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

Macedonia: War Crimes Inquiries Begin

Tribunal adopts "even-handed" approach to war crimes investigations in Macedonia
By Vladimir Jovanovski

The chief prosecutor of the International War Crimes Tribunal for former Yugoslavia this week announced investigations into atrocities by both Albanians and Macedonians in the recent armed conflict.


While Carla del Ponte's decision - made during a visit to Skopje - reflected her determination to appear even-handed, Macedonian nationalists used the visit to promote reports of the existence of mass graves containing bodies of murdered Macedonian civilians.


Prime Minister Ljupco Georgievski, head of the ruling nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, VMRO-DPMNE, has played a key role in fomenting this agitation, which has continued unabated since parliament on November 15 adopted important constitutional changes designed to reduce ethnic friction in the divided state.


Del Ponte confirmed two investigations were in the offing. "One is related to crimes allegedly committed by Macedonian forces... the other investigation is related to the number of crimes allegedly committed by NLA," she said, referring to the now-disbanded National Liberation Army, which spearheaded an Albanian insurrection in western Macedonia this summer.


The premier's office confirmed the details after Del Ponte left Skopje, stating one investigation would centre on crimes by Macedonian security forces in the village of Ljuboten, while the other would examine those by Albanian gunmen in the village of Vejce.


The Vejce case started on May 1 when the dismembered bodies of eight Macedonian soldiers and policemen were discovered. There are claims that the men were tortured before they were killed; that their bodies were cut into pieces and that some were burnt alive.


The bloodshed in Ljuboten occurred on August 12, following clashes in the neighbouring village of Ljubanci in which Albanian militants killed eight policemen.


In a revenge attack, according to witness statements given to international organisations including Human Rights Watch and Helsinki Committee, police in Ljuboten executed about 10 villagers.


The Ljuboten incident came one day before Macedonian and Albanian parties signed the internationally-brokered Ohrid accord on ending the conflict.


While these two investigations are broadly accepted by all parties as inevitable, the proposed excavation of alleged mass graves containing Macedonians killed by Albanian gunmen is causing more controversy.


A day after Del Ponte's visit, a team from The Hague tribunal, in cooperation with the Macedonian police and courts, opened an investigation into one such alleged mass grave in the village of Neprosteno.


The media claims at least six civilians are buried in a field there, close to the main road that runs from Tetovo to Skopje in western Macedonia. Local police and NATO troops have secured the location, while OSCE observers have also inspected the area.


The terrain is a risky area for a dig, as it is largely under the control of armed Albanian militants. Ten days ago on November 11, gunmen killed three policemen in an ambush nearby and wounded three more, after government forces tried to patrol the site without an international escort.


Digging continued last week under the inspection of a group of four Albanians, watching the Macedonian police through binoculars only yards away. "You Macedonian journalists are the culprits for everything," one of them said, virtually ordering the reporters to leave the site.


Whether the mass graves are more than a convenient fiction for Georgievski's nationalists is open to question. On the day that reporters visited the alleged grave, an anonymous source in the ministry of interior, which is run by Georgievski's close ally, Ljube Boskovski, claimed parts of three corpses had been unearthed. The investigative judge, Aleksandra Zafirovska, denied this and insisted no bodies had been discovered.


The nationalists' constant manipulation of the mass graves issue has alienated Macedonia's more moderate centrist parties. The Social Democratic Union on November 21 announced they were leaving the national unity government, which was set up in June under international pressure to stop the country disintegrating on ethnic lines.


"We cannot continue being a baby-sitter covering up the mess that Georgievski and Boskovski make," said Branko Crvenkovski, the Social Democrat leader, as he announced the resignation of his ministerial colleagues.


The defection of the Social Democrats raises the possibility of early elections, which the internationally brokered peace deal envisaged taking place in January.


The government now depends on the support of the ethnic Albanian deputies for its majority. They have not yet pulled out, as they do not want to rock the boat until all the provisions of the peace deal have passed into law. "The Ohrid agreement provisions must be fully realised," said Mersal Biljali, of the Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity.


Biljali said the Albanian deputies want to see the adoption of a promised new law increasing the powers of local government - and moves to organise a census - before reconsidering their position. "Only then we could move towards early elections," he said.


Vladimir Jovanovski is a journalist at the Skopje magazine Forum.