The Magazine

The U.N. Brings Trouble to Kosovo

From the May 3, 2004 issue: How two Americans died at the hands of their fellow U.N. police.

May 3, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 32 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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ON APRIL 17, two American women were killed by a Jordanian in Kosovo. With all media eyes focused on Iraq, little notice has been taken of their sacrifice, yet Kim Bigley, 47, of Paducah, Ky., and Lynn Williams, 48, of Elmont, N.Y., apparently fell as casualties in the war on terrorism.

Like the American contract employees murdered this month in Falluja, and the American journalist executed in Pakistan in 2002, and the American missionary killed in the Philippines in 2003, these women had voluntarily traveled to a dangerous Muslim-majority region to do constructive work. They were members of a U.N. police contingent assigned to Mitrovica, a scrubby, dusty, ugly town that last made world news in March, when the drowning of three Albanian boys there triggered ethnic violence across Kosovo that killed 28.

As best one can piece together the facts from local and international news sources, the women were leaving a prison where they had been undergoing police training along with U.N. colleagues--in a group of 21 Americans, 2 Turks, and an Austrian--when they came under fire from Jordanian U.N. police on duty at the prison gate. Fire was returned, and Sergeant Major Ahmed Mustafa Ibrahim Ali--who had been the first to fire, according to the Associated Press--was killed. Four more Jordanian U.N. policemen have been arrested, and their immunity in the province has been lifted. In addition to the dead, four Americans were wounded in what is described as a 10-minute "shootout" or "gun battle."

An unnamed American police officer told Agence France-Presse that the Middle Easterners had shouted at the Americans that the United States had invaded Iraq and every other country. The same account claimed the Americans shouted back, and the Jordanians started shooting. Reuters, citing "police sources at the scene," also reported that the fight was about Iraq. Both Reuters and AP quoted American police officers as describing a deliberate attack on Americans.

Mustafa Ibrahim Ali, father of the dead man, was quoted as saying his son "was not living on Mars, and he was affected by what is happening in the Palestinian territories and Iraq." According to the New York Times, Ahmed Mustafa Ibrahim Ali was an ethnic Palestinian.

Rather than Mars, Ali was living in Kosovo, where he and other foreign police are supposedly helping protect the majority-Albanian population. Conventional wisdom is that foreign Muslims make a special contribution to an international force policing a majority-Muslim people. This latest episode isn't the only indication that that assumption is wrong. Late in 2002, an Egyptian member of the U.N. police in Kosovo shot and killed his Albanian female interpreter, which inflamed residents against the Arab police.

The murder of the Americans by the Jordanian led to harsh commentary in the local media. Veton Surroi, publisher of the Kosovar daily Koha Ditore, described Kosovo as a study in contrasts. Although it is European, and "almost the most pro-American [place] in Europe," it has "a vast Islamic religious and cultural underpinning." Now, Surroi wrote, Kosovar Albanians must deal with an imported conflict they never wanted: between the Americans who sacrificed to liberate Iraq from Saddam but were met by terrorism from an ungrateful population, and Jordanians who see Americans as modern colonialists driven by oil.

U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan expressed his regrets at the deadly clash, and promised that charges would be brought against the four Jordanians under arrest if sufficient evidence against them emerges from an investigation. But another prominent Albanian newspaperman, Blerim Shala of the daily Zeri, said the incident dramatized the need for reform of the U.N. police in Kosovo.

The poor quality of U.N. policing in Kosovo illustrates in turn the broader perils of U.N. administration in contested territories--including Iraq, where many opponents of American "unilateralism" would like to see the U.N. take over peacekeeping, using large police and army contingents from Muslim countries.

Of some 53 countries sending officers to police Kosovo, the United States has contributed the largest number--571 in 2001, the last year for which figures are available. Pakistan, riven by Islamist extremism, sent 235 that year, Turkey 114, Bangladesh 101, Egypt 64, and Malaysia 49. According to the Jordanian embassy, the Jordanian contingent is currently 360.

Bujar Bukoshi, a Kosovar Albanian politician, has called for all the Jordanians to leave the province. At present, it might be a good idea to retire all foreign Muslim police and troops from Kosovo, with the possible exception of the Turks and Malaysians, whose professionalism stands out. Meanwhile, it's clearly an even better idea for the world to pay closer attention to U.N. policies in Kosovo as examples not to follow in Iraq.

Stephen Schwartz, a frequent contributor, worked in Kosovo for most of 2000.