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

Step-by-Step Towards Division

Though the current conflict may have accelerated ethnic tensions most people still believe in the possibility of a 'normal' integrated future
By Ana Petruseva

Even as the Ohrid peace accord was being signed, the situation on the ground was deteriorating further. A thousand more Albanians started leaving their homes in Ljuboten, near Skopje, when heavy fighting erupted after eight Macedonian soldiers were killed in a landmine explosion.


Will they ever return? It is hard to say, when next to Ljuboten there is another village of angry and frightened Macedonians. After months of brewing violence, they want more than ever to live in an ethnically 'pure' district. The same applies to many ethnic Albanians.


In districts most affected by the fighting, but also in Skopje, people of both ethnic groups are increasingly abandoning their homes. They do not know if they will ever go back. The situation in the capital is particularly delicate since its population of 600,000 is equally divided between Macedonians and Albanians. Many of the city's districts are ethnically mixed.


Ever since the conflict began, Macedonians from both ethnic groups have been on the move. Macedonians temporarily evacuate Albanian neighborhoods at the slightest sign of trouble, and vice-versa. In Skopje, Macedonians feel increasingly intimidated in the predominantly Albanian districts of Butel, Cair, Gazi Baba and Bitpazar on the eastern bank of the River Vardar that runs through the city.


Usually men send the women and children away while they stay behind to keep an eye on the home. Dejan, 35, decided to send his wife and kids away, but he still lives in his house in Butel. "I just feel better knowing that they're not here," he said. "They are staying with my parents in Vlae, on the other side of town, but I still sleep at home."


Other Macedonians share his view, but they are quick to point out that no-one directly pressures them into making the decision. "Nobody told me to leave," said Nikola, 43, in the district of Topansko Pole. "I have never had any trouble with the Albanians next door."


"It's just that things are getting really tense," he continued. "Some of my Albanian friends suggested that it might be better if we went away for a while because, as they said, if fighting breaks out, things can get out of control and they couldn't guarantee our safety."


Those who decided to remain in their homes are also vigilant. Vesna, 30, from Butel, prepared all the documents necessary for an immediate departure two months ago and keeps a bag of clothes ready, just in case.


Many Albanians moved their families to Kosovo long ago, fearing that they wouldn't be safe in Macedonia. Zulfar, 52, an Albanian taxi driver who sent his family across the border three months ago, said, "I am not going to bring them back until I am sure this circus is over."


According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, more than 60,000 Albanians from


Macedonia have already found shelter in Kosovo. The vast majority of them, around 54,000, hail from Tetovo, Kumanovo and Skopje, according to the Macedonian Red Cross. More than 7,000 people from Aracinovo, the village occupied by units of the rebel National Liberation Army in June, now live either with relatives in Skopje or in organised refugee centres.


Although the scale of recent displacements is alarming, a process of 'regrouping' has been quietly taking place in ethnically mixed areas for years. Macedonians tend to stay in Macedonian parts of Skopje, although they interact normally with ethnic Albanians in the streets or the market. The past 10 years have also witnessed a trend of buying property in ethnically homogenous neighbourhoods by members from both communities.


People from both sides may be angry, but they are also scared. If there is little enthusiasm for an all-out war, there is rising frustration at having to live under the constant threat of it. Maybe the idea of ethnic division is mentioned but ordinary people just want to get on with their lives. Most families would refuse to leave their homes and move elsewhere, unless their lives were directly threatened.


The exchange of territories and populations could work in locations with a distinctive Albanian or Macedonian identity, where only a small number of people would be displaced. But it leaves open the question of ethnically mixed Skopje, where the new 'frontier' would be psychological, rather than physical, with Macedonians and ethnic Albanians afraid to cross the Vardar river into one another's neighborhoods, as in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, or Kosovska Mitrovica in northern Kosovo.


The red line of hatred has not yet been crossed, however. Though more than 60 lives have been lost since fighting broke out in February, Macedonians from both ethnic groups are still connected. Tensions continue to rise, especially since the riots in Skopje last week, but both communities still fundamentally agree that the prospects for a brighter, multi-ethnic future are still alive. Both ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians agree than any other option is "too frightening".


Ana Petruseva is a journalist with Forum magazine in Skopje.


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