War Crimes

July 1, 2018

(This is the fourth in a series about overseas civilian police assignments).


In 1999 UNMIK, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, was formed from a conglomeration of international civilian, military, and police brought together under U.N. Resolution 1244 to bring peace, security, and stabilization to Kosovo. At that time, Kosovo was a province of southern Serbia. Police officers from the U.S.A. were hired by a private contractor (Dyncorp at that time), at the request of the U.S. Department of State, and after a ten-day orientation in Virginia were transported to Kosovo where they were seconded to the United Nations for service. There were approximately fifty of us sent. At its peak, the U.S. had 600 American police officers spread throughout Kosovo, which made us the largest contingent. Overall, there were approximately 2,000 police assigned there from mostly European countries, with a handful of cops from the African continent and those from south Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc).


Assisting in rebuilding the police were institutions such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP), a branch of the Department of Justice . These entities, in general, contributed to the strategic planning process in certain aspects of rebuilding a law enforcement organization (recruiting, training, professional standards, etc.) but were not involved at street level, day to day operations between the Kosovo Police Service (KPS) and international police officers assigned to mentor, monitor, and advise in the various regions. I mention OSCE and ICITAP for two reasons: (1) to make the reader aware of the level of international involvement from various entities; (2) to point out that sometimes the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. It is critical that policy and procedure decisions be all-inclusive and consistent with what is actually occurring at an operational level. Sometimes that didn't happen. Because of the units I served in this would not be as big of a problem as it would later in other countries, such as Haiti, but more on that in future postings.


I transferred to War Crimes from the Pristina Regional Serious Crimes Squad in the summer of 2003. Unlike the serious crimes squad, which was a fifty-fifty mix of international police and KPS, War Crimes was made up strictly of international investigators (European and American cops), and the unit name was indicative of its duties. Within War Crimes, which was a unit of about forty investigators, there existed a group of eight investigators that formed the Police Commissioner's Special Investigations Unit. That is the unit to which I was assigned.


The PC was German, and a high-ranking member of the Bundespolizei, the German national police. He oversaw all police operations in Kosovo. I do not know whether the war crimes SIU was created by him, or existed before him. The unit consisted of three Americans, a Filipino, an Italian, a Bulgarian, and two others whose nationalities I do not recall. One of the Americans was retired NYPD and an excellent detective; the other was in his mid-thirties but acted fifteen, a cocky, profane, insecure individual more dedicated to finding fault with others and displaying a proclivity for chasing skirt rather than criminals. He wasn't much of a cop but had a certain entertainment value. He came and stayed with me once while I was living in Rome. He wanted to go out one night, but I was tired and told him to go on alone. He came back the next morning with a raging hangover and said he had been in this club famous for its female escorts. "I had no idea what I was walking into. They charged me hundreds of dollars just for talking to a woman and drinking champagne." I replied, "Right. You walked into a place called Cica-Cica (chick-a chick-a) Boom and you had no idea what kind of place it was."


SIU was tasked with any crime that the PC felt needed immediate, special attention, whereas war crimes being investigated by the War Crimes Unit were offenses that had occurred prior to the creation of UNMIK, i.e. during the war, the ethnic cleansing directed by Slobodan Milosevic (with Albanians giving it out as good as they got, just in case you're feeling sorry them. War, especially with ethnic cleansing added to the recipe, is an ugly, vindictive bitch with no scruples, morals, or decency about her. Trust me when I tell you that in the Balkans it's gone both ways for centuries). The common denominator with regards to crimes investigated by SIU was that they were ethnically motivated, but not classified as a war crime because there was no war on (officially, anyway).


Some of the crimes assigned to SIU included a bomb planted on a railway bridge which detonated as a passenger train carrying 400 Serbian people approached; a bomb attack on buses carrying men, women, and children on a pilgrimage from Podujevo to the Orthodox Christian monastery in Gračaniča; a sniper attack on six Serbians, five of them children, who were playing in the Bistrica River on a hot summer afternoon. There were other crimes that included shootings, hand grenade attacks, bombings, etc. but those were almost always investigated by regional serious crimes squads. Most were related to ethnicity, although some were organized crime hits, but only those chosen by the PC were assigned to SIU.


I responded to the shootings in the Bistrica River at the village of Goraždevac, just outside of Peč, one of dozens of investigators to respond on that hot, muggy August afternoon. It was a one-hour drive on narrow two-lane roads with an idiot Romanian cop behind the wheel who thought that 100 mph was an appropriate speed for responding to a crime scene that was already contained.  A nineteen-year-old male and thirteen-year-old female were killed and four other children wounded. The spot where the snipers hid while carrying out their attack was found, along with approximately 90 brass shell casings, and a canine tracked them to the parking lot of a small store. The scent ended where a car had been parked.


I grabbed the translator that came with us and started questioning the kid working in the family run store. He was late teens, maybe twenty years of age. He had been there since the store opened that morning and was the only person who had been on duty, but denied seeing a car in the tiny parking lot at any time. I told the translator that was bullshit, nobody parks a car at a small store in a village without the clerk knowing who they are. I told the translator to advise the kid that he was being taken into custody. Another investigator overheard that and told me to stand down.


"It's not our case," he said. "We're just here to assist."


Long story short, and minus the profanity accompanying the frustration felt over what was potentially a major break in the investigation, I turned over the information to the investigators working the case and wrote a report on it. There was no doubt that the kid knew who owned the car and parked it there, and in all likelihood he was as good as dead if he talked, but my personal opinion was that we should have transported him to the central jail in Priština and put pressure on him. I'd seen that work in other cases, and knew that isolating him and doing a proper interrogation would be beneficial to gathering information. 


That case never got solved and was dropped a decade later.


War Crimes was a unit made up of solid investigators, and the camaraderie was pleasant. It wasn't quite what the serious crimes squad had been with respect to unit cohesion, but it had good leadership. We were situated on the U.N. Logistical Base outside the city, which meant we had our own restaurant, bank, and other amenities that didn't require a drive into town. But in the fall of 2003 the unit was hit with a scandal that was somewhat embarrassing and tarnished its credibility.


More on that in the next posting.



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