Skopje Braced for War

Thousands of Macedonians and Albanians flee Skopje as the conflict closes in on the capital.

Skopje Braced for War

Thousands of Macedonians and Albanians flee Skopje as the conflict closes in on the capital.

"Go and don't worry, I'll take care of your house," an Albanian pensioner told his long-time Macedonian neighbours. "Everything will be in its place when you come home."

The two families have lived side by side in the Skopje suburb of Cento for decades. They shared everything. Their children grew up together. They danced together at each other's weddings. Now the old man is watching them leave, to go who knows where.

Thousands of people, Macedonian and Albanian alike, are leaving Skopje, following the arrival of National Liberation Army, NLA, fighters in villages on the outskirts of the city.

On Tuesday, the rebels took the village of Saraj on the western side of the capital, making a mockery of the mayor's assurances, made only the day before, that the situation was secure and there was no sign of the NLA in the vicinity.

In Aracinovo, another suburb taken by the insurgents, the local NLA commander threatened to shell targets in the capital if attacks by Macedonian government forces continued. Although not perceived as a serious danger, it was the last straw for many.

Some Macedonian families have gone to stay with relatives, but many have been left destitute, receiving no help from the government or international agencies.

"For three days we've been on the street, without shelter, without a blanket," said a Macedonian woman from Aracinovo. "I have three small children. What should I do?"

People from Aracinovo, Vrnjarce, Stajkovci - all villages just outside the capital - as well as residents from Cento and the other Skopje suburb of Ekonomija are leaving in response to the NLA's encroachement.

Officials from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, on the Blace border crossing between Kosovo and Macedonia, estimate that 12,000 Albanians - mostly women and children - have entered Kosovo since June 8.

Most of those interviewed said they came from Aracinovo. Many had fled to Aracinovo from Kumanovo only two weeks before, after fighting between NLA fighters and government forces broke out there.

"As soon as the National Liberation Army came to our village, most of us left, " said Haki, an elderly Albanian.

"The Macedonian army and police surrounded the village.

"We were frightened we'd suffer the same fate as the people in Kumanovo villages who were trapped in their cellars for several weeks while the two sides fought. "

Hanife, another Albanian from the village of Slupcane near Kumanovo, arrived at the Kosovo border with her mother-in-law and three small children. "I could not stand the continuous fighting between NLA and the Macedonian security forces, " she said. "I was afraid for my children. At least in Kosovo, we can sleep in peace."

While many Albanian refugees are flocking to Kosovo, where they're looked after by relatives and international agencies, the fate of their Macedonian counterparts is more uncertain.

Those who can, go to stay with friends and family, but the rest, as internally displaced persons, fall outside the remit of international humanitarian organisations and are generally left to their own devices.

To date between 1,000 and 2,000 Macedonian families have fled their homes in Skopje's suburbs.

For the moment, there's a tense stand off in rebel-held Aracinovo. Police are stationed just outside the village. According to security and media reports, an estimated 1,000 Albanians together with around 30 male Macedonian hostages remain there. One can see the barricades of cars the fighters have erected across the roads entering the village. Both sides are watching and waiting.

"The place is swarming with soldiers," sighed one despondent Macedonian villager, who attempted unsuccessfully to return to Aracinovo to feed his goats, his family's only source of income.

Meanwhile, the NLA chief in the village, Commander Hoxha, has issued a warning that his men will shell "strategic facilities" in Skopje "if the Macedonian forces continue firing [on NLA positions]". According to Hoxha, his units are capable of striking the international airport and an oil refinery, but officials claim both are out of their range.

On Monday, however, British Airways and Olympic, a Greek airline, cancelled flights into Skopje, although neither airline would confirm the NLA threat was the reason. Swiss Air diverted its flight to Ohrid.

The following day, a wobbly cease-fire around Kumanovo appeared to be holding, despite an overnight ambush on a police patrol. The NLA claimed its fighters acted in self-defence. Under the truce, international aid was en route to villages caught in almost five weeks of continuous fighting.

The local NLA commander said he would allow international engineers access to a reservoir behind NLA lines after the aid had arrived. Kumanovo has been without water for over a week.

Back in Skopje, residents are bracing themselves for war. Flour, sugar, oil and mineral water sales have tripled in recent days. Banks have stopped selling foreign currency. Long queues of cars wait at petrol stations.

The government has tried to calm fears by claiming the NLA is not militarily capable of carrying out its threats against the capital.

"Citizens should not worry about the safety of the city of Skopje and its vital facilities because they have been secured," Antonio Milososki, the government spokesman said. And President Boris Trajkovski's national security advisor Nikola Dimitrov said the authorities would ensure that Hoxha's threats will amount to nothing.

But a war atmosphere is pervading the city. Skopje residents feel besieged. Elsewhere, the people of Kumanovo, deprived of water for days on end at the height of a summer heat wave, are in desperate straits. The inhabitants of Tetovo also go without water for hours on end every day and can hear the constant rat-tat-tat-tat of gun battles in the hills above the city.

Few believe this conflict will be resolved soon. For the time being, government forces are holding back from attacking NLA positions in Aracinovo and are sticking to a cease-fire around Kumanovo.

On Monday, the Macedonian government announced plans to form a joint army and police special task force to prevent the conflict spreading, but the new unit will face problems containing the fighting, never mind pushing the NLA back.

The country's political leaders, all of whom have been remarkably quiet in recent days, need to look for an exit. The two main Macedonian parties, the VMRO-DPMNE and the SDSM, have offered nothing in the past two days and it's far from clear whether they agree on how best to deal with the situation.

Unofficial sources say leaders from the main parties are to meet at the end of the week to try to break the political impasse and to review Trajkovski's plan under which the NLA would be disarmed and most of its members granted amnesties.

Whether Macedonia will avoid the war looks set to be determined within the coming weeks. In the meantime, people continue to live in fear and prepare for the worst.

Gordana Stojanovska Icevska is the deputy editor-in-chief of Skopje based weekly Kapital

Macedonia, Kosovo
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