A new flash point in the Balkans

For the past two days, police battled ethnic-Albanian rebels in Macedonia, as rural unrest spread to urban areas.

A call to war and a call to prayer.

That's how the residents of Macedonia's second-largest city were awakened yesterday. At 4:45 a.m., sniper fire broke the stillness of dawn. Moments later, the usual muezzin's call to prayer echoed from an ethnic-Albanian mosque. Around 7 a.m., machine-gun fire and a lone mortar sounded from the sun-drenched hills surrounding Tetovo, as bells pealed from a Macedonian church.

The eruption of fighting here brings the separatist Albanian uprising - once confined to remote border areas with Kosovo - into Macedonia proper. And it opens up a new front that threatens to again ignite a much broader war in this volatile Balkan region.

"These provocations are bringing us to the edge of war," Macedonian Defense Minister Ljuben Paunovski warned yesterday.

The spreading conflict - touched off by a growing Albanian insurgency in a NATO-established buffer zone in Serbia - is a blow to Macedonia's fragile coalition government. And it puts added pressure on moderate ethnic Albanian leaders here, who have been pursuing inter-ethnic dialogue on behalf of Albanians - who make up one-fourth of Macedonia's population.

On Wednesday, police battled rebels for several hours here and in neighboring villages. One Tetovo man was killed in crossfire, and fires burned on the hillside into the evening - a stark reminder to locals of what Balkan ethnic-cleansing campaigns in Kosovo and Bosnia looked like.

Dreams of harmony - and Macedonia's reputation for peacefully surviving the break-up of Yugoslavia - are falling prey to hardening ethnic divisions and renewed support for extremists on both sides.

"The kids play war - it's simple. [Albanians] are like animals," says Jovica Taseski, a Macedonian electrician who lives at the foot of the hill where the heaviest fighting occurred. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't say that, I know - but I am very angry. We gave them land, jobs, power. They have everything, but it's never enough."

Ethnic Albanians - who are represented in government - disagree. They're tired, they say, of waiting for equal rights, and are becoming increasingly militant.

"We always believed that rights would be granted ... but it was all lies," says Mazlam Ilazi, an ethnic Albanian who could not return to his village of Selce yesterday, because it was sealed off by police. "If our demands are not granted, it will get worse," he says. "I support the rebels.... I think everyone should die for their freedom, or be granted their rights."

Such views illustrate the depth of fear engendered by the fighting, and frustrate the handful of conflict resolution specialists who have tried to avoid the abyss here that Bosnia and Kosovo fell into.

"Before the incidents, I had the feeling that we were getting to know one another better," says Albert Hani, the ethnic Albanian head of the Nansen Dialogue Center in the capital, Skopje.

"Macedonia is an example of an experiment that really worked until now. People saw it in their common interest to live without fear; problems were solved without violence."

Ethnic divisions are de rigueur in the Balkans, but paradoxically, Albanians and Macedonians here are among the most segregated peoples of the region. While Muslims, Serbs, and Croats lived together, intermarried, and celebrated one another's festivals in Bosnia, for example, the groups here remained divided.

In Tetovo, young ethnic Albanians hang out on Marshal Tito Street. They buy - almost exclusively - from Albanian shops. They attend Albanian-language schools. Macedonians, likewise, hang out on the parallel Jane Sandinski Street, frequent their shops, and go to their schools.

"As much as we are divided, it works somehow," says Sretan Koceski, a Macedonian who heads the Youth Information Center in Tetovo. "Other republics were so mixed and killed each other, but here it works ... there is space for everyone."

Still, he says, Macedonians are slowly moving out of the Albanian-dominated west of the country. People joke that the Albanian sector of the capital, Skopje, on the left bank of the river, means that the area will one day become a "second Beirut."

"This problem is deep inside us," says Mr. Koceski. "There will always be someone who is not satisfied."

"How can we fight that? Only through education," says Memet Memeti, the ethnic Albanian head of the Multikultura dialogue group in Tetovo. "This is a very fragile society, and because we don't know each other, we have doubts," he says. "I have never been invited to a Macedonian house; I have neighbors, and every day say 'Hi, how are you?' and it ends there."

Those who are looking for answers through extremism, he says, don't understand what they are risking. "To get me to fight, you must beat me, kill my brother, and destroy my livelihood," Mr. Memeti says. "That was the case in Kosovo, not here, where 99 percent of Albanians are included in the system.

"In Kosovo, when someone calls for dialogue, they are branded a traitor," he adds. "If we go for peace here, and it is seen as noble work, people will support it."

Such support seemed far away yesterday, as Tetovo residents huddled in groups or settled in a grassy central park - amid sporadic bouts of shooting - to marvel at the burning hillside.

"War is not good for anybody," says Halim Halimi, the ethnic Albanian brother-in-law of the man caught and killed in crossfire Wednesday. Mourners gathered outside the house, where near the front door blood stained the brick wall and sandy ground.

"Albanians do not like war, but it is imposed on us," he says, as volleys of gunfire sent the crowd to the cover of a wall. "I think it is the right answer of the population - it's just a response to what the government has done."

The Youth Information Center's Koceski is more philosophical about the dialogue. "It's not clear if this is D-Day, or something else," he says. We have the experience of Bosnia, and know that when you play with national feelings, it is something very dangerous.

"Maybe this is like a renaissance period for Albanians; maybe it will calm down in 10 years," Koceski adds. "But then will there be any Macedonians here?"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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