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Kosovars Vow to Fight On for Lost Lands

Albanian villagers say a border agreement hatched between Yugoslavia and Macedonia has deprived them of their farms.
By Camilla Algarheim

“It is better to die for our land than die without bread.” So say many people in the Kosovo border village of Debelde, who claim they were robbed of their property and livelihood as a result of the February 2001 border deal between the then Yugoslavia and Macedonia.


The villagers say the agreement, signed on their behalf by Belgrade, without any input from Kosovo Albanians, cut off 350 acres of their farmland, which now lies in Macedonia. They have warned they will take up arms against Macedonian border guards if their claim is not resolved.


“If we are forced into a deadlock we will start fighting, as we want Macedonian soldiers off our land,” the head of the village, Hamoi Hasani, said.


The fact that the frontier was effectively agreed between Macedonia and Serbia – the dominant factor in the former Yugoslavia - fuels the anger of these local Albanians. Many believe the deal was instigated by Belgrade. “The Serbs instructed the Macedonians to take our land,” Hasani said.


Fury over the border issue has also been inflamed by deteriorating social conditions, as Kosovo’s economy continues to collapse, leaving locals jobless and increasingly poor.


Debelde’s inhabitants claim they have garnered support from all over Kosovo. “Although we lack manpower and weapons, many people are willing to help us,” Hasani said.


The tiny village lies in wooded, mountainous terrain only two kilometres from Macedonia, but although it is home to only 500 people, it has been a potential trouble spot ever since the Macedonian conflict erupted in 2001.


Shortly after the border agreement was signed, fighting broke out in Tanusevchi in Macedonia, only 200 metres away from Debelde. Albanian guerrillas of the National Liberation Army, NLA, took on Macedonian soldiers and police, demanding greater civil rights for Macedonia’s large Albanian minority. The government in Skopje claimed the NLA was fighting for a ”Greater Albania”.


An uneasy calm returned after NATO deployed troops in Macedonia and disarmed the NLA. But the area around Debelde - on both sides of the border - remains tense. Anger at the frontier demarcation issue refuses to go away and in April 2002 some 600 demonstrators took to the streets of Vitina, 10 km from Debelde, to protest.


Unconfirmed reports in the Macedonian media claim that ex-officers of the Kosovo Protection Corps, KPC, have been crossing illegally between Debelde and Tanusevchi, bringing weapons into Macedonia with the aim of rekindling the violence.


Although the media reports have claimed these hardliners are working to create a “Greater Albania” that includes parts of Macedonia, IWPR has uncovered no evidence that armed groups in fact operate in the area.


David Wise, a KFOR soldier who patrols the frontier zone and Robert Bearden, UNMIK station commander in Vitina, said they had not come across any militant groups.


The villagers in Debelde insist that the border is their main complaint, but their worsening social condition has undoubtedly stoked local anger.


As foreign aid tails off in Kosovo, the economy has contracted, and the unemployment level has now reached 70 per cent.


With little sign of progress towards a political settlement of Kosovo’s final status, people are increasingly frustrated.


“Of the 500 people who live here, only four are working,” Hasani said. “We are in desperate need of the farmland that the Macedonians stole from us in 2001.”


The villagers survive on a small state handout and money from relatives working abroad, but say these sums do not cover even basic needs.


Zymri Ilazp, a younger villager, said most people of his age group feel hopeless. “Young people here have no future,” he said. “They are walking around aimlessly, without a purpose in life.”


Jakup Jahiri, vice-president of the municipal office in Vitina, agrees. “These people have not only lost their livelihood but their dignity,” he said. “No one likes to live on handouts.”


“Unless living conditions improve, not only in Debelde but in Vitina, in a few months, I don’t know what will happen.”


No settlement of the border dispute is likely to be reached within the timeframe set out by the villagers, however. “We made a complaint to the [Kosovo] ombudsman’s office last July but are still waiting for a reply,” Hasani said.


When IWPR spoke to the ombudsman’s office, it said the matter had been referred to UNMIK, as border disputes fall outside its mandate.


The office’s main function is to address human rights violations, and although the villagers of Debelde claim the border does precisely that, their complaint has been classed as a dispute over territory.


Further down the line, no longer-term political solution appears in sight. The frontier demarcation agreement was endorsed on March 12, 2001 by the UN Security Council, which is unlikely to go back on its stand.


Moreover, the international community clarified its support for the deal in April 2002, in Skopje, when NATO, the European Union and UNMIK backed the deal in line with their policy of supporting the territorial integrity of units in the Balkan region.


Michael Steiner, head of UNMIK at the time, said the agreement between Macedonia and Yugoslavia in February 2001 had to be respected.


Jahiri fears that even worse may be in store. “The Macedonians are talking about moving the border even further into Kosovo’s territory, which means Albanians [here]will lose another 750 acres,” he said.


A Macedonian army official IWPR spoke to would only say that the frontier had been “defined” but not precisely “marked”. This means the authorities on both sides will have to mark the exact border metre by metre, which is unlikely to be completed before 2005.


Jeff Bieley, an UNMIK press officer, said the villagers of Debelde had already turned down a compromise proposal to open a new border crossing, which they could then use. UNMIK and KFOR had “worked hard to improve the situation [but] local residents rejected this solution”, he said.


Jahiri said the villagers dismissed the proposed compromise on several grounds.


Firstly, he said, acceptance of the offer would be tantamount to endorsing the demarcation agreement and surrendering their claim to land on the other side.


Secondly, Jahiri said the planned crossing would only be opened at certain times, so villagers would lose their right to spend the whole summer on their mountain farms, which he said was part of their way of life.


Thirdly, he said the crossing’s position was impractical, “The farmers move their stock from different locations and don’t want to have to bring animals back to a particular location along the border, just to get them across.”


Macedonia seems unlikely to offer any fresh concessions. Its stance on border disputes was made clear in the 2001 Ohrid Agreement, which stated that the country’s territorial integrity was “inviolable and must be preserved”.


Meanwhile, Albanians from both sides of the border continue to cross illegally, as they have done for generations. Most people in Debelde have family members in Macedonia and many Albanians living in Macedonia come over daily to trade goods and visit relatives.


Macedonian army officials say when they catch people crossing illegally, they take them to the nearest police station and leave officers to decide if they are smugglers, or possess weapons, and proceed from there.


UNMIK still hopes an agreement over a border crossing can cool tempers. “Kosovo political leaders may wish to continue to discuss these issues with officials in Skopje,” Bieley said. “In this regard, the PISG [Kosovo’s provisional institutions] can play an important role in improving relations with Macedonia, naturally in consultation with UNMIK.”


But all sides in the dispute should be aware that only a small incident, such as the flare-up in Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, in March, could trigger more violence and in turn create a major regional security crisis.


Jahiri says this may well happen if someone is shot, accidentally or on purpose, while crossing the disputed frontier near Debelde.


“I have heard some rumours that Macedonian soldiers sometimes shoot at people crossing the border,” he said. “I worry that someone will get killed.”


Camilla Algarheim is an IWPR contributor.


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