Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Hidden Prisoners of War

The threat of kidnapping increases as the shadow of ethnic conflict creeps over people's lives
By Zaklina Djordjevic

July 23 was a day to remember for the Mihajlovski family. Just one day after the family had celebrated their son Vasko's wedding in the village of Neprosteno, he was kidnapped by Albanian rebels.

"I haven't heard yet from my husband," said his bride, Lence Mihajlovska, in tears. "I was married on July 22, and the next afternoon, there was shooting in the village. We were in the house together with my husband and father-in-law. My brother-in-law's children were also with us, and we hid in the cellar. Vasko went upstairs to see what was happening. When my father-in-law went out to see what was going on, he was wounded in his hand and leg."

Lence said that a dozen or so National Liberation Army, NLA, fighters came to the house and took them all hostage. They beat up her husband and tied him up. After locking up the whole family, they took Vasko away.

"We stayed in this house for four days," said Lence. "They didn't treat us badly."

But the Mihajlovski family were not able to find out where Vasko was being held. They sought help from the OSCE mission in Skopje, as well as the International Red Cross, ICRC, and Macedonian Red Cross. All to no avail.

Human Rights Watch has expressed their deep concern over the fate of at least fourteen ethnic Macedonian men abducted by NLA fighters from the Tetovo region during recent clashes at the end of July.

Several other villagers, mainly Macedonians, were abducted the same day from Neprosteno. The family of Robert Milovanovski believes that he is still alive.

"I believe that my brother is being held either in the village of Lesok or the village of Slatina," said Robert's brother. "At the beginning, we were in contact with him via mobile phone. He told us that he was taken to Prsovce village. Last time we called an Albanian answered the phone. He tried to convince us that they will free my brother but when we asked to talk to him, he put the phone down."

Thirty-year-old M.L. was one victim who managed to escape. He described to IWPR the terrible ordeal he was put through but scared of his attacker, he refused to reveal his identity or the name of the village from which he was taken. Showing fresh wounds on his chest, the young man described how he had been beaten with wires.

"They swore at me because I was Macedonian, and they forced me to speak in Albanian. They tortured me. I was kept in a cellar, most probably in Gepciste village, near Tetovo. They tied a bomb to my chest which was set to explode with the slightest movement," he said with tears in his eyes.

Human Rights Watch, HRW, said the abductions were part of "an increasing pattern of illegal detentions and kidnapping by ethnic Albanian fighters who call themselves the National Liberation Army, NLA."

On August 7, according to HRW, ethnic Albanian rebels brutally tortured, sexually abused and mutilated five Macedonian road workers who were abducted on the Skopje-Tetovo highway. They suffered severe beatings at the hands of the rebels who used a knife to carve letters on their backs.

Since the beginning of the crisis it has not been possible to establish the exact number of kidnap victims. The Crisis Committee of the Ministry of Defence confirmed 48 registered cases of people missing from the Tetovo region and an additional six cases from the Kumanovo region. Most of those on the list are Macedonians, although some Albanians had also been kidnapped or killed.

The ICRC office in Skopje confirmed to IWPR that it was working on a number of cases of people allegedly taken by the NLA. Following their advance on Tetovo, there were several outstanding cases of civilians either arrested or abducted by members of the force.

In most reported cases however, there is some information about the abductees, so the ICRC is not treating them as technically 'missing'.

OSCE data differs somewhat in a report released at the end of July according to which 25 people are listed as missing or allegedly taken by "armed Albanian extremists." Among them are Macedonian as well as Albanian policemen and Albanian army reservists.

According to international mediators from Skopje, the NLA has kidnapped several Albanians suspected of collaborating with Macedonian authorities. They say at least one of them was killed in Poroj, near Tetovo.

At the moment, there is no independent confirmation that kidnapped or missing people are still alive. So far, only a few people have been set free thanks to international mediation.

However, it is rather difficult to form a clear picture of the number of kidnapped Albanians.

One of the reasons is that, according to an international official, families of Albanians who have joined the NLA register them as missing for fear of police reprisal.

Macedonian Albanians have also suffered at the hands of Macedonian police. There are several cases where the police did not inform detainees' families of their whereabouts despite eyewitness reports confirming they had been taken by the police.

An Albanian lawyer from Skopje, who preferred to remain anonymous, has confirmed there are at least 18 cases of detentions in which the detainees' whereabouts are unknown to the families. According to the lawyer, the most drastic examples are Zeqirja and Ibrahim Veliu from Skopje, whom he believes have been in police custody since May. An ICRC official told IWPR, "We are still in the process of trying to get access to these people".

Zaklina Djordjevic, a journalist with the Macedonian daily Utrinski vjesnik, is currently recovering from an assault by Macedonians, hostile to the media's handling of the crisis.