Wanted in Kosovo: a little law and order
PRISTINA, YUGOSLAVIA — Armed with a 9-mm semiautomatic pistol and a Berlitz phrase book, Cindy Seymour steers her red-and-white Land Cruiser through the dark, unruly streets of Kosovo's capital. The city at night is clogged with traffic. Tiny Yugos and Zastavas jockey with late-model Mercedes and BMWs, many of them without license plates and many of them likely stolen.
The only rule is that there are no rules. As Ms. Seymour maneuvers through a pot-holed intersection, an impatient driver wheels around her. "Nothing you can do," she sighs. "Just stay out of their way."
Anarchy on the streets is not the worst problem in Kosovo. But it is symptomatic of the broader lawlessness that still grips the province almost six months after NATO tanks rumbled over the border.
Seymour, a police officer from Tampa, Fla., is one of 1,800 international police brought to Kosovo to impose law and order. They confront a multitude of problems, including murder, arson, and kidnapping, much of it directed against Serbs and other ethnic minorities.
It's a tough job. A report by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, based in New York, concludes that "police efforts have been far from successful" and that Kosovo suffers from "unchecked criminality." Even the police admit they are struggling.
"Our mandate is to maintain law and order, but before you can maintain law and order you have to establish it," says Michael Jorsback, a deputy commissioner. "That's our basic problem, to get enough people to establish order."
For months after NATO arrived in Kosovo, the absence of a police force was blamed for the continuing violence in the province. The countries that belong to the UN were slow to send officers, and crime flourished. Even now the police have fewer than half the 4,800 officers the UN has authorized.
But a shortage of officers is only one of many problems. The police say they lack the basic tools to investigate crime, such as fingerprint kits and cameras. There is not yet a fully functioning court system to try suspects. And many Kosovars won't cooperate with the police. Ethnic Albanians especially have been unwilling to inform on other ethnic Albanians. "Hopefully, at some point we will gain their trust and they'll open up," says Stephen Mills, a detective from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. "If you don't have witnesses, you don't have a lot to go on. It makes our job that much worse."
Recent killings suggest that this kind of trust is still a long way off. On Sunday, witnesses to the murder of an ethnic Albanian man in Podujevo, a town 20 miles from Pristina, refused to talk to the police. On the same day, ethnic Albanians attacked three Serbs in Pristina, killing a man and beating two elderly women. The mob taunted police officers who came to the rescue.
The Kosovo International Police come from 40 nations, places as far flung as Finland and Kenya, Argentina and Fiji. The United States, with 457 officers, has the largest contingent. "There are some outstanding police officers," said Maj. Patrick Sanders, a British soldier who works closely with the police, "and there are some singularly inept ones."
Their work is a mixture of the familiar and the strange. In Pristina there is a murder about once every other day. Usually a body is found shot, stripped of identification and dumped in a field. With housing scarce, forcing people out of their apartments, especially Serbs, is a common crime. Kidnapping is a rough way of collecting debts. On a recent afternoon, American officers escorted a Serb woman back to her apartment to collect her furniture. An Albanian family had moved in during the summer - their own home had been burned by Serb forces in the spring. Pale and trembling, the Serb woman protested that her computer and video-cassette player were missing. The Albanians accused the woman's husband, who had been killed two months earlier, of looting Albanian apartments.
"My husband's in the grave!" the Serb woman cried angrily. "Look at my house!" an Albanian woman shouted, thrusting a snapshot in her face.
Phil Arnold, an officer from Salem, Ore., looked on in exasperation. "They're all like this," he complains. "They create complications." Like many officers, he had little patience for old grievances. Through a translator, he told the Serb woman to take her things and go.
Cindy Seymour oversees the day shift at Station Four, in one of Pristina's roughest neighborhoods. Traffic is just the first challenge. "We can't give out tickets. Really, there are no traffic laws. We put up speed limit signs, but there's no way to enforce them."
She regularly puts in 14-hour days. Parts of the neighborhood remind her of the housing projects she patrolled in Tampa. On her first night on the beat, she arrested a man for possession of heroin and a handgun.
When people ask her why Kosovo, she shows them a quotation from John F. Kennedy, calling Americans to service. She carries it folded up in a pocket of her uniform, as much a reminder to herself as to others. Coming to Kosovo was "a scary thought," she says. "I didn't know what I was in for. I just felt a draw here. I don't know what it was. I knew enough to know they needed help. And I wanted to help."
Just how much she and her fellow officers can tame Kosovo's lawlessness, no one yet knows.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society