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2 women trudge into Kosovo to educate professionals

[6/13/04]To teach their specialty, two Mississippi women, one from Vicksburg, have traveled into a war zone that months earlier had been the scene of widespread ethnic violence.

Elizabeth Hocker, a special assistant attorney general for the state who lives in Vicksburg, is one of two from here who traveled to parts of the former Yugoslavia, in Eastern Europe, to teach a course in their criminal-law specialty. The other was Elise Turner, a Jackson registered nurse.

The two teach a regular training course for Mississippi law-enforcement and medical professionals on how to investigate and prosecute cases of sexual assault. At the request of U.S. Department of Justice officials, they traveled in May to teach four daylong courses in Kosovo and Macedonia.

The area where the two taught has been wracked by ethnic warfare for more than a decade. A NATO peacekeeping force entered Kosovo in June 1999 with the mission of putting an end to expulsions of the country’s majority population, ethnic Albanians, by its minority Serbian forces under former president Slobodan Milosevic.

“The roads were bombed-out and pitted,” Hocker said. “And schools, sure, were opening, but electricity would come and go, and everywhere you went you saw generators on the sidewalks, so cafes could still continue to make coffee or serve people. And it was just fascinating that people tried to function where you could barely breathe because there was lignite in the air because of the really cheap coal that was being burned.”

Since the fighting began the countries’ legal systems had disintegrated, Hocker said.

Hocker and Turner taught in the respective capitals of Kosovo and Macedonia, Pristina and Skopje, under Justice Department auspices for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Hocker said.

About 125 to 140 students from throughout Kosovo and Macedonia attended their classes during the week, she said. Many of those students traveled from smaller towns and cities throughout the region to attend the classes, she added.

“When Slobodan Milosevic came in 1991 and he took people who were Albanians or Islam or were not Serbians out of power, all of a sudden there went all your judges, there went all your prosecutors, there went all your defense attorneys,” Hocker said.

“Your legal system crumbled, and what they’ve had to do is rebuild something over the last 10 years. So there was no infrastructure for local violators.”

The Justice Department is now among those trying to help rebuild that system and help the countries deal with new laws, she added.

Local law-enforcement officials of both recently warring factions in Kosovo were in classes the two taught there, Hocker said.

“We had a lot of obstacles to overcome,” Hocker said. “So it wasn’t just the obstacle of teaching in another language, teaching to a different culture, teaching to a different religious group of people, because the majority of them were Albanians, but it was also difficult to teach to a group where there was friction inside the group.”

Despite challenges and the sensitive nature of the subjects, the teachers could tell from changes in their students’ demeanors and tests that they were accomplishing their goals.

“We were very fortunate,” Hocker said. “I think there’s something to be said about being in Mississippi, where there’s such a sense of gracious hospitality. We were so interested in them and we were so earnest in what we were doing, and they felt that.”

The teachers used gifts from Mississippi as prizes in their quiz game, Hocker said. Among them were sugared pecans from Indianola, recordings of such Mississippi artists as bluesman B.B. King and books about the state.

“So it was wonderful being able to share some of our culture with them, and it was neat to watch a room’s dynamics change,” she said.

Hocker gained experience in prosecuting sexual-assault cases in a former job. She worked with one of the first sexual-assault-nurse-examiner programs that was started in Tulsa, Okla.

“So a lot of my experience came from basically trench-warfare-type things,” she said. “And over time, I got as much training as I could. And then, working with the leaders in this field, by the time I accepted a position here in Mississippi I had quite a bit of experience. And meeting Ms. Turner, everything just coalesced and it was the right time in the right place for Mississippi.”

Hocker, who has worked for the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office in Jackson for four years, helped develop a course that has advanced the training in her specialty here to where other states and, now, countries have looked to it for guidance, she said.

Hocker and Turner have given their course in Alabama and North Carolina, and Louisiana has also expressed interest, Hocker said.

“I’ve been very, very fortunate to be under (former Attorney General) Mike Moore, his administration and under (Attorney General) Jim Hood,” Hocker said. “They place a value on this type of training and information. Law-enforcement in the smallest communities, and prosecutors all over the state have been very, very receptive to this training.”

Though Hocker didn’t initiate the trip to the former Yugoslavia “The Balkans just weren’t high on my list for a sightseeing tour,” she said she did find the trip “an incredible experience.”

Kosovo, in the southern part of the relatively new country of Serbia and Montenegro, has been governed since June 1999 by the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo. Rioting in the area in March resulted in 19 deaths, more than 1,000 injuries, the destruction of hundreds of homes and Serbian cultural sites and the displacement of about 4,000 people.

She worried about the trip.

“We thought it was going to be canceled,” Hocker said.

Hocker and Turner, who both also work with the Mississippi Coalition Against Sexual Assault, taught a condensed version of the course they developed for training of people here.

“In Mississippi we have three 40-hour courses a year for nurses, and, of course, we always encourage law-enforcement and prosecutors to attend,” she said. “We have one 21-hour course for physicians. And then we do these little four-hour workshops around the state we probably do 10 a year.”

Hocker said she felt privileged to have made the trip, but she “sure was happy to get home.”