Sheriff’s Lt. Tom Allman is spending the day at home in the rural Northern California town of Willits (pop. 4,953), building a fence so his two young boys—now at baseball practice—can “raise some critters.”
An ordinary Saturday in America, perhaps, but Allman doesn’t take life or democracy for granted anymore, not after the extraordinary year he just spent serving as a United Nations police officer in war-torn Kosovo.
“I’m glad to be back,” he says simply.
What motivates a man to take on a dangerous assignment in a bombed-out city halfway across the world, away from his wife and children? A sense of responsibility was a good part of it.
“What an opportunity this was—to act as a stepping stone for democracy in a new country,” Allman says. It was also a chance to serve. “I’d never been in the military before, and I guess I’d always wanted to be.”
The U.N.’s international force, 3,200 civilian police officers from 42 countries, was charged with maintaining law and order in Kosovo until local police forces were trained. Allman was stationed in Pristina, the capital city of what had once been a region of Yugoslavia and recently has been the scene of intense fighting between Serbs and Albanians.
“We were the actual police,” Allman says. “We responded to domestic assaults and robberies, and we gave out traffic tickets.”
The officers also faced car bombs, random grenade attacks, constant power outages, and “two or three deaths a week” from land mines that still were exploding a year and a half after the war had ended. With the aim of building trust, the U.N. officers were quartered with Serb or Albanian families in the community.
“We were meant to be an example of police the way they should be,” Allman says.
With the ruling Serb military “indistinguishable” from local law enforcement for the previous 10 years, Allman says residents—especially Albanians—had learned to expect the worst.
One day, some street kids started enthusiastically applauding Allman as he was giving out a traffic ticket. Confused, Allman asked his interpreter to explain. “They’re happy you’re not beating him,” the man replied.
The level of ethnic animosity he witnessed between Serbs and Albanians was difficult to handle. “I’ve never seen a level of hatred like that before,” Allman says.
Nonetheless, he retains hope for change. He showed off a photograph of two young journalists—one a Serb and one an Albanian—working side by side at Pristina’s radio station, each producing a news broadcast in his own language.
“I figure it will take about three generations to get rid of the hate factor,” he says.
Allman’s final assignment was working to ensure that the municipal elections last Oct. 28 were “free and fair.”
“They went without a hitch,” Allman says with a smile, “which is more than we can say about our own election.”
Allman gave away more than 500 U.S. flags in Kosovo and returned home as proud as ever to be an American. But his experiences did broaden his conservative politics. “I really had my eyes opened to the humanitarian side,” he says.
“What is democracy anyway?” Allman asks. “We talked about that a lot over there, but nobody ever answered the question. It’s easier to say what it’s not—it’s not tyranny, it’s not communism.”
One thing it might be is the opportunity for a husband and father from Willits, Calif. to show others what it means to live free of fear—and that’s a lesson neither is soon to forget.