(This is the third in a series about overseas civilian police advisor assignments).
On June 4, 2003, Slobodan Stolič, 80 years of age; his wife Radmila, 78 years of age; and their son Ljubinko, 55 years of age and mentally disabled, were found beaten to death in their home in the village of Obilič in the province of Kosovo, minutes outside the capital of Priština. The house had been ransacked and set on fire, although the flames died out and stopped short of the victims.
I remember coming into work just before eight o'clock that morning in Pristina, fifteen years to the day as I write this, and being told that my Team Leader had been called out on a triple murder in Obilič a few hours earlier. The report from the scene was that things were getting out of hand. Riot police from one of the U.N. Formed Police Units had responded, and after arriving requested another unit because of the massive swell of Serbian protesters. We were told to get down there, and this time there was no breakfast before responding.
My old Team Leader, a Brit from Wales, had returned home to normal duties, and we had a new leader assigned. My initial question the morning of the Stolič murders was why my Team Leader had not requested assistance when she arrived on scene earlier that morning. She was an experienced cop from Finland, and all on-call personnel were paired with another international investigator and a Kosovo Police Service investigator. I drove to the scene asking these questions with another international, a Brit who was with the Ministry of Defense police, along with a KPS officer and a translator. The distance was less than seven miles, but because of traffic the drive took about thirty minutes.
I had never been in Obilič. The times I had been down the highway that went past it I was headed somewhere else on business, either Peč or Mitrovica, and had no reason to exit. This time we took the turnoff and found ourselves going down into a valley on a winding road.
The power plant that supplied electricity to Kosovo was located in Obilič. Power in the province was sporadic, had been since the war, but at least a schedule had been formulated that allowed people to know when they would have electricity (it varied by neighborhood, and was usually on for a period of 2 to 4 hours before going out. It would be out for 6 to 8 hours, and then come back on for another 2 to 4 hours. No power meant no water, because without electricity to power the underground pumps the water did not flow. It was necessary to fill empty bottles of drinking water with tap water and save it for the morning shower. I bathed often on cold winter mornings by pouring ice cold water over my head, and shaved with it, too. The restrictions were even worse in Serb villages, where power may not come on for several days in a row. The Albanians controlled the power, and they played games. I remember a Norwegian officer getting into a confrontation with a KEK, Kosovo Electric Kompany, employee. The Norwegian cop lived in a village next to mine and we hadn't had power for several days. The KEK employee was working on the transformer outside the villages, which was situated on the highway to Gjilane. The Norwegian cop asked when the power would be restored and was met with a shrug. The KEK employee, a Kosovar Albanian, made it clear that he was unsympathetic to the predicament of people living in Serb villages. The Norwegian waited for him to finish his work and get into his KEK vehicle, and then followed him in his U.N. police SUV. He followed him until he committed a traffic violation, pulled him over, and cited him. He then told the KEK employee he was going to follow him wherever he went, and every time he committed a violation he was going to pull him over and issue a citation until the power was restored in the village. After some heated words, the KEK employee returned to the transformer and turned on the power. Cops are the same all over, aren't they? I was quite happy with the actions of that Norwegian cop and like to think of his solution to that problem as "pro-active policing").
We arrived at the scene of the triple homicide, and located our Finnish team leader. She was beside herself with anger, frustration, and fear. Several thousand Serbs lived in and around Obilič, and they came in droves to the Stolič residence to witness what had happened to the victims. They profanely refused her orders to stay out of the house, sneering at her reasoning that they would be contaminating the crime scene. They viewed her rationale as a U.N. Police (UNPOL) attempt to cover up the murders. Dozens of Serbs went inside, disregarding the crime scene tape, only to come back out in a rage.
Serbs viewed the U.N. presence in Kosovo as an invasion. Sure, Milosevič may have commanded an army that committed atrocities throughout the Balkans, but nothing less than what had been perpetrated by the Albanians on the Serbs for centuries (the animosity goes back 800 years, with the"betrayal" of Christian Serbs fighting the Ottoman Turks on the fields of Kosovo. The actual "betrayal" is disputed by some historians, but whether it happened or not, the Serbs have believed for centuries that Prince Lazar was betrayed by those who switched sides in the middle of the night to support invading Muslims).
With respect to how the Serbs viewed the Albanians, one only needed to look at the history of World War Two and the German-trained Albanian Skanderburg Division, a Nazi SS unit, that deported Jews from Kosovo to concentration camps in Albania. They also made life hell for the Serbs.
The German and Albanian SS during WWII committed atrocities against Serbian villagers who hid allied airmen that had been shot down (there is an excellent book on this subject entitled The Forgotten 500 by Gregory A. Freeman). American airmen, mostly bomber crews, were rescued by the Serbs when they floated to earth on parachutes, and the SS came looking for them. The SS beat, tortured, and murdered Serbian villagers who refused under any circumstances to reveal where the airmen were hidden. The Serbs gave the Americans what little food they had, and cared for those who were injured. No small wonder, then, when President Clinton ordered the bombing of Belgrade in 1999 that surviving WWII U.S. servicemen who had been saved by the Serbs traveled to the White House to protest.
Our team leader feared for her safety and the safety of her fellow officers and backed off the scene. She called for emergency help and had to wait while a Formed Police Unit responded (Formed Police Units serve in the various U.N. missions around the world. They come from the national police agencies of various countries, and their primary function is the preservation of peace and the protection of U.N. property. If memory serves me correctly the FPU's that came to Obilič that morning were Nepalese, backed up by Bangladeshis. I could be wrong on nationality, but the point I make is the necessity of having riot police, which is essentially what FPU's are, on scene because of the gravity of the situation. There were hundreds of Serbs at that house and revenge killings of Albanians, and possibly U.N. personnel, was in the realm of possibility. As a point of interest for the reader, years later I would work as an FPU advisor during my second mission in Liberia, and would travel to Nepal to inspect their FPU personnel and readiness to deploy. I have a good deal of admiration and respect for the Nepalese, they are a squared away bunch with impeccable leadership).
I asked the team leader why she had not called for more help early on. She said she thought she and her partner, along with the KPS investigator, could handle it with no problem. The irony was, even though she had been a cop in Finland for several years, she had never worked a homicide.
I did not try to go inside the house. The scene was contaminated enough, and my training working murders was that if it wasn't necessary for me to be in there, i.e. if I wasn't the case agent, then I had no business going in. Other, senior U.N. officials would arrive throughout the morning and, of course, found it necessary to satisfy their curiosity and go into the crime scene to stare at the bodies. My focus at that point was to find out who discovered the victims. I was told that the brother of Slobodan Stolič had found them.
I located Mr. Stolič in the yard of the residence. He was in a group of Serbians, mostly men. He had a typical Slavic build, short, squat, and even though he was older I could tell he had once been a physically powerful man. He had those thick forearms and beefy hands that typified many males in that part of the world. His hair was white with a receding hairline and he had light colored eyes. I had brought the translator with me, identified myself, and asked Mr. Stolič if I could speak with him. He took one look at the USA flag on my sleeve and that set him off (the assignments I did overseas with the State Department as a police advisor varied, and in almost all of them, especially when seconded to the U.N., required the wearing of a uniform. The typical uniform of the day was a dark blue polo shirt with a gold badge sewn on to it, and blue dungarees with cargo pockets. On one sleeve of the shirt was the U.N. patch, on the other was the country flag of the officer. We also had a light blue button-down shirt with which we wore a real badge, and also a dress uniform sans jacket for special ceremonies. My USA flag drew the wrath of the Serbs gathered because of the bombing of Belgrade and parts of Kosovo a few years earlier by U.S. military aircraft).
I immediately found myself surrounded by a dozen or so very angry Serbian men. "Why are you here?" Mr. Stolič demanded, through the interpreter. "Your country bombed mine and killed innocent people." He ranted for a good half minute, profanely denouncing America and Americans. I let him get it out of his system. When he finished his tirade, in which he clearly stated he wanted me off the property, I could see from the corner of my eyes the clenching and unclenching of fists from the men surrounding me. They were itching to give me a beating, and all they needed was an excuse. I said to myself, "Lonsway, if you ever in your life say the right thing, it better be now."
I calmly replied through the translator to Mr. Stolič: "I was sent here to solve these murders. I am going to need your help to do that. I cannot do it without your cooperation. Are you going to help me?"
Don't ask me why or how, but that reply completely took the wind out of their sails. All of them immediately relaxed. It was as if their bodies went limp on cue, and their hands opened simultaneously, no longer formed into fists. Mr. Stolič nodded, and asked me to join him at a table someone had set up in the yard of his murdered brother, sister-in-law, and nephew. It was clear to me that his outburst was the result of grief, but had I said the wrong words, or acted arrogantly, those boys would've been more than happy to transfer their grief into my American hide.
I asked Mr. Stolič who he thought committed the murders and he did not hesitate to say it was the work of Albanians living in the village. I pressed him on that and got a little more info about some Albanian neighbors his brother had some disputes with over the years, even before the appearance of the U.N. and NATO.
We spoke with that suspect through an interpreter and he denied involvement. I didn't believe him, but we had nothing to go on with respect to evidence. We needed to build a case, and to do that we would need to interview hundreds of people.
To make a long story short, my colleagues and I went to that village every day for a couple of months interviewing people and trying to develop information on those initial leads, and other information that came up as we progressed. We met for morning coffee at a cafe there with outdoor seating, and often returned for lunch. Because the power plant in Obilič burned coal, there was a constant brown film on everything. A waiter would wipe down one of the metal tables and chairs on the patio where we sat, and by the time we got up to leave a fine film of tan-colored coal dust was back on the table. There's no telling what that coal dust was doing to the lungs of the people that lived there and breathed in that crap every day. Smokers must've had it even worse, and almost everyone in Kosovo smoked.
Some weeks later, I made a trip to the residence of Mr. Stolič, who lived ten or fifteen minutes away from the house where his family members were murdered. He invited me into his house and we sat on the back patio. He apologized for his behavior that morning, and I told him it was okay, no hard feelings on my part. I took no offense at what he said, but he shook his head and said that it was wrong for him to react that way. He offered me rakia, a traditional fruit brandy in the Balkans. We Americans jokingly referred to it as rocket fuel. Normally, I would not drink, explaining that because I was armed the U.N. and American government prohibited me from consuming intoxicants. But on that morning we had a drink. I told him we were working diligently on the case and hoping to make an arrest soon. We would not let it go unsolved, I promised him that.
Another unit was also involved in the murder investigation, and it would ultimately cause some very hard feelings. That unit was KOCB, the Kosovo Organized Crime Bureau. The KOCB was made up of various European cops, and at that time had no KPS investigators because they feared leaks. They had a stringent vetting process for translators, with promises of prison sentences for those who gave away or sold information.
To me and many other cops, the people in the unit were nothing special. Some I knew personally, and they were okay guys for the most part, with the exception of a couple of Americans who were complete jag offs (in fact, one of them would leave the mission in the middle of the night, fleeing the country after having sex with an Albanian girl and knocking her up. He feared retribution from the father and fled without telling anyone. We thought that he'd been kidnapped! Email contact was established with him after a few days, and it was discovered that he was back in the states).
The Germans ran KOCB (Kosovo Organized Coffee Break, as we investigators in Serious Crimes jokingly called it), and the Brits ran the Serious Crimes Unit. The Germans went through the Police Commissioner, another German, to get authority to participate in the triple murder investigation. I remember hearing about that and thinking 'fine, the more the merrier, it doesn't matter who gets the credit as long as we lock up murderers'.
The KOCB guys somehow became convinced that an international investigator working on the murders was leaking information to Albanians on who the suspects were, and what houses were going to be hit with search warrants. Without us knowing it, they tapped our office phones, and the phones we used in an office we had set up in Obilič.
I was furious. Those were unsubstantiated allegations. No American, German, Brit, Spaniard, Austrian, or any other international cop was going to give up information in exchange for money, or anything else. It was so preposterous that we thought it was a bad joke when we first heard about it. Unfortunately, it was true. Our leadership knew about it, but couldn't tell us. I was so incensed that a couple of days later, when an American colleague I happened to run into asked me if I would be interested in switching to his unit, War Crimes, I jumped at the chance. I interviewed with them, got accepted, and resigned from Serious Crimes.
I hated to leave that unit. The camaraderie was fantastic, and the building where I worked was within walking distance of where I lived (I had moved into the city after several months in a Serbian village. The weeks at a time without electricity in the dead of winter had gotten old, as was the drive in and out of the city. I would miss living there, especially in the spring and summer. I still had sporadic electricity living in the city, but at least it was reliably sporadic).
It took a couple of years, and I was long gone from Kosovo before an arrest was made, but the same neighbor that Mr. Stolič had told me he suspected the morning of the incident was the guy taken into custody and charged with the three murders. They got him on wiretaps. He bragged over the telephone to others about killing the Stolič family, and described in detail how he beat them to death and set the house on fire. Looks like the great and wonderful KOCB finally ended up tapping the right phones.
I cherish my memories of the Serious Crimes Squad. As I mentioned, the camaraderie was fantastic. While we did not socialize with the KPS officers, they were a good bunch. We were sent there for the purpose of implementing democratic policing standards, and they were receptive to that. Once in a while they deviated from it, but that occurs even in Western law enforcement agencies in first-world countries (I recall a murder investigation where a witness refused to give a statement. He was a typical tough guy that wouldn't tell us who the suspect was that committed the homicide. One of the KPS investigators said to me, "Mr. Lonsway, would you please step out in the hallway for a moment." He smiled when he said it. I stepped out, he closed the door, I heard some yelling, a couple of smacking sounds, and three minutes later the door opened. "He's ready to talk," the same KPS officer told me).
On another occasion, our team assisted on a search warrant at a house. I and a cop from Portugal, along with the homicide team, assisted on that raid. We ran towards the house, which was surrounded by a seven-foot high stone fence with a metal gate. I kicked the metal gate, it didn't give, and I said excitedly "It's locked! Let's go over the wall!" We scaled the wall and landed on the ground just in time to see our British (Welsh) Team Leader coming through the gate and giving us an odd look while shaking his head. He had thought to turn the knob on the gate!
But, it was a different unit months after I had joined it. A lot of old friends had departed for home or other units, and it was time to go.
I went to the War Crimes Unit. More on that in the next posting.