Skopje 'Spirit' Threatened

The Macedonian conflict is destroying Skopje's multi-cultural spirit

Skopje 'Spirit' Threatened

The Macedonian conflict is destroying Skopje's multi-cultural spirit

The Ak Saraj tea house, in Skopje's ancient bazaar, used to be a place where people with open hearts and minds would while away the hours drinking tea, swapping news and gossiping.

Macedonians, Albanians and Turks once mingled happily there. But no more. It was forced to close following a period of steady decline over the last decade.

Now you'll only find currency exchanged in the old tea-house. And the only language you're likely to hear is Albanian.

The world Ak Saraj represented is fast disappearing too. Multi-culturalism was a fact of life until the nineties.

Now that the world is talking about our ethnic divisions, people are beginning to feel those differences.

Skopje's bazaar stands forgotten on the left side of the river Vardar which cuts through the heart of the city. Since the first shots were fired in northern Macedonia a few weeks ago, the river has also been slicing through the country's two main communities: ethnic Macedonians on the right bank, Albanians on the left.

Ethnic Macedonians, who account for more than half of the city's population, have left their homes on the left bank, the old heart of the city. Despite the lull in the fighting, they still scuttle across Kameni bridge, suitcases in hand, exiled by the army's offensive 40 kilometres away in the hills around Tetovo.

"The market place is empty - hardly anyone goes there now," said Vladimir Bogoevski, an ethnic Macedonian watchmaker. "Macedonians don't come here any more. Perhaps they are infuriated, or scared by recent events."

But like many of the shopkeepers here, Bogoevski says he will continue to work in the bazaar as his ancestors have done. Even if he is catering for a mere trickle of customers.

Ethnic Turk Neset Ramadani, a patisserie owner, lamented the emptying of the bazaar and recalled how a few years ago " it was never important if somebody was Albanian, Macedonian, Turkish or Roma".

Initially, the conflict didn't really affect the capital. But, as the violence escalated, so did the tensions here. People's first reaction to the Tetovo fighting was to panic. Canned food, salt and sugar stocks disappeared from shop shelves.

"A few days after the beginning of the crisis, sales doubled," said the owner of the Kam supermarket chain.

Nicola Mitevska was out of luck when she went to do her daily shopping. She said she had gone to buy a tin of sardines, "There was not a single can in any of the shops in my neighborhood."

Maybe she would have tracked one down if the sales assistant had put her in touch with the woman who had earlier bought 100 tins. Indeed, the bulk buyer did return a fortnight later. "The lady was asking to return the cans because she realised that there wouldn't be a war," said the assistant.

As the crisis unfolded, queues at the petrol pumps grew longer and at Skopje airport the departure lounge had to deal with twice the normal number of passengers.

But the most significant effect of the violence was the radicalisation of people's politics and prejudices. For much of the last ten years, Macedonia had been spared the horrors of the Balkan conflict, but now people talk openly of taking up arms and fighting.

" I know about myself and I live in fear waiting for war to break out," said a young ethnic Macedonian in his early twenties. He was taking part in a demonstration outside of the Macedonian parliament calling for the use of greater force against the Albanian fighters.

President Boris Trajkovski addressed the rally, appealing for calm but more than two thousand people clamoured for arms to help put down the insurrection.

"We are afraid of Albanians, I have had enough," said the young man. " If the time for fighting has come then let's fight. Let's finish off the problems between Albanians and Macedonians once and for all."

The climate of fear is evident away from the rallies. Shops close and people head for home as soon as the sun starts to set. In a city renowned for its nightlife, cafes and pubs are almost empty.

"We do not go out very often because of the situation," said ethnic Macedonian student Biljana Zdravkoska. "During the scariest days of the shooting, people were acting as if they were enjoying the last days of peace. "

She recalled people saying, "Let's drink, maybe it's the last time when we can do that. Let's get drunk and have fun."

Zdravkoska says that she and her Albanian friends remain close but that they skirt the issue of war. As do the shopkeepers in the bazaar. But doubt is slowly starting to creep in. People start to ask exactly what the other is actually thinking and feeling.

"We live normally," said Bogoevski "nobody is doing anything unusual. Well, maybe they are, but not in front of us. I don't know any more."

There was a time when couples and groups would stroll the banks of the Vardar on warm spring evenings. Young lovers would sit on the benches and stare out across the river. But now, the riverside is becoming a lonely place and the bridges rarely crossed after evening falls.

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

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