UN police in Mitrovica work fast and avoid crowds
KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia, Mar 13, 2000 -- (Reuters) Being a policeman in northern Kosovska Mitrovica is like in many western towns, they say, except that when trouble starts, you've got 30 seconds before the crowd is out of control.
Minor traffic incidents or public arrests can draw crowds of up to 70-80 people, prompting US police Captain Jimmy Russel from Georgia to remark it is "like they come out of the woodwork."
His partner, Italian Sergeant Emilio Angelini, says knowing that makes them try to get offenders out of sight quickly and dispatch routine affairs without delay.
"You learn to do it faster," said Angelini as the pair wound down after their shift in the north of Mitrovica, dominated by Serbs who have sworn not to give up another inch to Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority.
The town is a flashpoint for extremists from both sides who exploit centuries of ethnic strife to carve out positions of power or to simply settle old scores.
Angelini, Russel, and about 550 policemen from 33 countries form the embryo of a civilian police force tasked with maintaining peace between the two communities and ultimately training Kosovo police officers from each.
They are trying to prove by careful, evenhanded responses that justice is real and equal in Kosovo, and that each side has someone to protect it from the other.
"You have to really think," said Russel, adding in his Peach County drawl that he prefers "verbal judo" to knocking heads.
"You are always under pressure," said Angelini, a voluble Italian from Udine, near the border with Slovenia
Northern Mitrovica has seen repeated riots and attacks with sniper rifles, grenades, and anti-tank weapons, and around 11 people have died since early February in the region while scores have been injured.
Serbs have fought attempts by the UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the NATO-led peacekeeping force KFOR to resettle ethnic Albanians who once lived north of the Ibar River, injuring French soldiers in the process.
The Serbs argue that northern Mitrovica and nearby areas are all they have since KFOR troops replaced Yugoslav forces in the southern province last June.
Both groups function with clan-based structures that a deputy US Federal Marshal who asked to remain anonymous said he has seen in his job in Oklahoma.
"I think I understand the way they think," said the officer, whose Cherokee origins, he said, have taught him about problems that arise from living in enclaves.
Angelini draws on experience in several countries which taught him to speak seven languages with differing levels of fluency, including Turkish and Farsi.
While Serbs have stoned US and German KFOR troops who deployed to search for weapons, the police officers insist that despite sporadic clashes, they are accepted in most cases by the individuals they meet.
The problem is that "when they're together it can be dangerous," said the Italian, and both note that searches have turned up assault and sniper rifles, ammunition and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
But Russel and two other US nationals have a Serb landlord he swears treats him like family, a good thing since his own is six time zones away.
Deployed about a month ago, he got his first letter on Friday, and said it was better then the two brief phone calls he's had since leaving the US.
"I could picture her face, hear her voice."
Angelini is no longer married but was able to point out the town's nursing school.
He also uses spare time to scan pictures of his son into a computer which will become presents for his next hop back home.
Officers work about a month before getting six days off, plus a bit more accrued time.
The pair spend most evenings at their homes as the town is under an 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. curfew, cooking potatoes or pasta if electricity is running, and watching videos such as "Payback" or "Shakespeare in Love".
They remark that for all their hostility to the West, Serb vendors offer lots of popular music from the US and Britain.
Russel likes his country classics, but for Angelini, "Pink Floyd is the best."