War Crimes

I transferred to the War Crimes Unit in Kosovo after eight months in the Priština Regional Serious Crimes Squad (The Murder Squad, as it was informally known). As I mentioned before, the camaraderie in the RSCS was excellent, but my close friends had either rotated back to their home countries or transferred to other units. I would miss going after bad guys and serving search warrants, but it was time to move on.


War Crimes had less than half the investigators of the RSCS, the bulk of whom investigated actual war crimes, with eight investigators assigned to the police commissioner's special investigations unit. In all there were approximately 45 internationals assigned to the unit. No Kosovo Police Service investigators were in the unit because of the sensitivity of the work (by 2006 the KPS would have investigators in the unit, a questionable practice considering that 90% of the Kosovo population was Albanian Muslim and atrocities were committed by both sides during the conflict. There were very few police officers of Serbian descent in the KPS).


I was designated to the SIU. It was a unit that investigated major crime at the discretion of the police commissioner. All of the assignments were high profile, such as bombings and mass shootings. The difference between what SIU investigated and what the other investigators in War Crimes handled had to do with timeline. Atrocities occurring before UN intervention in 1999 went to the War Crimes Unit. Crimes of an ethnic nature committed after that went to SIU because they were not classified as war crimes since the war was over.


In my opinion the worst assignment in War Crimes went to those who had responsibility for overseeing the digging up of mass graves. Those investigators were tasked with trying to identify murder victims who had been in the earth for years, and often the only leads they had were the clothes worn by the victims. The victims were primarily male, but sometimes women and children, too. Because bodies had rotted away, relatives could only go by the memory of what their loved ones had been wearing at the time they were taken away. Dental records were not much help since they were virtually nonexistent in the province, and jewelry was usually stripped from victims by their abductors.


Kosovo was the southernmost province of Serbia and was what most Westerners would refer to as "third-world." It wasn't at all unusual to drive down a highway and have to slam on the brakes to avoid collision with a cart being pulled by a donkey. Electricity was sporadic and homes were heated in the winter by wood burning stoves. Generators abounded, as would be the case in all the countries I served over that 12 year period, even in the modern city of Beirut, the "Paris of the Middle East."


It was in the SIU that I made the acquaintance of a retired NYPD detective who remains a friend to this day. Highly intelligent, he was a thorough investigator with a methodical approach to solving crime and, icing on the cake, he possessed a wicked sense of humor.


We worked cases together and would later serve in Afghanistan and Haiti.


My most prominent memory of my time in SIU was the mass shooting of Serbian children and a young adult who were swimming in the Bistrica River outside the village of Gorazdevač. It coincided with the planned return of 200 Serbian refugees to the village who had fled after the war's end in fear of retaliation by Kosovar Albanians. SIU responded to the scene on the orders of the police commissioner of UNMIK (United Nations Mission In Kosovo), a German who oversaw all police operations in the province.


Spent rounds fired from an AK-47 were recovered, and a tracking dog was called in. The dog tracked the shooter from the spot where the rounds were fired to a parking lot of a small store not far away. The parking lot was dirt and it was evident that a car had left the scene. It became clear to me that the key to solving the case was interrogating the clerk who was on duty inside the store. There was no way someone could have parked a car in that lot in a village that small and the clerk not know them.


For some unknown reason, a short time after arriving on scene the case was reassigned to the regional crime squad of Peč. The information regarding the clerk was passed on to them. The case remains unsolved to this day.

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J.R. LONSWAY

AUTHOR | RETIRED DEPUTY CHIEF OF POLICE

J.R. Lonsway served 22 years with the Las Cruces, New Mexico, police department and retired as a Deputy Chief of Police. After retirement he served with the U.S. Department of State as a police advisor in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Liberia, Haiti, Lebanon, and South Sudan. He is a former U.S. Marine.

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