Ethnic tensions mar peace plan

Returning Macedonian refugees find that a shaky peace accord has done little to ease tensions.

As dusk falls in western Macedonia, Marina, too frightened to give her full name, stands shivering by a pile of belongings she has just salvaged from her ransacked house in the village of Tearce.

She fled the village a month ago as it was overrun by the ethnic-Albanian National Liberation Army, and returned last week to see if it was safe.

"There are terrorists crawling all over the place," she says, referring to NLA members who drive by with weapons thrusting from the windows of a car. "We want to come home, but it is impossible. I don't believe in peace anymore."

The six-month conflict between the NLA and Macedonian security forces has left at least 100 dead and driven 130,000 people, mostly ethnic-Albanians, from their homes. Some 30,000 Macedonian Slavs, like Marina, were uprooted from the Tetovo area as the NLA cleared its territory along the western border.

Now, with a fragile peace agreement signed and 4,000 NATO troops collecting weapons from the rebels, refugees on both sides are trying to return to their homes. Macedonian Slavs come in government-sponsored convoys, while ethnic-Albanians straggle back across the mountains from Kosovo. In many disputed areas, like the ill-defined front north of Tetovo, returnees find that violence still threatens and no one is guaranteeing their safety.

"There is a security vacuum in these areas," says Maki Shinohara, spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR. "We can't encourage returns of Macedonians or Albanians. We are concerned for their safety because there is still shooting in the villages."

The main Tetovo-Jazince road is particularly tense, with police checkpoints prohibiting ethnic-Albanian villagers from entering Tetovo and several stretches vulnerable to sniper fire. Over the weekend, ethnic-Albanian villagers blocked the highway, protesting harassment and abductions by the police and demanding that NATO troops secure the area.

But NATO's mission, code-named Essential Harvest, is strictly limited to collecting 4,500 weapons from the NLA within 30 days and excludes other peacekeeping activities. This worries many ethnic Albanians because Macedonian Minister of Interior Lubo Boskovski has stated that, as soon as NATO leaves, the security forces will "clean up the terrorists," by searching ethnic-Albanian homes for weapons and signs of the NLA.

"I will never trust the Macedonian police," says Hasan Emini, a villager in nearby Neprostreno. "I was kidnapped last Wednesday by police and Macedonian civilians at the supermarket where I work in Tetovo and held for 52 hours for no reason. If the Macedonian police enter this village, I will flee to the mountains."

Neprostreno also has more immediate dangers. Macedonian paramilitaries have established sniper nests down the hill in Ratae, and target the village several times a day, killing two civilians so far.

"Obviously, it isn't safe for more refugees to return, either Macedonians or Albanians," says Xhevahir Sadiki, the ethnic-Albanian village's mayor. "There will be no peace until we have a mixed police force. I know of at least 100 cases of ethnic-Albanians being kidnapped by the police and paramilitaries in the Tetovo area in the past few weeks."

Mr. Sadiki says his best friend, who was one of the men killed by the snipers, was shot during a supposed ceasefire. In response, he drew up a list of 60 names of Macedonians from Neprostreno who he says are known to have joined the paramilitaries.

"Most Macedonian residents are welcome to return here," he says, "but not those who have been shooting at us. They would not be safe here. They killed my friend, and that is very hard to forgive."

Similar lists may well exist in other ethnic-Albanian villages and, as a result, many Macedonian Slavs are afraid to return. Rodzo, a Macedonian refugee from just down the road in Dzepciste, who did not want to give his full name, says he already knows what the consequences for those named might be. He was kidnapped and beaten severely by NLA fighters in June because he was drafted into the Macedonian military to man a border crossing.

"I heard that the NLA was advancing on our village, so I drove down there to take my wife and baby to safety," he recalls. "I was wearing civilian clothes and had no weapons. The terrorists pulled me over and beat me until I was covered in blood. Then, they took me to their headquarters in Germo, where they interrogated me and tortured me for four days, which felt like four years."

He pulls up his T-shirt emblazoned with the Macedonian flag to show scars where his rib was broken, while a crowd of silent, unsmiling refugee children look on. "It will not be safe to go back to our villages until the Macedonian Army and police occupy them," he says. "We don't trust Albanians or NATO soldiers. After the war, a lot of people will want revenge."

He has already joined hundreds of nationalists protesting in front of the parliament in Skopje, where lawmakers are debating ratification of the peace agreement signed three weeks ago between Macedonian and Albanian political parties. The Western-backed peace plan would strengthen minority rights for ethnic Albanians, who comprise about a third of the population, in return for the rebels disarming.

But the NLA has a firm grip on the territory they occupy. Many Macedonian refugees from those areas say they are weary of nationalist fervor and long for peace at almost any cost.

Just outside the refugee center where Rodzo lives with his wife and infant son, graffiti on a wall reads, "Enough! NLA, have mercy!"

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