Kosovo Albanians have never had much love for the Macedonian government, which is dominated by Slavs. Their hatred only grew during the Serbian attacks two years ago, when more than 300,000 ethnic Albanians fled south to Macedonia only to be turned away, or forced to wait for days in the no-man's-land along the border before international pressure forced Macedonia to let them in.
Now, as the Macedonian government struggles to squash an ethnic-Albanian uprising, US and Western officials seem to be losing a battle to dampen Kosovo Albanian support of the rebels. For in this southern Kosovo town of 100,000, as in others, ties to Macedonia's Albanians go beyond ethnicity. In most cases here, they are kin.
"We are worried about our family," says Besim Ymeri, who sells socks and hosiery at a dusty railroad crossing. "We know what happened here to our family.... We don't want the same thing to happen to them."
At Mr. Ymeri's household, the TV is tuned in to the news constantly. "They should keep fighting the war until they achieve their goals," he says.
But support in Kosovo goes beyond even sympathy. The Macedonian government argues that most of the fighters in the hills of northern and western Macedonia come from Kosovo, and it has criticized NATO for not stopping them. Western officials say the Macedonian claims are exaggerated, but it's clear that some fighters have crossed and that others are still trying.
"There are only a few people going - only some experts, who know how to fight," says a former Kosovo Liberation Army fighter. The now-disbanded KLA is the rebel group that fought federal Yugoslav forces in Kosovo.
"They are only going to go as trainers, to teach them how to fight," he says, speaking at a cafe in Pristina, Kosovo's capital. "They only want their own people, who know the area, and who are trustworthy. I might go there."
Meanwhile, international efforts to cool Kosovar support for Macedonian rebels have intensified, as Western aid-giving nations struggle to keep the peace in this volatile region.
Late last week, the ranking American diplomat in Kosovo, Christopher Dell, published articles in two Kosovo newspapers appealing to Kosovo Albanians to stop sending fighters - whom Mr. Dell called "false patriots." "Is giving up the hopes of self-governance forever really the price you want to pay to protect thieves and murders?" he wrote.
On Friday, leaders of the three main Kosovo parties agreed to sign a declaration urging Macedonia's rebels to put down their weapons and go home. But these and other efforts seem to have made little impression on ordinary Kosovars. Kosovo Albanians were outraged by the recent killing of two ethnic-Albanian civilians in Tetovo, Macedonia, an incident captured by a television crew and broadcast repeatedly.
Kosovo Albanians say the "executions" recall actions of the Serbian security forces in Kosovo two years ago, when an estimated 10,000 ethnic Albanians died - mostly civilians. US Army Col. Bryan Owens, a battalion commander in the American sector, says local Albanians are supplying would-be fighters crossing the border by giving them food and shelter, or at least keeping silent about their presence. UN officials also believe the fighters in Macedonia are being financed in part by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, and by the same diaspora that financed the war against the Serbs in Kosovo.
Moderate Albanians have expressed their own frustration with the support the rebels enjoy among their people.
Shkelzen Maliqi, a respected commentator, wrote last week that "in Macedonia, in Kosovo and in the Albanian diaspora (especially among former fighters and the youth), there is the euphoria of liberation similar to the one in 1998 when the Kosovo Liberation Army emerged." Decrying "the policy of the AK-47" and lamenting that "the militants do not listen to anybody," Mr. Maliqi warned of "a catastrophe in which the fate of the nation is in the hands of a new militant group."
"We do not support war," says Sherif Konjufca, a spokesman for the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo. "We support the people there who have done everything over the years to find a solution through peaceful methods."
Many Kosovo Albanians say the fighting can stop only when the Macedonian government stops trying to crush the rebels and shows a willingness to negotiate, an option it has so far refused. They vow that if the fighting grows worse, they will try to find a way to join the fighters.
"I am ready to help my people in Macedonia with everything I have," said Skender Isufi, an unemployed father of two, drinking coffee in an Urosevac pizzeria Saturday evening.
"If they find a solution in a peaceful way, that's very good. If they don't, we are ready to fight with them," he said. "The Macedonians are pushing us into that."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor