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

NLA Rebels Left in Limbo

Many demobilised NLA soldiers feel unable to go back to their homes and fear they will have little to do when they eventually return.
By Jeff Bieley

As ethnic Albanian guerrillas in Macedonia leave behind six months of war, they face a long road back to normality.


The peace process here is a tricky balancing act of disarmament and parliamentary debate that has seen National Liberation Army, NLA, guerrilla fighters surrendering their guns without any guarantee either that their political aims will be achieved, or that they can go back to a normal life.


Earlier this month, in the northern town of Radusha, the weapons handover in a soccer field near the town's school looked something like a graduation ceremony. Combat fatigues and camouflage helmets took the place of caps and gowns as the members of the NLA's 115th brigade lined up single file to hand over their guns to British paratroopers.


But instead of looking forward to the prospect of jobs and opportunity, many of the guerrillas said they cannot yet go home and will have little to do when they get there.


An 18-year-old NLA fighter, riding atop an armored personnel carrier he helped capture in the last days of the conflict in August, described how proud he was of having helped seize the vehicle in battle, but was at a loss when asked what he would do next. "I guess I'll go back to the fields and tend the cows," he said.


In one sense, he is one of the lucky ones because he can just walk back to his home, still under NLA control a few miles away. Many of his compatriots waiting in line to hand in their rifles said they were worried how they would get back to their villages, afraid of running the gauntlet police checkpoints.


An amnesty for the guerrillas has been promised by Macedonian president Boris Trajkovski, but has not yet been approved by parliament, forcing many demobilised soldiers leaving Radusha to hike all night, and sneak over mountains, to get back home.


NATO secretary general George Robertson said last week that the amnesty is key to ending the conflict. "Clearly that now has got to be the subject of legislation, and legislation that must come into effect by the end of the disarmament process. Without it, clearly a serious crisis will develop."


Until they receive an official pardon, many of the NLA fighters will head for Kosovo, dodging NATO peacekeeping patrols along the border. American and Polish troops have arrested hundreds of rebels illegally entering the province in the last two months. However, all of those leaving Radusha, one kilometer from the frontier, made it across safely.


Some of the guerrillas who successfully made the dangerous journey are lucky enough to have friends and family to stay with in Kosovo. Others have been put up in a barren room, containing only a pile of foam mattresses, originally donated for refugees, in a wing of the disused offices of a cement factory in the Kosovo border town of Han i Elezit.


"Until the amnesty is passed, we can't go back to Macedonia," said one 26-year-old fighter from a village near Skopje. He said he was afraid he might be arrested and put on trial for terrorism, which is how the Macedonian authorities describe the activities of the NLA.


But he said implementing the peace agreement reached by political leaders last month would solve the problem, "Now the ball is in the politicians' court."


Another young man said that after serving with the NLA for three months, he is scared to go back to his ethnically-mixed village. While his family will welcome him home as a hero, he said his ethnic Macedonian neighbours might report him to the police when they see him back in town.


They said all they had when they left Radusha was a set of civilian clothes given to them by local villagers and 100 German marks, courtesy of their commander.


No international aid program is in place to help former Albanian fighters, unlike after the 1999 war in Kosovo. At that time, says Tamara Osorio of the International Organization for Migration, IOM, assistance was rushed to men leaving the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, to enable them to make the transition back to civilian life.


"A combatant, as soon as he demobilises, becomes a displaced person," she said, making aid a fundamental necessity to the peace process. "They really need assistance because they have been fighting and now that they've stopped they have nothing to do."


Two years after the Kosovo war, the IOM is still assisting more than 9,000 former KLA fighters with vocational training, grants and small-scale loans, yet it has no mandate to assist ethnic Albanian insurgents from Macedonia.


Jeff Bieley is a freelance journalist and VOA correspondent from Macedonia.


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