On the Front Lines in Tetovo
Skopje, Macedonia For the past year, the Albanians in Macedonia have claimed that repression, economic inequality, and a general lack of rights have justified starting a war. Tetovo, a town in the sparsely-populated west of Macedonia, where more than 60% of the population is Albanian, would seem an ideal place to test this assumption. Visiting Tetovo, however, one discovers a completely different reality. The rapidly increasing prosperity of the Albanians there is witnessed by the large car dealerships, hotels, bars, and retail stores lining the downtown and the entrance road from Skopje. Many of these are still under construction, grand skeletons of what will become essentially a reborn city. All throughout Tetovo, new houses and newly-laid foundations dominate. They are almost entirely Albanian.
In marked contrast to the Albanians, the Macedonian minority in Tetovo lives in either drab, Yugoslav-era high-rise apartments, or else in dilapidated old houses in Tetovo's "old town." This section of town is located on the base and side of the Sar Planina mountain. Tetovo was effectively cleared of some 20,000 Macedonians at the height of the fighting. Of the 6,000 people who have not yet returned, most lived here. The Macedonian houses once spread up the mountainside, but are now pillaged and destroyed. The NLA hid inside them when firing down on the Macedonian army, thus ensuring that the latter would have to shoot at their own property.
Funding the trend
The wave of Albanian building projects in Tetovo and environs boils down to one factor: money. Lavish new houses are being built in record numbers by wealthy expatriate Albanians from Switzerland, Germany, the US and other countries. These activities are mirrored by a quite visible growth of businesses such as hotels, bars, and car dealerships some of which are no doubt funded by Albanian mafia bosses from Kosovo and Macedonia.
All throughout the west of Macedonia, and especially in Tetovo, the increased construction of luxurious homes and businesses by Albanians has gone on simultaneously with the forced expulsion of Macedonians from the region. Several villages in the desolate stretches of Sar Planina, that were part or all Macedonian a year ago, are now entirely Albanian. Strongholds like Sipkovica, for example, feature almost palatial Albanian mansions. Consequently, one should be skeptical of those who insist that this war was not fought for the consolidation of territory.
The relatively recent phenomenon of very wealthy Albanians (owing not a little to the rise of an all-powerful Albanian Mafia), coupled with the economic hardship of the past ten years in Macedonia, made the current situation almost inevitable. For poor Macedonians who are used to surviving on a typical salary of $150 a month, it is impossible to say no when offered up to $500,000 for their property. Faced with such an "offer they can't refuse," many Macedonians have already pocketed the money and moved out. One might argue that those Macedonians who claim to be so patriotic should do what it takes to remain in their ancestral lands. Money talks, however, and few are so patriotic as to turn down the chance to renew their own lives, either in Skopje or out of the country entirely. Surviving on the wages that the state and state-owned industry pays requires frugality at best. Yet for many Macedonians, this is the extent of their opportunities at present.
The supreme irony of all this is that the Albanians have been complaining that they can't get state jobs. As a factory supervisor explained, "these jobs aren't good enough for them. Why would they work for so little when they could have so much more money (smuggling drugs or weapons)?"
The word on the street
The other day, I spoke with an important former NLA man in a café in Tetovo. We met in a neighborhood where the Macedonian police are not allowed to go making the area a safe-haven for Albanian irregulars. Known as the VIP Café, the establishment is currently owned by Menduh Thaci, the VP of the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA). The front room is slickly painted in the NLA colors (red and black); the decor includes green neon track lighting and a large potted plant in the corner. Soft-core hip-hop plays, and the bartender comes to your table to offer complementary cigarettes from a gold case. According to my source, Thaci acquired the café for $500,000 much more than its previous owner paid.
This pattern of property sales in Tetovo has been especially strong for the past three years. One of the best examples, according to my source, is the "Green Market" shopping center. When it opened three years ago, Albanians were allegedly prohibited by the state to purchase any of the stores. Yet they would not have to wait long before they acquired all of the shops in the mall. As my source explained, "the Macedonians bought them at a low price, so they could resell them at a higher price to Albanians."
The site of a battle
In the old town of Tetovo, the bullet-holed church of St. Nicholas attests to last year's battles. Next to it is a small church under construction, which was being built under the direction of a reserve policeman named Terpe. When the war started last March, he was called up and construction halted. Near the buildings, a sandbagged enclosure with gunholes a former army checkpoint remains. Terpe points in the direction of the mountain, and explains how the Albanians were bombarding the checkpoint from the houses above. At the same time, they were also firing from the city center below. The fact that this battle took place on the 16th of March, very early in the conflict, shows the great degree of support the NLA had among Albanians in Tetovo. Although the NLA was at that time being marginalized politically, they could not have taken up offensive positions in the city itself unless they had strong support from the local community.
Manning the checkpoints
Further down the mountain to the northeast, the army currently keeps an eye on Sar Planina and anyone who might try to attack from the hills. They are also protecting the only Macedonian-language TV station in Tetovo, KISS, which was bombarded with gunfire and rockets during the war. The station's director was also temporarily abducted by the NLA, but was later released due to NATO intercession.
We were lucky enough to be allowed inside the army post to speak directly with the soldiers. Though they have been there for months, they are housed in only a tiny shelter with four bunkbeds. One might think it was something more out of summer camp than the army, but for the heavy weaponry and tanks outside.
an uneasy truce is sticking. The soldiers confirmed that the Albanians
were mostly firing in the air to assert their continued presence.
When asked about their own preparedness, the Macedonian soldiers stated
that they had made great improvements since last Spring. In fact,
said one soldier, "if we were given the chance, the rebels would
be defeated in 24 hours."
While such confident statements may or may not be true, the general feeling is that restriction from the international community will prevent them from fighting the NLA. There are still deep suspicions a soldier reminded me of last summer in Sipkovice, where a NATO helicopter was filmed dropping a mysterious package into NLA territory. The soldiers were frustrated at their negative portrayal by the western media, and could not understand the lack of western sympathy for their cause. In any case, the Macedonian soldiers could not get away with anything if they tried in the fifteen minutes we were there, two OSCE vehicles passed down the road. They were heading into the Albanian-controlled territories, as were a stream of Albanian cars. None of them were harassed or stopped.
This is interesting, when we consider the stated reason for the Albanians' demand that the checkpoints be dismantled: they claim that they are intimidated by the Macedonian security forces. This claim seems hard to believe, for the simple reason that the eyes and ears of NATO and the OSCE are everywhere. In a country the size of Macedonia, there would be no hiding any alleged army brutality.
Other checkpoints, other realities
On the other hand, the situation of the Macedonians in and around Tetovo is different. The head of one organization for Macedonians displaced in the conflict, Goce Trpevski, maintains that the villages above Tetovo have been practically ethnically cleansed of Macedonians. In villages like Tearce, Leshok, Neprosteno and Slatina, which were all mixed or majority Macedonian, the NLA has driven almost all non-Albanians from their homes. The situation now, according to Trpevski, is one of " constant bullying from the Albanians to the few remaining elderly Macedonians."
A forestry ranger who served in the reserves in 2001, and was wounded in a battle with the NLA, recounted how he has been unable to see his ill father for eight months. His father lives in one of the mountain villages controlled by the NLA, and the ranger is certain that the Albanians would kill him if he returned. So he remains in Tetovo, where his government uniform and vehicle make him the object of hostile stares and gestures from the Albanians. I had hoped to visit Leshok, site of the destroyed 14th century monastery, but that particular day was too dangerous, according to the ranger. In the lawless villages above Tetovo, cars are liable to be stopped by hostile former members of the NLA. A Macedonian journalist who had visited Sipkovice told me that this trip had only been possible when accompanied by NATO soldiers. The same body, according to this journalist, is already secretly aware that "there are some villages where the Macedonians will never be allowed to return."
Christopher Deliso is a journalist and travel writer with special interest in current events in the areas of the former Byzantine Empire the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and Caucasus. Mr. Deliso holds a master's degree with honors in Byzantine Studies (from Oxford University), and has traveled widely in the region. His current long-term research projects include the Macedonia issue, the Cyprus problem, and ethnography of Byzantine Georgia.
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