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

Picking Through the Debris

Ethnic Albanians are bittersweet on returning to their homes in the ruined village of Aracinovo
By IWPR Balkans

Haraçinë - as ethnic Albanians call the village of Aracinovo - is still the scene of real chaos, despite the fact that villagers have been free to return home since the end of July.


Electricity and water supplies as well as telephones were knocked out during the occupation by ethnic Albanian rebels of the National Liberation Army, NLA, in June and many houses were later destroyed in the subsequent bombing by the Macedonian air force.


Haraçinë's inhabitants, numbering 10,000 before the occupation, no longer have the basic conditions for survival. Only 60 mainly old people remained during the fighting, while thousands of others fled the village to the capital Skopje or across the Kosovo border to seek shelter with friends and relatives.


For the large number who have returned, the experience has been bittersweet. There is joy in their faces to be back home again, but real sorrow too as they assess what has happened to their houses and property.


"My house is destroyed," said 60-year-old ethnic Albanian Hasip Ferati, "but I am happy to be back ... because this is my land which I have earned with my sweat".


But he was angry at the destruction, saying there were ways of resolving the crisis other than destroying innocent people's property.


Sefi Salihu, 72, another Albanian resident, was equally happy to be back in the ruins of his shattered home. "There is no future for us outside Haraçinë," he said. "A foreigner's house cannot become yours. That is why Haraçinë should be rebuilt with all the facilities it used to have."


Salihu's family of 10 has nowhere to live now. "The government should protect its citizens," he said, "not destroy them like this."


People are genuinely shocked by what happened to their livelihoods during their enforced exile in Skopje, or across the border. Many claim that members of the Macedonian army and police burgled their houses.


Femi and Qani said that Macedonian police members stayed in their house for several days after the NLA withdrew. "They not only used whatever we had left," said Qani, "they broke everything when they left, and burnt everything at our houses at the top of the village. They did around 100,000 DEM worth of damage."


"When we returned," said 45-year-old Latife, who lives near the mosque in the upper village, "we found my daughter's entire dowry had been stolen and many other items produced by my husband were destroyed."


The mosque near Latife's home was also destroyed by mortar fire from the security forces. Two other Muslim monuments were also ruined and burned.


The government has been trying for several weeks to establish the conditions of security required to encourage people to return to their homes. But villagers traveling home for the first time were horrified to discover landmines planted by the NLA in and around Haraçinë.


Unexploded ordnance is a further hazard to the returnees. "When I returned home I thought the security situation was fine," said 35-year-old Albanian resident Sazan. "But then I found an unexploded grenade in my backyard, probably launched by one of the government helicopters. I let the security officials know about it and they defused it."


Life remains difficult for the 80 per cent of residents who are estimated to have now returned. Lack of electricity means villagers no longer have access to pumped water. "We are trying to get our private wells operational, but the water is not safe," said 50-year old Albanian Sali. "In fact, I would say it is dangerous, according to the hygiene teams who inspected the village."


But first of all, they need help before winter sets in. "We need urgent humanitarian aid from NGOs and the government," said 63-year old Nejaz, with tears in his eyes. "Most of us have no money left with which to rebuild our burnt houses." Nejaz is unemployed and dependent on the small salary of one of his sons.


But Haraçinë's inhabitants don't give in easily. They are doing their best to create the minimum conditions needed to revive the damaged village. And they lend each other a hand to build weatherproof shelters for their families. Before the fighting, the majority made a good living from farming, though a few were businessmen.


Commune head Reshat Ferati does not hide local concerns, but he made a strong appeal for all residents to return. "There is room for everyone in Haraçinë," he said. "It belongs to everyone who wants to live there, irrespective of nationality or religion. They should return and live together in harmony and co-existence, as before."


Adnan Hajdari and Nexhmedin Asani work in the Albanian department of the Macedonian state television


More IWPR's Global Voices