Sasha Sofronieski and Remzi Ramadani live on opposite sides of the troubled Macedonian capital, Skopje.
Both come from educated, middle-class families - not a traditional breeding ground for ethnic hatred - yet both fear they will end up fighting on opposing sides in a bloody street war between Macedonian Slavs and ethnic-Albanians. They used to have friends in the other community, they say, but now turn away when they meet in the street.
Mr. Sofronieski, a dentistry student, chats with friends in a cafe on the Macedonian side of town. Graffiti on a nearby wall reads, "The lion will smash the eagle!" referring to the Macedonian lion emblem and the eagle insignia of the ethnic-Albanian National Liberation Army, which launched its antigovernment campaign three months ago. "They are terrorists, trying to destroy our country," Sofronsieski says of the NLA. "They murder our policemen, who were just young guys like me."
Across town, Mr. Ramadani, an unemployed teacher, disagrees. "The Macedonians call Albanians terrorists and separatists, but that's a lie," he says. "We have asked for equal rights peacefully in Parliament for 10 years with no results. It is only natural that we would take up arms."
Macedonia has been tense ever since it gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. The country's 30 percent ethnic-Albanian minority has long campaigned for recognition as a constituent nationality of Macedonia, more state-sector jobs, and more Albanian-language schools.
In February, an NLA training camp was discovered in the northern village of Tanusevci. Since then, clashes between security forces and the rebels have radicalized opinion on both sides to the point where the country is teetering at the brink of civil war.
"A mood shift has occurred in the form of fear that violence may no longer be restricted to the 'front' in Tetovo or Kumanovo, but could become a form of random urban terror by civilians against civilians," says Eran Fraenkel of Search for Common Ground, a Washington-based NGO.
A history of bloody civilian wars in nearby Kosovo, Bosnia, and Croatia has induced Western diplomats to treat Macedonia's insurgency, by an estimated 600 active rebel fighters, as a major regional crisis. "We are seeing budding vigilante actions in this conflict," says Sam Vaknin, an analyst for Central European Review and United Press International. "It is latent. Civilian violence is waiting to erupt."
On April 28, the conflict escalated when eight policemen were ambushed by NLA guerrillas. Within days, dozens of Albanian shops were burned or sprayed with swastikas in the southern town of Bitola. In Skopje, armed, masked men attacked Lozana Cafe, a popular meeting place for Albanian intellectuals, killing one person and injuring several others.
The NLA declared a "free zone" in the northwestern Sar Mountains three weeks ago. Despite warnings it was prepared to launch a "final" assault on rebel-held towns, so far the government has shown restraint, mindful of civilians who refuse to leave the area. On Saturday, President Boris Trajkovski vowed to resolve the crisis "both politically and militarily."
Sofronieski must serve two years in the military after graduation, but this doesn't bother him. "Many guys have volunteered to join the Army," he says. "If the situation gets worse, I would have to stop studying and go to fight."
Like many Macedonians, he perceives the insurgents as a threat to the Macedonian state. "We have worked hard to develop our country economically and now these terrorists are threatening to destroy it," he says. "They have another country - Albania. We have only little Macedonia."
Across town, Ramadani says that if the conflict spreads or drags on, he will send his parents to safety in Kosovo and join the NLA. "What else can I do?" he asks, spreading his hands. "I have no work." There is an estimated 60 percent unemployment rate among ethnic Albanians, twice the rate among Macedonian Slavs.
Ramadani, despite his pedagogical training, only occasionally works as a substitute teacher or day laborer.
"Disgruntled, unemployed men are prime candidates for recruitment by extremists," says Vera Budway, a Balkan analyst at the East-West Institute in Prague, the Czech Republic. "The roots of Macedonia's problem are in economic inequality, which breeds radical nationalism."
Ramadani holds up Lobi, an Albanian magazine that pictures Hysni Shaquiri, a member of Parliament who joined the NLA in the mountains. He holds a machine gun, with the quote: "Albanians must settle their problems with a rifle." Ramandani says, "He is not a terrorist, he is a hero."
Sofronieski, for his part, displays a Macedonian-language newspaper with gruesome pictures of the scene where the eight Macedonian police were killed. "These were human victims," he says. "The Albanians aren't really fighting for an Albanian university. They are allowed to study at our university. What they really want is Greater Albania. I've heard about it on TV many times."
Iso Rusi, editor-in-chief of Lobi, says the language difference has produced a dangerous gulf in understanding. For example, neither ethnic-Albanian parties nor the NLA have called for independence, but the Macedonian public overwhelmingly believes that is the Albanian dream. "When you compare news media in Albanian or in Macedonian, you often get completely different information," Mr. Rusi says. "In the past few months there has been a massive increase in hate language ... on both sides."
After watching a TV news report, Lidia, a well-traveled Macedonian who didn't want her full name used, says: "Three months ago I wouldn't have believed it, but now I say that the only good Albanian is a dead Albanian. I am a woman, but even I am prepared get a gun and fight for my country."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor