Chasing the story with the crime fighters of Pristina

Words and photos by Emilia Dungel

From Oregon to Syria, guns and armed violence continue to make headlines and flood newsfeeds worldwide.

But what about attempts to stem that violence: How do we share that story with a broader audience?

I think one of the problems might be that — in this line of work — the most fascinating details find themselves on the cutting room floor. They get lost amidst a seemingly endless swirl of hotel lobbies and conference room meetings; here’s a photograph of a bunch of people you’ve never heard of, gathered around a PowerPoint presentation — location unnecessary.

But there are stories to tell, we just have to figure out how.

Where we go check out the forensics lab

In her much-shared piece on Medium, Cherie Hart beautifully underscores just why it’s so important for her fellow development workers to get out from behind their desks and connect with people: None of these individuals would ever be found in our documents, yet they were the soul of our programmes.

And she’s right.

Flashforward: Pristina

So there we were, at the Forensics Agency in Kosovo* with Ilir Kukaj, Chief of the Ballistics Laboratory, and UNDP project manager and technical advisor, Alain Lapon. These two don’t feature in donor reports, yet their hard work is part of the heart and soul of reducing gun crime in Kosovo.

With Lapon’s support, through UNDP’s work in Kosovo as well as its regional SEESAC project, the technology and expertise of the ballistics lab are constantly evolving. The percentage of cases solved almost doubled in 2014 compared to in 2013 — itself a testament to their success.

So what did we learn?

1. Context, context, context

Lapon told me that successful cooperation depends on his ability to adjust to the context:

They’ve seen a lot of experts come and go and they can tell when someone is just implementing trainings without considering how relevant they are. You cannot have a copy-paste approach, you need to adapt the solution to the situation.

2. Learn from tragedy

A former military hand, Lapon knows the Balkans intimately. From his experience in both the Belgian armed forces and the United Nations, Lapon has witnessed firsthand the invidious effect of gun violence on a civilian population. He recalls a particularly tragic incident involving a man in Mitrovica:

He was driving a car and there was another man in the back who fired celebratory shots into the air. Without realizing that one bullet was left in the gun, the man in the back pulled the trigger again. The bullet went straight through the seat and into the driver’s back. He’s now paralyzed. It’s tragic. But I do think this incident had an impact on the perception of celebratory gunfire in the Balkans.

3. There’s hope…

Lapon notes that there’s less gun crime now, and that you very rarely hear gunshots in Pristina these days.

Out of the murders committed in the last year, about half were murders with weapons. So the use of guns is reduced, at least in terms of lethal injuries.

But a lot of work remains.

Instead, the main problem today is the presence of illegal weapons, a situation Lapon feels is paradoxical:

“The police force is the most trusted institution in Kosovo, so why do people still think they need a weapon for protection?”

Seeing the work of the ballistics lab first-hand was, to use a term not particularly favoured in development parlance, super cool.

I’m nowhere near brainy enough to become a lab technician myself, so I pondered the idea of stealing a lab coat to at least pretend for a bit. Then I considered the scene and victims of my would-be crime and realized they would trace the missing coat back to my grubby paws before I was even out the door. Slightly let down by my lack of prospects in both criminal intelligence work as well as in actual criminal activity, I nonetheless left with a story to tell.

I hope you found it as interesting as I did.

*References to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council resolution 1244 (1999).

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