Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kosovo: Police Face Wall of Silence

Murders on the increase in western Kosovo but no one is prepared to identify the killers.
By Jeta Xharra

‘It was like the war all over again for me,” said the taxi driver. “There was panic as the attackers sprayed a Mercedes and a shop next to it with bullets.”


The 40-year-old Albanian looked calm enough as he sipped a cup of tea outside a slot-machine arcade in Peja, a major town in western Kosovo. But although the attack happened two weeks earlier, he refused to give IWPR his name, and said he was always on the lookout to avoid getting caught up in another shooting incident.


Three people died in the shooting on August 2, including two Albanian girls, Florina Kelmendi, 11, and Antigona Dudushaj, 14, who happened to be in the shop when it was hit by gunfire.


No one has been arrested, and it is unclear who the killers were. Local people simply say the attack had something to do with rival business interests.


The taxi driver admitted that although he was angry that two young girls had died, he would not have gone to the police even if he had recognised the attackers. “Why should I risk my life to help the police solve a crime committed among a group of people who have made overnight fortunes through dirty businesses?” he asked.


As he explained, eyewitnesses who come forward can expect reprisals. His reluctance to speak out against criminals is typical, and it is one reason why so much violence goes unpunished in Kosovo.


The Peja region has seen more than its fair share of bloodshed recently. According to the police force run by the United Nations Interim Administration in Kosovo, UNMIK, there have been 22 murders here this year – three more than in the whole of 2002. Six people have died so far this month, half of them children.


The causes vary – some of the killings involve organised crime and business rivalries, while others stem from traditional blood feuds between Albanian families. One man died and two others were injured on August 9 when their vehicle came under fire in the village of Jablanica e Vogel/Donja Jablanica in what was believed to be a clan dispute.


Ethnic violence involving Albanians and the pockets of Serbs still living in the area remains a disturbing trend. Two young Serbs - Pantelija Dakic, 11, and Ivan Jovovic, 20 - were shot dead on August 13 while swimming with a group of friends in a river near the town of Gorazdevac. When local Serbian Orthodox Bishop Artemije came to offer his condolences to the families, he had few words of comfort. “He is not the first and he won’t be the last,” he told Pantelija’s father.


But whatever the root causes, this year’s spate of killings has one thing in common. There are no credible witnesses, and no arrests have been made, even when attacks take place in broad daylight.


UNMIK police complain that regardless of whether a murder involves different ethnic communities or members of the same one, no one comes forward with evidence.


“Even if a crime is committed in the middle of the day, we have no witnesses,” said Ferhat Abel, UNMIK police chief in the Peja region.


Fear of intimidation among potential witnesses is a serious problem. Police were unable to find anyone willing to talk after the two young Serbs were shot. The attackers made off towards the Albanian-inhabited village of Zahaq. Local police told IWPR that they believe someone in the village saw the killers, but no one offered any information.


Antoneta Kastrati, 22, is typical of Zahaq residents who would be reluctant to speak if they did see something. “The murder of the Serb children was terrible for our village,” she told IWPR. “But if I had seen anything, I would think twice before deciding to testify, because that could easily put not just me, but my whole family in danger.”


It is not just fear – the Albanian community tends to be reticent with outsiders, especially the authorities. Under Serbian rule - especially during Slobodan Milosevic term as president - many Kosovars avoided contact with what they saw as a hostile state. When problems arose, they relied on family and community networks to solve them rather than going to the police.


Casey Johnson, a peace activist who lives in Zahaq, told IWPR that “the fact that people would not go as far as betraying their own [in the interests of] justice is embodied in the local culture”.


“For the majority in Kosovo, the police and the state were the enemy for a long time. People survived by relying on families and protecting each other from the state which oppressed them,” said Johnson.


The weakness of law enforcement institutions in Kosovo is clearly an obstacle to efficient crime solving. The locally recruited force, the Kosovo Police Service, KPS, is still in its infancy, as it has only been hiring and training members since 1999.


UNMIK’s police force has been criticised for its failure to deliver results. Its approximately 5,000 members are drawn from 49 countries with widely different policing practices. Since most stay only six or 12 months, they have little chance of becoming familiar with conditions in the region.


"We have an imported rule of law in Kosovo which is not our own,” complained Ramush Haradinaj, head of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK. “There are policemen from third-world countries and Eastern Europe, and we are not really convinced they do such a good job in their own countries, let alone ours.”


Haradinaj’s AAK is the third strongest Albanian party, with a power base in Peja and other parts of western Kosovo.


His robust comments are typical of many Albanian leaders, who attack the foreign police presence and say things would be better if locals were given more of a role in investigations. But in Peja, at least, this criticism is not entirely fair. Derek Chappel and Refki Morina – spokesmen for UNMIK and the KPS respectively – told IWPR that local officers were in fact involved in investigating the six murders that took place in August.


Some people in Kosovo recognise that no police force will achieve anything as long as it faces a wall of silence.


“The police cannot investigate in the dark if no citizen will come and tell them what they saw,” said shopkeeper Senad Muhaxheri. “People here aren’t educated enough to realise the importance of cooperating with the police. We’d rather mind our own business.”


Kosovo’s ombudsman, Marek Antoni Nowicki, agrees, “Law enforcement authorities must be supported by the attitude of the people. The police are only as strong as the communities want them to be.”


Right now, it seems that people of Kosovo cannot stand up for law and order, even if they want to.


As the taxi driver who saw the two girls shot in Peja commented, “Life in the Dugagjini plain [western Kosovo] is worth 25 cents.”


Jeta Xharra is IWPR Project Manager and Tanja Matic is IWPR Project Coordinator in Kosovo.


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