Kumanovo Holds Together

Local Kumanovo politicians are doing their utmost to preserve a fragile peace.

Kumanovo Holds Together

Local Kumanovo politicians are doing their utmost to preserve a fragile peace.

A fragile peace is holding in the northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo, despite the recent fighting between Albanian guerrillas and security forces in the region. So far, thanks in large part to the efforts of local leaders, it has managed to avoid being drawn into the escalating war.

Nevertheless, the atmosphere in Kumanovo, a multi-ethnic town, comprising Macedonians, Albanians, Vlahs, Roma and Serbs, is tense. But whatever their nationality, residents are united in their belief that their fate depends on the situation developing in the rest of Macedonia.

Last March, when fighting started to spread to the north-western part of the country, many feared Kumanovo could be engulfed in a major conflict.

Kumanovo, close to both the Serbian and Bulgarian borders, is home to around 110,000 people. A further 50,000 to 60,000 live in villages in the surrounding area. The first shots of the Second World War in Macedonia were fired here.

There were fears that the town could become Macedonia's Vukovar. But municipal and local leaders have worked hard to prevent such an outcome. The mayor, Slobodan Kovacevski, is accepted by all the town's communities, who have met with him to discuss their concerns, and to use his good offices to prevent conflict.

Kovacevski has also met young people to defuse potential tension. "Our frequent meetings with NGO representatives, branches of the political parties and the town youngsters were the key to preserving the stability of the town," he said.

He also gives credit to his Albanian counterparts, especially Feriz Dervishi, a member of the communal council and head of the commission for inter-ethnic relations. Kovacevski has exerted his influence on the Macedonian and Serb population while Dervishi has concentrated keeping the Albanian community calm.

Both leaders have worked with police officials to prevent friction at police checkpoints, always potential flashpoints in tense situations. They have also persuaded police and army reservists to stop their intimidating practice of wearing masks while walking along the town's streets, as happened during the first days of the fighting.

During the first days of fighting in the Lipkova municipality, all local shop owners closed their properties. That was to prevent a repeat of the events in Bitola, in the eastern part of Macedonia, when Albanian shops were attacked.

Kovacevski and Dervishi together managed to convinced a group of Albanian shopkeepers to re-open their businesses. "And we reached our goal, life returned to normal to some extent," said Kovacevski.

Most inhabitants of Kumanovo believe that inter-ethnic relations in the town remain at what they call an "average" level, in that there is no ethnic conflict.

Residents such as Stojadin, a middle-aged Serb, hope that Kumanovo will avoid war. "We should all of us together try to preserve peace in our town, especially on behalf of the children, " he said. "There is no enmity between us and the Albanians living in Kumanovo. Why should we fight with our neighbours when we all have the same daily problems?"

Local leaders have helped keep the situation stable by continuously appealing to the people to be level-headed, tolerant and to avoid provocations.

Potential flashpoints have been quickly defused. "Whenever there has been a provocation, Mayor Kovacevski and I have rushed to defuse the situation," said Dervishi.

The night curfew, originally established on May 3, has been reduced from four hours to two. Now that people are free to stroll in the evenings, life in the town is livelier compared to last May. But the tense situation is still noticeable, as there is little communication on the streets between the different communities. At the same time, there are fewer residents out in the evenings and sometimes more policemen than citizens are visible.

Both Macedonians and Albanians say the greatest threats to peace would be the distribution of weapons. The latter are fearful that guns have been handed out among Macedonians, who, along with Serbs, claim that many young people from Kumanovo have joined the Albanian National Liberation Army, UÇK.

Dragan, a middle-aged Macedonian, says he does not feel safe, "Politicians are to blame. There is no avoiding the possibility of fighting in Kumanovo, and the consequences would be grave." Agron, a young Albanian, says if political dialogue does not improve Albanians' rights, no one could guarantee peace.

Like many towns in this region, Kumanovo is in a poor economic state. All communities suffer from high unemployment, low income and poor economic opportunities. Many locals can barely afford to pay for their telephone, water and power supply. The town was once known across the whole of former Yugoslavia for its factories producing tubes, metallurgical products and shoes. All have since gone bankrupt.

Nevertheless, Kumanovo people remain hopeful. A better local economy would be the best way to avoid conflict, they say. "If people had something to do and a reasonable income, no one would ever think of fighting," said two high school teachers, one Albanian and one Macedonian.

When fighting erupted in the nearby villages of Lipkovo in May, many of the town's Albanian residents left and sheltered in Kosovo and the Presevo valley. Macedonians went to their relatives in nearby villages.

Refugees from Lipkovo now threaten to increase tension in the town. Most are Albanians, but Serbs and Macedonians have also been displaced. Many are increasingly angry that they are unable to return home, as their houses have been burnt-out or bombed.

"We shall never return to our homes, it is dangerous," said one elderly Macedonian woman refugee, now living at the Hotel Kristal in central Kumanovo. She is pessimistic about the chances of living together again with Albanians in her home village of Matec.

Albanians who have left villages of Vaksinca, Llojan, Sllupcan, Hotël, Opajë and Llopat, are fearful for their future. "Where shall we go? Our homes have been burnt during the fighting," said a middle-aged man from Vaksinca, surrounded by his relatives. "We cannot rebuild them. And if we return it will be difficult for us because of the Macedonian security forces operating there."

Following the recent cease-fire, only sporadic shooting has been heard around Kumanovo. But according to a retired Macedonian teacher, "Silence like this is dangerous."

Local politicians remain deeply concerned at the possible threat of an escalation in the conflict - and say preventative measures to stop violence erupting in the town must continue with the help of NATO and other international organisations.

Mayor Kovacevski says the long-term answer is as much economic as political, "The economy here is zero. If we can improve the citizens' standard of living, we reduce the possibility of ethnic tension. There is no place for bloodthirsty people in Kumanovo."

Veton Latifi is an IWPR assistant editor in Macedonia.

Balkans, Macedonia, Kosovo
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