Two Way Traffic in Aracinovo

Macedonians are returning to their former homes to pick up what's left among the debris and head out to an uncertain future

Two Way Traffic in Aracinovo

Macedonians are returning to their former homes to pick up what's left among the debris and head out to an uncertain future

The traffic is visibly heavier on the road leading to the village of Aracinovo, 10km northeast of the Macedonian capital of Skopje. For the first time since ethnic Albanian rebels of the National Liberation Army, NLA, abandoned the area five weeks ago, the government is organising a group of refugees to return home after the fighting.

The cars seem to be a sign that life is returning to normal. But then it becomes clear that the traffic is two way. Most cars, owned by ethnic Albanians, are indeed going home to the shattered houses of Aracinovo. But Macedonian drivers only return briefly to pick up whatever belongings remain, before motoring out of the village.

"We suffered for years," said 60-year-old Marika, an Macedonian sitting on the scorched doorstep of the ruins of her family's home. "Our whole life, all of our efforts was invested in this house. Now only the burned walls remain." She says that her family will never return to Aracinovo. Even her daughter's home was destroyed.

Aracinovo grew into a settlement of over 10,000 inhabitants in the last two decades, as ethnic Albanian immigrants from Kosovo arrived to build a new life close to the Macedonian capital. Now, barely 2,000 villagers are ethnic Macedonians.

In the past ten years, Aracinovo gained a reputation among Macedonians as a centre for the local Albanian mafia, with alleged links to cigarette and narcotics smuggling. Several of the NLA "commanders" who occupied the village in June, escalating the conflict with the Macedonian security forces, were widely believed to be members of the local criminal fraternity.

Across the street in the quarter of Aracinovo mostly inhabited by Macedonians, Marika's neighbours are pulling their few remaining possessions from the half-standing house: a table, two sofas, an oven, some kitchen utensils. Then the truck is loaded.

"We are leaving," said Mr Jovanovski. "Whatever's left, we'll take to our relatives in Skopje, and then it's back to the shelter again. What happens next, we don't know. We expect that the authorities will provide us with a new home somewhere else. There is no life left for ethnic Macedonians in Aracinovo."

Their house is gutted. Shell and bullet holes pepper the walls. Inside, burned furniture seems all that's left. Jovanovski's relatives all say they don't feel confident enough to stay in Aracinovo, that their children would never again be safe on the streets. "We do not believe the eyes of our Albanian neighbours," said Jovanovski. "They all supported the rebels who came into our house with guns and drove us out."

To the left and right along Aracinovo's main street, the ruined houses are evidence that what was going on here until a few weeks ago was little short of war. Macedonians say that almost 90 per cent of their homes have been destroyed. The NLA, they said, had a well-developed tactic: they mostly took up positions in Macedonian homes, knowing that the security forces would return fire on them.

Aracinovo is without electricity or telephones for now. Drinking water has to be brought to the village in trucks. The smell of animal cadavers still hangs over parts of the village even though it was disinfected weeks ago. Although a police post has been set up, most Macedonians from Aracinovo say it does not inspire in them the confidence to return. Very few are actually repairing their houses. Some have no choice.

"I lost everything, my cattle, my house; my summer harvest is gone," said 50 year old Milan. "But I have nowhere else to go. It will be hard to stay here, especially for the young. There is no future for them. Us old ones, we'll make it somehow."

He was angry that the authorities had been slow to offer help in rebuilding their homes. "We are on our own," said Milan. "They told us we could return, but nobody helps us."

But the government ordered the relevant ministries to take all necessary measures for the creation of normal living conditions in Aracinovo. First estimates of the damage sustained by houses have been made, and applications for emergency funding sent to the international community.

But the people of Aracinovo do not believe that the money will arrive any time soon. They fear that when school term begins again in September, they will be thrown out of the Skopje boarding schools where they have been sheltering.

"Nobody does anything," said a man in one school. "September is approaching. What will happen if we get thrown out? Where shall we go? We are not safe in the village, and nobody says anything about finding us new homes."

Bobi Hristov is a journalist with the Skopje weekly Kapital

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