A Trail of Misery as Macedonia Fights Albanian Insurgency
A Trail of Misery as Macedonia Fights Albanian Insurgency Posted May 18, 2001
May 18, 2001
A Trail of Misery as Macedonia Fights Albanian Insurgency
By CARLOTTA GALL
Salih, a 46-year-old farmer from Opae, had been held by the Macedonian police for five days during which he endured beatings and interrogation.
KUMANOVO, Macedonia, May 17 The hills above this town lay quiet today as a noon deadline passed for rebels to withdraw from mountain villages along Macedonia's northern border, and the government said it was suspending its threatened offensive in the interests of peace.
The government, which has been fighting an insurgency by ethnic Albanians, bowed to international pressure to refrain from an assault on villages where thousands of civilians remain holed up in cellars.
"We have a will to reach a political solution," said a statement from the office of President Boris Trajkovski. Military operations would "remain suspended to show that we are attached to a peaceful solution," the statement said.
But Macedonian security forces are pursuing an aggressive campaign against the ethnic Albanian population in and around rebel-held areas, and that campaign is spreading fear as well as exacerbating ethnic tensions.
Wednesday evening, for example, residents of nearby Opae, which lies just a mile from rebel positions in the village of Slupcane, abandoned the village after the police searched houses and hauled off the men for questioning.
The area has been sealed by the security forces as they have tried to push out the rebels. Villagers said they had endured 10 days of shelling in the latest fighting and some had lost houses and livestock.
Hundreds have sought refuge here in Kumanovo, which is under a nightly curfew. Some said they feared to be seen talking to a journalist amid the heavy police presence in this town populated almost equally by Macedonian Slavs and Albanians.
Farther south, in a small house in the capital of Skopje, a farmer from Opae named Salih and one of two brothers badly beaten by the police this week, sat hollow-eyed with fear considering a future without a home or an income. He recounted how he had gone to tend his cow at dawn and been caught by the police. With four others, he said, he was beaten and interrogated while blindfolded and handcuffed for five days, before being dumped in the countryside on Tuesday miles from home.
With the conflict in its third month, the Macedonian government may be stymied. Despite broad international support and the promise of assistance from NATO, in recent weeks it has lost more territory to the rebels. Now it is increasingly losing the patience and trust of its Albanian civilian population.
Armed Albanian rebels appeared in late February in the border areas, skirmishing with the army and demanding greater rights for ethnic Albanians, who make up about a third of the country's two million people. Macedonian Slavs make up nearly 70 percent.
The rebels have attacked the police and military, and moved into a swath of Albanian villages across the north part of the country. The western town of Tetovo, where heavy fighting took place in March, is also under curfew as rebels have reappeared in the western border areas. They represent a serious military threat to the largely ineffective Macedonian Army and command overwhelming sympathy among the rural Albanians.
While most Albanians say they want a peaceful solution, they invariably side with the rebels against the army and the police, who are predominantly Slavs.
The Albanians do have a stake in government; the main Albanian political party, the Democratic Party of Albanians, has participated in coalition with the governing party for the last three years. And this week a second Albanian party was brought into a new government of unity, made up of the four main political parties, two Slav and two Albanian.
But the new government has yet to address the main grievances of the ethnic Albanians that are at the root of the conflict.
Meanwhile, the army and police have continued operations against the rebels, who are excluded from the political negotiations, and have rounded up or displaced thousands of civilians.
International aid workers say 16,000 Macedonian Albanian refugees have arrived in neighboring Kosovo 9,000 in the past month alone. Another 10,000 civilians remain in the hill villages under government siege.
For Salih, 46, and his brother Sami, 40, who were so badly beaten this week, and for their young families, the future is even more bleak.
Recovering today at his sister's house, Salih said he saw television news footagee that showed that his house had been badly destroyed by a shell.
He said that he and his brother are on welfare, and that he helped support his two children by selling milk from their one cow.
"We cannot think of going back home, because we have nothing," he said. "We Albanians have less now than we had before we asked for more rights. For now we are losing everything."
Last week, he said, a group of 10 police officers seized him and beat him, he said. "They beat me with all their strength, with their fists. They said they would cut my throat with a knife. Then my brother and a friend came looking for me and they grabbed them too."
"They took us to Kumanovo, where they made us strip and they beat us with metal bars," he said, showing the bruises on his shoulder and legs. After five days he was dumped in the countryside and made his way to Kumanovo.
"I feel more frightened now," he said. "Every time I hear the door creak, I get scared."
But he did not criticize the rebels for bringing strife to the village. "They want their rights, that is why they came out," he said.
Instead he criticized President Trajkovski, who has called on villagers to leave their villages, to allow the security forces in to clear out the rebels.
"He wants it his way, to flatten the place so we have nowhere to go back to," he said.