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Bitola Spirit Crushed

Bitola is seething with ethnic tensions following recent rioting by Macedonian mobs
By Sime Alusevski

For the past 20 years, children from all over the world have gathered here annually to paint Bitola's historic architecture.


Their pictures sent messages of peace, tolerance and hope for a better world. But this year, all visitors to the Mont Martyr arts colony will see are the charred ruins of the city's celebrated old bazaar.


Some 40 Albanian and Muslim-owned shops and restaurants were smashed and set on fire on the night of April 30, when several hundred Macedonians went on the rampage.


The riot followed the funerals of four Bitola policemen, killed by NLA rebels in the mountains above Tetovo, close to the border with Kosovo.


Four other Macedonian policemen were killed in the ambush, the single most deadly incident since clashes between government forces and Albanian insurgents flared in February.


Bitola's Albanian community, which makes up around 10 per cent of city's 80,000 inhabitants, has been successfully integrated over the years. There are plenty of mixed marriages and friendships.


But the NLA's recent attacks in northern Macedonia have dealt a blow to community relations. "Death to the Shiptars [a derogatory name for Albanians]" is frequently daubed on the walls of the city. Though there's no extremist Macedonian party based in the city, anti-Albanian rhetoric is rife.


"We cannot tolerate this handful of armed terrorists bothering the entire country with cowardly attacks," said local journalist Metodija Mladenovski.


Macedonians are convinced the Albanians want to partition the country - the latter insist that they are struggling for equality.


Their cause though is not helped by the fact that many sympathise with the tactics employed by the NLA.


Petar Panovski, a Macedonian from the village of Dolenci near Bitola, said he was sickened when his Albanian neighbour said outrages such as the killing of the eight policemen would continue until his community are granted full equality.


The growing ethnic tensions in Bitola exploded following the burial of the four policemen. Some Albanians compared the riots to Kristallnacht, when Jewish shops in Nazi Germany were destroyed.


Some Albanians believe the rioting was orchestrated by Skopje-based Macedonian political groups, others lay the blame on Ckembari, local football fans. Few believe the violence was spontaneous.


Dzeko Miftarovski, owner of a pizzeria and cake shop, said, "I am sure that the people of Bitola didn't do it. My friends, who were there that night, told me that gangs from Skopje and other towns were sent to destroy our property. You can't say it was spontaneous when, in front of the destroyed shops, there were trucks loading up with stolen goods."


The rioters appear to have targeted wealthy Albanians, some of whom are associated with the Bitola black market.


Albanian Kamber Rasimovski shot one rioter after his home, motel and café were set on fire. He was arrested by police, with his two sons. They were later released.


Sources in Bitola say Rasimovski's café was the haunt of prostitutes from Russia and the Ukraine. He refused to comment, but his wife told IWPR that the family's losses amount to 200,000 German marks. "We are so scared - they destroyed our business and beat up our son," she said, "we don't know what will happen next."


The home of Mitat Ali - once a mayoral candidate from the Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity - was also torched. He was sentenced last year to six years in prison for drugs and arms trafficking.


But ordinary people also fell victim to the rioters.


Ajco Miftarovski, a Muslim who has lived in Bitola for almost half a century, put new doors and windows on his ransacked restaurant the day after the rioting, only to find them destroyed again. "I am still in shock and taking pills," he said.


In the wake of the violence, Albanians say they don't feel safe. "I don't dare to walk around the city any more," said one." I just have this feeling that something bad will happen. "


Most of the shops in Bitola's old bazaar are still as the rioters left them on the morning of 1 May. Businessmen have approached the mayor's office for help to patch up their properties, but there are apparently insufficient funds.


Worse still, local insurers appear reluctant to service Albanian claims - only three businessmen have so far received any compensation. They were awarded 25,000 marks - substantially less than the cost of repairing their properties.


And, significantly, the insurers are not keen to sign to new contracts with Albanian clients as they clearly fear more trouble is on its way.


After the killing of five more Macedonian soldiers - three of them from Bitola - in the Tetovo area on Tuesday night, there are indeed fears of another backlash against Bitola Albanians.


One of the soldiers killed was a member of Ckembari. His brother, a taxi driver, organised a protest in the city today, Wednesday. Two hundred cabbies drove through the centre of Bitola, sounding their horns and waving anti-Albanian placards.


"I don't know what to do...I fear for my life...and have nowhere to escape to," a young Albanian woman told IWPR.


Sime Alusevski is a journalist on the regional weekly Bitolski Vjesnik


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