The country may be different but the job's similar. Owen Bowcott talks to RUC officers working in Kosovo, who find that only the intensity of the enmity is different.Kosovo, twinned with Ulster
Saturday April 8, 2000
The fractured, urban landscape of Mitrovice bears more than a passing resemblance to Londonderry at the height of the Troubles. Communities torn apart by political hatred are divided by a swift-flowing river; isolated minorities depend on the 24-hour vigilance of military patrols for their lives. Barbed wire coils spool across closed roads.
Look closer and the similarities grow stronger. Both places today have officers from the Royal Ulster Constabulary in their distinctive green uniforms on the streets. Kosovo and Northern Ireland might as well be twins; provinces whose violent disputes date back to the Middle Ages and refuse to settle.
Of all the police contingents sent to restore civil order in the Balkans, the RUC is among the most experienced at combating terrorism and the type of slow-burn conflict which flares up into mass confrontations. Sixty officers have been sent already and the United Nations Mission In Kosovo (UNMIK), short of police and recognising their expertise, has requested more. Extra detectives are needed to investigate the weekly random ethnic killings.
The transfer of officers from Magherafelt to Mitrovice, from Portadown to Pristina, as well as throwing up close political parallels, casts fresh light on the durability of sectarian hatred. "Violence kicks off very quickly," warns an RUC sergeant on patrol in Serb-dominated northern Mitrovice. "You get instant crowds." He points out the old police station, crumpled into slabs of broken concrete by US Tomahawk cruise missiles a year ago. "There were 14 Serb police killed in there. Five bodies are still inside. You have to admire the precision: the only building touched in an estate of flats."
Children gather, eager for attention. They carry crude toy guns fashioned from wood and chase over the debris. "It looks like the early days in Belfast or Londonderry, back in 1969, when troops stood around braziers at street corners and were welcomed at first."
Even at this distance during an IRA ceasefire the Troubles cast a long shadow. The sergeant is reluctant to be named for fear of becoming a target for republicans at a future date. In Belfast, the risk depends on how identifiable your name is and where you live. Here he lives in mixed flats north of the River Ibar. "There are four Albanians in the building. They have received phone calls telling them to leave."
Out on patrol the US flag attracts most venom from the Serbs; the Union Jack less. "I was explaining to a woman we're from Northern Ireland," says Peter Bates, an RUC man who normally works on Belfast's notorious Shankill Road. "She said she liked Ireland because it gives Britain a bad time."
But RUC officers were attacked with their Albanian translator by a crowd of 70 ethnic Serbs who chanted:"Go back to London," and, bizarrely, "Go back to Sussex,". A French tank extracted them.
Life is cheap in Kosovo, and so is military equipment. "A grenade cost 25 deutschmarks, rocket launchers a little more," says the sergeant. "AK47s are only 20 deutschmarks." Weapons often turn up in deserted houses. Like those abandoned by the IRA, they can be booby-trapped with explosives.
Sergeant Ronnie Agnew, from Belfast but now attached to UNMIK's central criminal investigation Unit examining war graves, always checks for devices. The lesson has been hard won. Republicans had a craze for booby-trapping everything, he says. "They left a Playboy magazine by a road in South Armagh, hoping a soldier would pick it up. It killed a local guy."
The switch to Kosovo for many of them has been a welcome respite from Stormont's intractable politics, though one officer's locker bore a sign declaring: "Support the RUC against the name change" - in reference to the Patten report proposal to rename the force. The RUC contingent arrived in November amid power cuts, water shortages and sub-zero temperatures. Kosovo is a high plateau, ringed by snow-topped mountains. There is no lush spring; winter fades directly into dusty summer heat. Piles of abandoned possessions and litter blow through the landscape.
In Ulster, there was always a popular Unionist prejudice that you could spot a Protestant farm because it was tidier. In Kosovo, both an RUC and British army officer earnestly assured me that Serb farms were "neater" - as we passed the charred skeletons of houses, mostly burnt-out out by Serb forces.
Mitrovice's guarded bridges, across which Kfor tries to return evicted Albanians, have also been the battleground for an embarrassing dispute between a senior RUC officer and the French army. Inspector John Adams, formerly deputy commander of UNMIK police in the town, was relieved of his duties in Mitrovice last month. The tall rugby enthusiast from Antrim with 21 years of service, appears to have been the victim of diplomatic expedience.
His forthright criticism of what he saw as French military incompetence is based on the security orthodoxy of Northern Ireland - allowing police primacy and giving the military a supporting role. He is not alone in his views: ethnic Albanians see French troops as pro-Serb, blaming them for failing to make arrests.
Adams wanted to develop the kind of intelligence-led policing which proved successful at intercepting many attacks by republican and loyalist paramilitaries. He was keen for the French to use more translators. He was openly critical of their disregard for sites of crimes where forensic examination might yield clues. "Our police officers are capable of so much," says Adams, now back in Pristina. "With the Greenjackets, who had just done a tour of duty in Northern Ireland, we had a great relationship. It's unfortunate it doesn't work in northern Mitrovice".
The fact that the need for international concensus over Kosovo has produced a United Nations administration of uneven qualities is an open secret. Mukesh Kapila, who oversees the department of international development's £110 million budget for the province, admitted in Pristina last week: "In theory UNMIK should work but we have cobbled together an alliance and often the common denominator is the lowest."
Most of the RUC contingent are in the British sector around Pristina under the command of Superintendent John Middlemiss, the deputy head of CID in Belfast. "There will be an international police presence here for many years," he suggests. "There was very little infrastructure, no court system, a backlog of crimes and few detention places in Pristina." Those arrested for arms possession are being released and told to come to court later.
What do Kosovars feel about being policed by the RUC and other foreign forces? Ardian Arifaj, of the province's Koha Dittore newspaper, says the relief of being liberated will guarantee a welcome for a long time. "But the police must arrest war criminals as soon as they can," he adds. "Otherwise people will get frustrated and lose their trust in the internationals, which will be difficult to regain."
Across Kosovo, every Serb Orthodox church has an armoured car parked outside protecting it from revenge attacks by ethnic Albanians. Ekrem Dardhishta, a former Kosovo Liberation Army officer now with the Kosovo Peace Corps, insists: "We have nothing against Kfor, nor their protection for these monuments". But he adds: "You cannot have good feelings about these monuments. Because of them tragedies happened. It's too early to forget what they [the Serbs] did to us."
Milan Jankovic, a Serb who rarely leaves his home in Kosovo Polje these days because of the killings, is in an area heavily patrolled by the RUC and Kfor troops. "If they were not here," he says, "there would be no Serbs left." Most of his neighbours have already fled to Serbia.
Blind sectarian hatred is obviously not new tomost of the officers from Northern Ireland. Its intensity, however, is on a different scale. For Sgt Ronnie Agnew, excavating mass graves and uncovering evidence of particulary gruesome murders, there is a tinge of nostalgia for the familiarity, even integrity, of the Northern Ireland conflict. Recently he came across a pair of severed hands preserved in a deep freeze."No matter how bad some terrorist organisations were [in Northern Ireland]", he says, "there were some kind of rules. But over here it's ruthless." Proof, perhaps, that even after the Shankill Butcher murders and the IRA's no-warnings bombs, that memories can heal with time?