was turned into Sigurimi headquarters by the communist forces and later a school for girls. In the process of these turnovers the house was destroyed; walls were demolished, bars put on the windows, even the communist flag, carved on a pediment, was placed on the roof. Before the fall of communism, the house was trashed even more, such was the hate toward our family by the communists.
DEMOCRACY AND REUNIFICATION
This dynasty has, through the centuries, sacrificed and lost all in the name of country and religion. In 1991, when democracy swept the country, everyone was finally reunited. Our uncle Dede, aunts Marta and Bardha and cousin Gjon reclaimed the family’s home in Shkoder and amid all the rubble and disrepair they moved in slowly and began to rebuild.
When the family moved back in the house in 1991, our cousin Gjon was 53 years old and desiring to begin a new life he decided to marry and carry on the family name. In 1993 he was introduced to Brigjilda Paloke Gjergji and shortly thereafter they married. As time went on she became part of the family nucleus and was welcomed with open arms. For the next 10 years she lived in the house as a member of the extended family and behaved accordingly. She was admired by everyone who came to visit and was recognized as the wife of the Kapidan.
Unfortunately, they were unable to have any children, therefore no direct heirs of Gjon were left behind when he passed away after a short illness in 2003. His death was devastating to everyone however, aunts Marta and Bardha and uncle Dede, who were in their later years, were still very active and in no way feeble. Gjon’s sister Kristina lived on the property and his other sister Celestina nearby and they came over daily to help the aunts and uncle, who raised them in the camps.
In the Albanian culture and especially as written in the Kanun, the code which they still lived by, when a husband dies childless the wife is not obligated to stay in his house and most times returns to her parents’ house. In this case however, Brigjilda made the conscious decision to remain in our house. She was not asked to remain nor was she forced to, she just decided to continue living there and the family fulfilled her wish to remain, while at the same time she respected that her place was that of an in-law and would adhere to the customs of the House; which was to respect the elders and assist them in their needs, but knowing full well that her place was not that of a blood relative and as such she had no say so in any legal matters concerning the family’s assets.
Early in 2006 our aunt Marta, at the age of 90, was diagnosed with skin cancer and suffered a long illness which restricted her daily routines and prohibited her from going outside of the house. The last seven months of her life, from March to October, saw her confined to her bed. She died in October of 2006 surrounded by family.
In 2011 Dede suffered a fall in the garden which fractured his legs. This would leave him infirm until his death in 2015. He would spend the next four years confined to a room roughly 6m2, which included his bed, a tv and sofa for guests.
In light of the turn of events, in 2012, Bianca Gjomarkaj and her husband decided to move to Shkoder and live in her father’s house so that they could be of assistance to the elders in their later years, who were overjoyed at the prospect. They moved into the south wing of the house in December 2012. Life was good for them, they all enjoyed each other’s company and they were a great joy to the uncle and aunt as they were getting to know their niece up-close and personally.
Unfortunately, three months later our aunt Bardha would suffer from a sudden stroke and after a long week of hospice she died peacefully at home on 19 March 2013, surrounded by family; this would be a turning point in the life of the household.
Unbeknownst to the family, three weeks after the death of his sister Bardha, on April 8, 2013 Dede allegedly underwent a psychological exam rendering him capable of drafting and signing legal documents. Four weeks after the death of his sister, on April 25, 2013, he allegedly signed the first Will. Six weeks after that, on June 11, 2013 he allegedly signed a second Will. Two days after that, on June 13, 2013 he allegedly signed a third document, a Sale Contract, for the same properties which were listed in the first Will of April 25. All to the beneficiary: Brigjilda Paloke Gjergji; the widow of his nephew!
Our uncle Dede succumbed to pneumonia in January 2015 at the age of 94. He died peacefully at home.
Shortly thereafter we proceeded to file for the legal successions of Dede and Marta. For Dede there were two Wills, as well as a Sale Contract in place and for Marta there was a Will; all naming Brigjilda Paloke Gjiergj, the widow of their nephew, as the beneficiary.
ALBANIANS’ LONG ROAD TO JUSTICE
Justice is what we seek, justice for what is rightfully ours, justice to restitute what belongs to us. We have been battling the system going on five years. Lawsuit after lawsuit all to try and protect what is legally ours. To retain what legally belongs to the heirs of Gjon Markagjoni in the family.
Our cousin Gjon, husband of Brigjilda, owned 1/3 of his father Mark Gjomarkaj’s share, the other 2/3 belong to his two sisters; Kristina and Celestina. Of this 1/3 Brigjilda legally inherits half, while the other half is shared by this two sisters in accordance with Gjon’s legal succession and Albanian law. If Gjon wanted to give all of his share to his then wife he could have done so with a Will, but he did not!
It is therefore inconceivable that any property belonging to this family would ever be willed intentionally to anyone outside of the immediate family, while members of it were still living. The “Kanun Code” did not allow it and our family’s commitment to that code would make it morally impossible.
However, widespread corruption at almost every layer of the Albanian justice system has meant that culprits through dishonest and fake actions have tried to snatch our property from us.
Some of the Judges who made no justice in our case, were soon to fail their own vetting process which clearly shows they were ‘not fit for the purpose’!
The Gjon Markagjoni family recognizes that Brigjilda is entitled to half of her husband’s share and that is all. However, the family DOES NOT recognize Brigjilda’s pretense to own HALF of the properties belonging to Kapidan Gjon Markagjoni; our uncle Dede and aunt Marta’s shares. This is an absurdity!
This road is a long one. The family Markagjoni has not lived through innumerable tragedies and injustices to give up now, even if it means going to Strasbourg. We will succeed in the end. History and truth will not be distorted by the evils which we have witnessed through the decades nor will it be rewritten by the current winds of corruption and envy.
Dera e Gjomarkut will prevail. She will rise from the ashes to soar over the Mirdita mountains once again!
VLLAZNIA. BROTHERHOOD. FRATELLANZA.
Vllaznia. Clan. Brotherhood. Fratellanza. Fraternite. Fraternidad. No matter what language you use, the meaning is the same, a group of people tracing descent from a common ancestor”. Of course in different countries the meaning is more powerful and literal than in others. Speaking for Albania, the word ‘Vllaznia’ is commonly used in commercial endeavors ie. Restaurant Vllaznia. But to trace it back to ancient times it had a very powerful meaning.
The Clan in Albania is a very tight, family oriented group. All those belonging to the ‘clan’ descend from a common ancestor. The hierarchy of the clan is passed on from generation to generation to the elder person in the lead clan. The essence of the meaning of the word Vllaznia is still thought of today, even though members of the clans may have disseminated all over the world and the closeness once found in the mountains where they lived is long gone or at the very least minimally found. Which brings me to modern day Albania.
My family was the leading clan of the region of Mirdite. My grandfather, Gjon Markagjoni, was the Kapidan or Chief of the clan at a time when they were still considered powerful and demanded respect, honesty and loyalty above all. After his exile to Italy in 1944, with my father, his eldest son Mark became Kapidan, leader of the Gjomarkaj clan, and until his death in 1946, while fighting the take-over of the communist regime, he succeeded in representing the family and clan undisputably with honor, truth, loyalty and respect for all Albanians and Albania itself.
What is Vllaznia today? The word is being thrown around freely by those who belonged or still belong to a once lost clan, as if saying they are part of the Vllaznia in itself should count for something when their actions speak otherwise. To be able to claim that one is part of the clan one should behave as such. Vllaznia doesn’t just mean ‘brotherhood’, it means being honest, loyal, truthful, respectful, grateful. It means not gossiping about others in your ‘clan’. It means respecting your elders. It means being honest in your behavior, especially toward other members of the Vllaznia. It means many, many things, except: lying, disrespect, backstabbing, gossiping, unfounded accusations.
During my time in Albania I have been approached by many people who claim to be in my ‘Vllaznia’. Most of whom I welcomed readily and happily. Unfortunately the majority of them turned out not to be what I expected and therefore do not consider them part of my ‘clan’ or at the very least they are not welcome in my house any longer.
Anyone who claims to be part of the Gjomarkaj clan, more specifically the clan belonging to Lleshi i Zi, as he’s the ancestor from whom the GjonMarku clan originates, has yet to show ME the respect, honesty, truthfulness and loyalty which the ‘clan of old’ would have afforded to the daughter of their Kapidan.
Furthermore, to those who have shown themselves to be offensive through comments posted online, or through vicious rumors about me or my immediate family (sisters, brother, cousins) all of whom
were born outside of Albania and are immediate targets of the vicious resentment, unfounded jealousies and vindictive actions I say: you have closed your door to yourselves and to your disadvantage, I am afraid that for the foreseeable future it will continue to be so.
Finally, I have been and will continue to be respectful, honest and generous to all who approach(ed) me openly and honestly. To them I say: I value your friendship and support, and you will always continue to be welcomed and respected in our home.