For Drita and her ethnic-Albanian family, it is the hours after nightfall - riven with gunfire - that spark more fear than they've ever known.
As rifle fire erupts again and again just yards from the family compound, Drita - which is not her real name - scoots to the floor of a narrow hallway in the middle of the house, pulling a warm sweater over her shoulders as if it were armor.
"Why are they shooting?" she asks, her barely audible voice cracking as she lights a candle with shaking hands. "It only increases the hatred that Albanians have of the police."
"These police," rasps Drita's barefoot mother, pulling a sweater over her long nightgown as more bullet bursts cause her to pause. "They are the ones who are making the panic. We are civilians here."
These police are Macedonian security forces who have deployed around Tetovo, a city of 200,000 that is the center of Macedonia's ethnic-Albanian minority. The forces are here to thwart an ethnic Albanian insurgency, a la Kosovo, waging a guerrilla war to force the government to address basic rights for people like Drita and her family.
In the six days since the rebellion erupted here, government bombardments of suspected rebel positions have intensified daily. Yesterday, the fighting spread north toward Kosovo and became so intense that a German peacekeeping contingent - support for troops in Kosovo - was forced to move farther north.
"We're leaving tomorrow," Drita says with determination.
It is these moments when the rumors take on a life of their own. Drita's family have heard reports that 50 policemen have been killed, that revenge is on its way - that the rebels will swoop down on Tetovo causing a bloodbath; and that the police are already arming Slavs for self-defense - or a massacre.
Tetovo's ethnic Albanian women and children are now beginning to flee en masse, leaving only the men behind.
But Macedonian Slavs who make up 40 percent of the population in Tetovo, but 70 percent nationwide, feel even more threatened. They were the first to send women and children away for safety. Thousands demonstrated in the capital, Skopje, Saturday night and again yesterday, asking to be armed.
"This is madness. [The ethnic Albanians] want to make the same scenario as in Bosnia and Kosovo," says a Macedonian Slav man who confirms that most women and children in his neighborhood have left. "They are very disappointed, very angry, and they're scared."
Tetovo conflict intensifies
But even as a parade of dignitaries, diplomats, and the UN Security Council condemn the violence and issue dire warnings that it could destabilize the region, the intensity of the conflict here is wreaking havoc on the fragile ethnic balance.
"I can't control the police, and often they shoot because of their own fear," says Rauf Ramadani, Tetovo's chief of police, who is a minority Albanian in a police force heavily dominated by Slavs. "Everybody is evacuating. The Macedonians [Slavs] are scared of the rebels; the Albanians are scared of the police."
Calling the rebels "criminals playing the patriotic role," he says the "most dangerous thing is that division between Macedonians and Albanians in the police force is getting out of control."
"Communique No. 7," issued on Saturday by the guerrillas who call themselves the National Liberation Army, called for "all able-bodied citizens to take arms," and for ethnic Albanians in the police and army to leave the forces.
It adds up to a strategy similar to that of the ethnic Albanian rebels who "liberated" Kosovo in 1999. The rebels there provoked Serb-dominated Yugoslav troops into heavy military response, which drew in NATO airstrikes. The popular acronym of the Kosovo rebels, the UCK, is deliberately used by their Macedonian counterparts here.
"When the situation gets out of control, people will support the guerrillas, and the sympathy will be unstoppable," Mr. Ramadani says. "This is their tactic."
Repressing the relatively small number of guerrillas - probably several hundred, though the number is believed to be growing - is proving difficult for Macedonian forces. But not for lack of gunpowder.
Machine gun fire into the hills from positions in the city limits is so heavy that electricity and telephone wires are shredded.
Macedonian troops press on
But except for an occasional sniper's bullet - or an even rarer rebel mortar shell - Macedonian units seem to be more engaged in pressing an offensive. Nevertheless, even hard-line political supporters of the rebels say there is still room for dialogue.
"In every statement, the UCK says that in one hand it holds a dove, and in the other a weapon - and that at any moment they are ready to get rid of the weapon," says Mikereme Rusi, head of the Alliance of Albanian Women in Macedonia. "The government dismisses it. They should ask themselves: 'What made these men - who are fathers and sons - take up their weapons?' "
Ms. Rusi spoke at an anti-government rally in Tetovo on Wednesday, which coincided with the outbreak of fighting. She was quoted then as issuing a warning that the government should consider every Albanian to be a member of the rebels. She now says her words were taken out of context.
"These freedom fighters can't be called terrorists - they don't kill civilians - and they can't be ignored anymore," says Rusi. She says she is for peace, and that the final result anyway - at the bargaining table - is inevitable.
"We know from previous wars in the former Yugoslavia, that despite all the fighting, people had to talk," she says.
Such a realization appeared remote yesterday, as hillside houses were destroyed by the Macedonian onslaught.
"Now we only hear the message of force coming from the government," says Miliam Fejziu, a senior official of the once-outlawed University of Tetovo, which was granted permission to teach in the Albanian language last year. "Here dialogue has stopped. Macedonian [Slavs] have created a paranoia that if Albanians come, they will lose their country. If they keep thinking that way, war is inevitable."
That was the impression when dawn finally broke over Drita's house in Tetovo, after the shooting yielded to a two-hour respite, from about 4 a.m. to 6 a.m.
A baby awakened with a short cry, and neighbors checked with one another. But the cacophony of gunfire started up again. Windows and doors swung shut, as the community disappeared.
"Freedom is so good, and life is too short to spend it at war," says Drita, bleary-eyed after another sleepless night.
Soon there is a pause in the shooting. The family exchanges mobile phone numbers with one another. A taxi stops at the front gate - a drill that is hurriedly taking place up and down the street.
Duffel bags are loaded up, for a short stay away, they say, and there's a final round of hugs, and tears, for their father, who is staying behind. The car's engine revs, and Drita and her family leave.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor