Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Macedonians Flee NLA Advance
"I invested everything in that house," said Boris Paunovski from Jedoarce, "I spent years creating my own small piece of heaven there - I don't know if I'll ever go back again."
Paunovski left his home in the village of Jedoarce last Sunday afternoon when locals realised that the National Liberation Army, NLA, were only metres from their doors.
In a single day, the mainly Macedonian population abandoned homes and farms in the villages of Jedoarce, Brezno, Setole, Otunje, Varvara and Jelosnik, all located within 30 km of the provincial capital of Tetovo. Many fled to Skopje, others head for Tetovo.
The region around Tetovo has been the scene of persistent inter-ethnic fighting since the NLA launched their uprising in February, in support of demands for improved Albanian rights.
Few of the villages' inhabitants encountered members of the NLA, sources said, but word of their approach spread rapidly. Most people left their homes before they were given orders to do so.
"We didn't really see any strangers in the village," said community leader Ljube Mitevski, "but we sensed they were closing in. We've been particularly vigilant about security." Mitevski's neighbour Petko Petrusevski stayed behind, but was forced to leave at gunpoint . "I had no intention of staying and waiting for somebody to terrorize me," he said.
But some villagers weren't so fortunate. An NLA raid on the village of Brezno on July 1 claimed the first civilian casualty when Boris Magdenovski was fatally shot.
Reportedly hard of hearing, Magdenovski had been helping friends build a house in the village as a means of boosting his pension earnings. When the rebels ordered the villagers to leave, witnesses said Magdenovki simply didn't understand what was happening. The NLA shouted at him twice and, when he didn't respond, they shot him dead.
Those villagers who did encounter rebels claimed to have recognised in their ranks former neighbours from Germo, an Albanian village close to the Macedonian settlements of Setole and Otunje.
"None of this would have happened if the police or army had answered our calls for a patrol," said Ljube Mitevski. "They could have sent an armoured vehicle to Jedoarce and established a check-point. They could have protected the entire area. But they wouldn't listen."
On July 9, President Boris Trajkovski and interior minister Ljube Boskovski met a delegation of the evacuated villagers eager to return home. But with local roads mined and rebels still occupying the area, it'll be some time before they're allowed back.
The displaced Macedonians, meanwhile, have been streaming into Tetovo. But, it seems, they've not been made to feel very welcome. There's been little contact between them and the Tetovo administration. On one occasion, they asked city officials to let them air their grievances in the town hall. This was turned down because their request had apparently not been made through the correct channels.
Recent reports indicate that NLA leaders have agreed to withdraw their forces from the village of Lesok. The news coincided with the departure of some displaced Albanians who were forced to take shelter in Tetovo during the recent fighting. All the signs are that they intend to return to their villages.
Sources at the Kosovo border crossing of Blace say around 1,000 Albanians who fled to Kosovo are coming back. According to the UNHCR, about 15 per cent of the 70,000 or so who escaped across the border have now returned.
Ana Petruseva writes for Forum magazine in Skopje
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