Sunday, July 16, 2006

Kosovo policewoman bringing order to troublesome town

by Ismet HajdariSun Jul 16, 1:36 PM ET
Fighting prejudices as much as crime, Captain Teuta Nimanaj is running the 90-strong police force in this troublesome town with a wide smile and iron fist.

In an area dubbed the "Wild West" by its own residents, this slim blonde has managed in just nine months to achieve results which proved beyond many of her predecessors.

"There has not been a single high-profile crime or incident since I took the post over," the 30-year-old Nimanaj told AFP in her tidy office in Decane, 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of the Kosovo capital Pristina.

"There have been ordinary crime cases, but nothing special," she added, smiling.

The crime rate in Decane in the first five months of 2006 was 50 percent down on the same period last year, according to police data.

Nimanaj took up the post of the police commander in Decane, a town of some 60,000 residents, aware of the difficulties in a region still strongly attached to its traditional "clan" structure and conservative attitudes.

Kosovo has been under UN administration since the end of the 1998-1999 war between Serbian forces and ethnic Albanian separatists, when NATO's intervention drove out the forces of then Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

The 7,000-strong Kosovo Police Service (KPS) is considered one of the most successful projects of the international engagement in the province.

However situated near the borders with Montenegro and Albania, and with the added complication of the traditional customs and codes of behaviour of the family clans, the Decane region has long been a hotspot for the smuggling of weapons, cigarettes and drugs.

A prominent Western think-tank, the International Crisis Group, said in its May 2005 report that "Decane is a tinderbox isolated from the rest of Kosovo."

Nimanaj -- the first woman police commander in Kosovo -- says her recipe for success is a "focus on citizens."

"We had to show to the citizens that, first and foremost, the police respect the rules and expect the citizens to do the same," she said.

"It was necessary to invest much effort and explanation to convince them to cooperate."

One of her initiatives was to introduce patrols in the area "talking to the people and listening to their concerns," with units covering troublespots 24 hours per day.

A simple stroll through the town centre is enough to confirm Nimanaj's reputation.

"The police were too weak to deal with sophisticated gangs," said a local market trader.

In November 2003 two local police officers were shot dead near the town, during investigations into a high-profile murder, he recalled.

"But this woman seems to know her job. Police have never been more respected then nowadays, even by known troublemakers in the town," he added.

Police lieutenant Rasim Syla said his chief "very cleverly uses a new style towards the citizens."

"She comes to every possible dangerous site, talks directly to the people and listens to their concerns. And they have accepted her," Syla added.

Nimanaj feels that, despite longheld prejudices, she has not had a single problem because of her gender.

"It might be luck. But, with this job, you have no time to think about your gender," Nimanaj said.

The main goal for this policewoman is to "eliminate all prejudices in Decane."

"Now it is a calm town, where peace is in force."

She admits that the job has also changed her personally.

"You need to work so hard to address its challenges, to accept that you are on duty 24 hours a day, to find a common language with the citizens in order to have a calm and stable situation," she said.

Her job has had an impact at home, Nimanaj admits, but she insists it has not affected her new marriage.

"I am married to a police officer, that's probably why he understands my permanent preoccupation with the job," she explained with that broad smile.

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