Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Investigation: Kosovo's Wild West
Ramiz Muriqi, a tall man in his fifties, looks scared and isolated in his flat in Peja, about 80 kilometres west of Kosovo’s capital Pristina.
“I’m tired of watching my back all the time, worrying that I’m next in line to be shot,” said Muriqi, with two cell phones, an automatic pistol and two spare magazines hanging from his belt.
Peja - known to Serbs as Pec - is a large town in the Dukagjini plain of western Kosovo. In this region, law and order has broken down and shootings have become part of the fabric of life.
Acts of violence are prompted by a variety of motives, ranging from rivalries left over from the politics of the Kosovo conflict, through organised crime and business disputes, to tit-for-tat blood feuds.
It is sometimes hard to tell where one type ends and the other starts, but the overall picture is of a gangland culture holding the rest of society hostage.
Not that Kosovo is short on law-enforcement, with both internationals and the Kosovo Police Service, KPS, on the ground. But neither force has been equal to the task of stamping out the violence. Their apparent inability to resolve a number of recent murder cases has left a sense that the gunmen can operate with impunity.
That sends out a worrying message: as the families of murder victims grow increasingly resentful of the inaction, many come to believe that justice will only be done if they take matters into their own hands.
LEGACY OF WAR
The background to Ramiz Muriqi’s embattled position is indicative of the scale of the problem in this part of Kosovo, and also shows how wartime politics overlap with murky commercial dealings and the tradition of relentless clan feuds.
When IWPR interviewed him, Muriqi had just returned from the funeral of his friend Sadik Musaj, who was shot in central Peja on February 2, and died later from his wounds.
Muriqi is careful about his own appearances in public, driving a bullet-proof vehicle he says was once owned by the late Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic.
A second pistol hangs off a shelf in his living room, while his 13-year-old son proudly displays a sniper rifle. It all adds to the impression of a household under siege.
Muriqi says he has been the target of three assassination attempts, which he said were part of a campaign of retaliation against witnesses who testified in a high-profile trial that concluded in December 2002.
In the internationally-run trial in Pristina, five former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, the dominant Albanian guerrilla force in the conflict with the Serbs, were convicted of abducting, torturing and killing four members of a smaller rival Albanian group, the Armed Forces of the Republic of Kosovo, FARK, in June 1999 as the conflict drew to an end.
The “Dukagjini group”, as the convicted men were called, consisted of Ramush Ahmetaj, Idriz Balaj, Ahmet Elshani, Bekim Zekaj, and Daut Haradinaj – the latter the brother of Ramush Hardinaj, a leading KLA commander during the conflict who was appointed prime minister of Kosovo in December 2004. They received jail terms of between three and 15 years.
Prosecution witnesses at the trial included Ramiz Muriqi, his cousin Vesel, Sadik Musaj whose funeral Ramiz has just attended, FARK’s commander-in-chief Tahir Zemaj, and former KLA member Ilir Selimaj.
Of these key witnesses, all but Ramiz and Vesel Muriqi are now dead.
Ramiz alleges that the five jailed ex-KLA men are systematically exacting vengeance.
“All the witnesses in the Dukagjini case are slowly being killed off,” said Ramiz. “Now the only ones left are me and my cousin Vesel.”
Vesel Muriqi, who was abducted with the other four FARK men, managed to escape from the scene, and since giving crucial eyewitness evidence at the trial, he has moved away from Kosovo.
After testifying, Muriqi was at first placed under a witness protection programme by Kosovo’s international administration, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK.
But he says he gave up the protection as he “got sick of having soldiers watch over him all the time, and of not having a life”.
WITNESSES TICKED OFF THE LIST
There is credible evidence that this particular series of killings - five in all if one includes two police officers investigating the violence - is linked with the “Dukagjini group” convictions.
But especially in the current environment, it is unlikely that proof will be found to support allegations that associates of the jailed men have had a hand in wiping out witnesses.
What is certain is that although the crimes for which the group was convicted were horrific – and were committed against fellow-Albanians rather than the Serbian military – the trial met with an adverse reaction from many in Kosovo, where the men of the KLA are still regarded as war heroes.
Prosecution witnesses were regularly castigated as traitors by supporters of the now-disbanded guerrilla force.
A human rights report from the United States Office - or diplomatic mission - in Pristina published in February last year drew a link between Tahir Zemaj’s death and the trial at which he was a key witness.
Zemaj – at one time an officer in the Yugoslav army – was the wartime leader of FARK, which had been set up before the conflict by the Kosovo government-in- exile, then led by Ibrahim Rugova, who is now president of Kosovo.
With his son Enis and nephew Hasan, Zemaj – then 53 – died in a drive-by shooting in Peja on January 4, 2003.
FARK maintained a close association with Rugova’s Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, and former members like Ramiz Muriqi still support the party.
His daughter works as a bodyguard for President Rugova. When IWPR interviewed him, he was still wearing the blue FARK shirt he wore to Musaj’s funeral in honour of the late Zemaj’s memory.
The US human rights report also traced the violent death of Ilir Selimaj back to the 2002 trial. Selimaj’s testimony for the prosecution had been of unique value, since he had been on the side of the accused at the time of the crimes.
He was a member of Daut Haradinaj's Dugagjini unit of the KLA, and confessed in court that he had been present when the four victims were killed, but was released in return for testifying.
On April 14, 2003, he and his aunt Feride Selimaj were gunned down in an ambush in the village of Nabergjan (also known as Pobrdje), near Peja.
The same report also noted the deaths of two serving KPS members who were investigating Zemaj's death.
Sebahate Tolaj and Isuf Haklaj of the Peja Region Serious Crimes Unit were shot dead on November 24, 2003 while driving to work. During the war, both had served under Zemaj as FARK members.
The UNMIK police established a Peja Task Force in 2002 to deal with the trial-related attacks cases. It made little progress, and has since been dismantled – without making any arrests.
UNMIK police have confirmed arrest warrants are still out in both the Zemaj and Selimaj murder cases, but the suspects are still at large. Police say these two cases, together with that of the KPC officers’ murders, are still under investigation.
BAD BLOOD AND POLITICS
At a press conference on February 2 this year, UNMIK police and justice spokesperson Neeraj Singh confirmed that the latest murder victim, Sadik Musaj, had also been a witness in the Dukagjini trial, and that an arrest had been made.
The KPS confirmed to IWPR that the chief suspect for Musaj’s murder was still on the run, and was a relative of one of the “Dukagjini group”.
“Police have one suspect in custody at this stage,” said Singh, adding that “at this stage we have no indications of a possible motive for the killing”.
Musaj’s family are convinced they know the reason – they say it was the latest hit in a long-standing feud between them and the Haradinaj clan.
They date the animosity back to 1999, when Daut Haradinaj participated in the torture and murder of Sinan Musaj, Sadik’s brother.
Haradinaj’s conviction in 2002 did not settle the score for either side.
Sadik Musaj’s widow, who is pregnant, recalls one incident from July 2000, in which Haradinaj clan members and supporters arrived at the Musaj home at one in the morning.
“They came to our house looking for trouble,” she said. What happened next is unclear, but UNMIK police said there was "an exchange of fire" in which both Ramush and Daut Haradinaj were injured.
Ramush Haradinaj was flown to a US army hospital in Germany for treatment.
On his return from Germany, he issued what amounted to a declaration of peace to the Musaj family, telling the Kosovo daily Zeri on July 19, 2000, “I can guarantee that nobody from my side will retaliate or undertake any measures against them.”
The murder of a Musaj family member comes at a bad time for Ramush Haradinaj, three months after he became Kosovo’s prime minister. He won the post in a coalition deal struck between his party, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK, and the LDK.
Ramush Haradinaj says he is in no way connected with Sadik Musaj’s death. “I’ve had trouble with that family before, but neither I nor my brother [Daut] could have obtained any benefit from this murder,” Haradinaj told IWPR in a February 10 interview.
Hardinaj noted that his brother was still in prison and would have no wish to see his five-year sentence extended.
Haradinaj offers an alternative explanation for the crime, saying it most probably had something to do with the mafia or other illicit business.
“Knowing who Musaj was and the fact that he did business with his killer, I wouldn’t be surprised if this murder was linked to their business dealings in Peja,” said Haradinaj. “It is up to the police to investigate and confirm the motives.”
Among the Musaj clan, the dead man’s brothers say they would like to see the killer behind bars. But few expect the police to make an arrest, and pressure is mounting for direct action to be taken so that honour is satisfied.
Ilir Balaj, whose brother Bashkim was one of the FARK members killed by the Dukagjini group, says the matter requires attention. Sitting in the Musaj family home, he explained, “It is the close family members who have to do something about it.”
Fearing a revenge attack, the family of the murder suspect have left their apartment in central Peja. But the story they tell is quite different – it was nothing to do with the Dukagjini trial, and was a simple case of self-defence.
IWPR tracked down the brother of the chief suspect for Musaj’s murder, who said, “My brother did shoot Sadik Musaj, but he did it in self-defence because Musaj’s bodyguard opened fire first when Musaj and my brother began arguing.”
The man, who asked to remain anonymous because he feels vulnerable, denied claims that this was a contract killing arranged by the “Dukagjini group”.
“If this was a pre-planned murder and my brother was being paid for it, it would have been stupid to do it in the middle of the day, in the most crowded part of the town centre where everybody can see you,” he said.
The suspect’s family are keen for a reconciliation with the Musaj clan, whom they want to forgive the “blood debt”.
Under the medieval customary laws encoded in the Canon of Leke Dukagjini, and still followed by many Albanians, blood has to be paid for in kind unless the victim’s family accept a peace settlement.
People in Peja knew Sadik Musaj, and not everyone expressed sadness at his passing.
A KPS source in Peja, who requested anonomity, told IWPR, “You won’t find many people mourning the death of Sadik Musaj. The whole town knew him as a trouble-maker.” A police source in Pristina expressed similar sentiments.
While some of those interviewed said that Musaj had a reputation for violent behaviour, Nekibe Kelmendi, an LDK member of the Kosovo Assembly who knew him, said, “Sadik might have given the impression that he was a threatening man but he was always well behaved.”
WIDER CULTURE OF GANGSTERISM
Whatever the truth about Sadik Musaj, gangsterism is a common enough profession in this part of Kosovo.
The many murders and other acts of violence committed in the Peja region illustrate both the scope of organised crime here and the fact that the area is awash with weapons.
“Peja is situated near the borders of both Montenegro and Albania, so the region is prone to the smuggling of guns, drugs, cigarettes and other things,” said Ali Berisha, a doctor in Peja’s hospital who is also chair of the town branch of the AAK.
As well as geography, the lack of conventional economic opportunities also drives people to smuggling.
There is little agricultural activity in the Peja area and no major industries to employ locals apart from a small brewery.
A KPS source who asked not to be identified explained how territory is divided up between the various clans, so that each has its own patch to operate on.
Clashes occur when one group oversteps the mark, or sometimes when lingering animosities between two groups spill over into open conflict.
“There’s a clear split between Peja and Decan, and these gangs make sure that they each operate in a clear, agreed territory where they know they will not be bothered by others,” said the source.
Cigarettes are a staple item for the smugglers in Peja. In one recent seizure, an Italian military unit based in Peja found three tons of cigarettes hidden inside a truck in January.
Gangland groups are involved in protection rackets as well as smuggling.
IWPR spoke to community leaders in and around Peja, and heard stories of local gangsters extorting money from businesses, and a scheme where they take illegal possession of apartments that Albanians have bought from departing Serbs, and demand a payout to leave.
One community leader told how a local businessman had to pay a ransom of 20,000 euro two years ago after his son was kidnapped, “Of course the case went unreported since the businessmen was interested in keeping things quiet so as not to upset the kidnappers too much, in order to get his son back.”
Ramush Haradinaj says organised crime is a significant problem. “The whole of Peja knows that these gangs have been taking protection money from businesses and have been profiting in illegal ways by threatening businesses and various wealthy people in the region,” he said.
Even high-profile businessmen can be targeted in attacks. In November, Ekrem Lluka, a local entrepreneur with interests in tobacco and insurance was shot and wounded in the Peja region.
Bystanders too can be caught in the crossfire.
In an August 2003 murder, which shocked the whole of Peja, three people - including two girls aged 11 and 14 - were killed when attackers sprayed a Mercedes and a shop next to it with bullets in broad daylight.
No one was ever arrested, and it remains unclear who the killers were. Local people simply say the attack had something to do with rival business interests.
A week later, one man died and two others were injured when their vehicle came under fire in the village of Jablanica e Vogel, near Peja. This incident was believed to be a simple clan dispute.
Such family conflicts are another source of violence. On February 9 this year, a man called Asllan Zenelaj was injured in Decani in broad daylight, in what the KPS said was probably a blood feud.
GUNS UNIVERSALLY AVAILABLE
The authorities blame the high murder rate partly on the widespread availability and ownership of firearms.
Giuseppe Iacoviello, who heads the investigations team with the Carabinieri force in Peja, said the recent find of smuggled cigarettes was made while his unit was searching for weapons.
“We discover lots of smuggled items every day when we are looking for weapons,” said Iacoviello.
The Carabinieri said they had uncovered more illegal weapons in the last two months than they did in the whole of 2004. The finds included two anti-tank weapons and other items such as walkie-talkies, black military uniforms, car plates and cash.
Sandro Ottaviani, an officer involved in the search operations, said the Italians expected to find even more weapons in coming months, “The number is likely to grow fast when the snow melts.”
While some of the arms in circulation may have been left over from the war, Iacoviello notes, “There is no doubt that a considerable amount of the weapons we have recently found are newly purchased."
POLICE ACCUSE OF LAISSER FAIRE APPROACH
Many locals in Peja believe the rate of murders and other serious crimes would be a lot lower if the police did a better job and caught at least some of those responsible for violent attacks.
Local Kosovar interviewees, including a lawyer and a doctor, cited a widespread lack of confidence that either the KPS or the UNMIK police was up to the challenge.
Both local and international police often retort that it is difficult to do their job properly when the population maintains a wall of silence rather than assist in identifying suspects.
“People must have their reasons why they don’t talk to us, but I don’t know what they are,” said Thomas Dyle, director of UNMIK police’s Major Crime Unit.
KPS spokesperson Refki Morina told IWPR that after police officers Tolaj and Haklaj were killed in 2003, locals were seen helping the assailants to get their getaway car started.
Apart from fear of intimidation, part of the reason why people do not come forward is that they think the police are too weak to deal with sophisticated gangs.
“Why should I risk my life to help the police solve crimes committed between groups of people who have made fortunes through their dirty businesses?” asked an eyewitness to a shoot-out that took place in Peja in August 2003.
“With their poor weapons and three-month training, our police [KPS] just run for their lives and protect themselves when there is serious criminal activity on their patch.”
Some go even further and suggest that in cases like the FARK murders, old political allegiances play a role in how policemen act.
Ramiz Muriqi claims that evidence collected from the scene of an assassination attempt against him in September 2003 was subsequently “lost” by the police.
“The Kalashnikov I was shot with was found at the scene, but when I asked to see my file, the gun had been lost and my file was nowhere to be found, either,” said Muriqi. “There are different factions in the KPS, supporting this or that side, so you can never be sure who you are talking to.”
The Carabinieri in Peja count as a military force and are therefore part of the Kosovo Force, KFOR, rather than the UNMIK Police.
Iacoviello confirmed that they do not want to take on a local law-enforcement role. “It is outside our mandate to become concerned with crime unless it poses a direct risk to KFOR units operating in the ground,” he said, noting that the arms searches were conducted because of the danger that smuggled weapons could be turned against international troops.
The AAK’s Ali Berisha was critical of the Italians’ stance. “Italian KFOR does not want to get involved,” he said. “When the Italian KFOR authorities were asked to help in certain cases, the locals were often told that there was little the authorities can do when clans want to kill each other”
Berisha concluded, “In practice, it looks like the attitude most commonly taken by both police and KFOR is non-intervention, in the hope that these groups will kill each other off.”
A KFOR civilian staffer responsible for relations between the international military and the Kosovo public believes said the foreign and local police should not keep blaming the local population for their own inability to solve crimes.
“There is a tendency to make people of Kosovo responsible for something that UNMIK police and KFOR have the mandate for, i.e. justice and security,” said the official.
“Kosovars are constantly being told that they are the problem, not the system - as if they were a bunch of retards who will never get used to law and order.”
With political and economic stability still some way off in Kosovo, incentives for smuggling and other forms of organised crime are likely to remain strong.
The ready availability of guns means that the killing can go on indefinitely.
And neither the family man driven by the strong emotions of the vendetta, nor the professional hit-man operating with cold-blooded calculation is likely to think twice as long as there is no real official sanction to deter him.
Jeta Xharra is IWPR Kosovo country director. Muhamet Hajrullahu and Arben Salihu are regular IWPR contributors. Ibrahim Kelmendi, a correspondent for the Koha Ditore newspaper in Peja, also contributed to this report.
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