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

Macedonia: Sporting Chance for Former War Zone

An international ski competition looks set to boost efforts to revitalise an area torn apart by conflict.
By Mitko Jovanov

Macedonia’s ski slopes are to host an international competition for the first time since ethnic conflict blighted the region.

The renowned Sar Planina Cup, held on the pistes of the Popova Sapka resort in the Sar mountains, 40 kilometres west of Skopje, is due to be staged next month, three years after fighting erupted in the largely Albanian area in 2001.

Both sides of the conflict shelled the area heavily, destroying lives, buildings and roads as well as the ski slopes, and causing damage estimated at more than 10 million euro. Thousands of families fled the region – and many are yet to return.

But reconstruction and increasing stability has meant that for the first time since the war skiers from Macedonia, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania will compete in next month’s event, which was inaugurated in 1947.

During the conflict, Popova Sapka was deep in rebel territory, with the Albanian National Liberation Army’s Sipkovica headquarters only four km away. But with the signing of the Ohrid peace deal in August 2001, reconstruction of the area began.

With grants for mine clearance projects and rebuilding work from the European Reconstruction Fund and the British, United States and Slovenian governments, progress on returning the slopes to normal has been made.

The resort’s Alpine style hotels are now refurbished, the ski-lifts are working again, chalets are full and bobble-hatted skiers from across the country and beyond are flocking back.

Mirko Jovcevski, manager of the Teteks hotel at the resort, told IWPR that this holiday season has seen a vast improvement in business. “All three of Popova Sapka’s hotels were fully booked over the new year period, and that’s a big change.

“Last year two of the venues weren’t even open. This year the hotels are employing 120 people and we are fully booked up until January 15. For the first time in years, Popova Sapka seems to be working like old times."

Savo Gerasimovski, secretary of Macedonia’s Ski Federation, also feels that great progress is being made and that the area is now secure enough to invite skiers from other Balkan nations to compete at the event.

“All preparations for the competition are finalised and we expect that those who love this sport will turn up in great numbers,” he said.

But while skiers and holidaymakers feel it’s safe to come back to the country’s pistes, many returning refugees continue to face hardship.

Aside from high unemployment – which is running at 50 per cent in some areas - many people still believe the region is too poorly policed for them to feel safe enough to return.

Although the majority of internally displaced persons have gone home, recent government figures show that nearly 2,500 people - most from the former crisis regions around Tetovo and Kumanovo in the north of the country - have yet to go back.

One senior source from an international NGO closely involved in the reconstruction effort in the Tetovo region told IWPR, “It’s one thing to visit the region and quite another to live there.

“I am not sure if it’s fair to say that just because tourists are returning to places like Popova Sapka, those who were forced to leave the area are going to come home.

“Many properties are still damaged, many still feel the region is not safe and some feel that there are more opportunities in Skopje.”

For those that have returned, the main priority is to find a job. Todor Nikolov’s family recently went back to their home village of Ratae, not far from Popova Sapka. After over two years in temporary housing in the capital, he is pleased to have made the move but is worried about the future.

“Our house has been renovated and we have everything we need. We want to forget all the hardships that we have been through, but our main preoccupation at the moment is how to earn a living,” he said.

The labour and social policy ministry’s commission for the reconstruction of the war damaged buildings told IWPR that repairs in the Tetovo region have proceeded well, but admits there is still much to be done.

“Houses have been rebuilt in the former crises region and this has enabled the return of 300 people, who used to live as internally displaced persons in Skopje,” said Boge Cadinovski, commission coordinator.

“The reconstruction of another 50 houses is underway but this has been postponed until the spring period because of the weather conditions.”

Meanwhile, government minister Vlado Popovski, who is charged with developing the former crisis regions, said that as the internally displaced are now going home, the government’s focus should be on helping small enterprises.

Mitko Jovanov is a journalist with the daily Dnevnik, David Quin is an IWPR assistant investigations editor.