Massacre waiting to happen (The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, 7 July 2001)

08 July 2001

Massacre waiting to happen

Conal Urquhart
(curquhart at

A SENIOR government official has warned that Macedonian armed forces
could massacre Albanian civilians unless the international community
intervenes in the country's burgeoning civil war.
    He said some elements of the police were not under government
control and one of the major Macedonian political parties, a partner in
the coalition government, was actively destabilising peace efforts and
fomenting ethnic hatred.
    The official, a Macedonian Slav, said there was a real danger of
some Macedonians committing war crimes on a scale seen in Croatia,
Bosnia and Kosovo. "We have our own Karadzic and Mladic (Bosnian Serbs
indicted by the Hague for massacres of Bosnian Muslims) in our midst. We
need the European Union to make it clear to some members of this
government that they will be sent to The Hague to answer for their
actions if they step outside acceptable boundaries."
    The Macedonian government will struggle to deliver the ceasefire it
signed on Thursday because of the malevolent power wielded by some
members of VMRO, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation,
which holds a number of key ministries.
    The ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) control a large
swathe of border territory and have resisted the attempts of the
Macedonian security forces to dislodge them. British soldiers will lead
a Nato peacekeeping force, when and if a political solution is agreed,
which will feature improved rights for Albanians in Macedonia.
    The VMRO, whose name derives from its roots as a nationalist party
opposed to Turkish occupation a century ago, has used its ministries to
arm civilians, create paramilitary groups and persecute Albanians,
according to Macedonian government sources.
    The nationalists have also become increasingly anti-Nato, blaming
them for the resurgence of Albanian guerrillas and a recent agreement
where NLA fighters were removed from the outskirts of Skopje. "There is
a clear anti-Nato structure emerging within the government of Macedonia.
It is not inconceivable that when Nato comes they will be fired on by
these elements rather than the NLA," said the government official.
    As the fighting continued this week, hundreds of Albanians were
re-building their homes after government officials supported by police
bulldozed and destroyed Albanian houses claiming that they contravened
planning regulations. The action appalled Macedonian moderates in the
government but they were unable to take action because the two
ministries involved are controlled by VMRO elements pursuing an
anti-Albanian agenda.   Garip Azemi, 46, returned to his home in the
suburbs of Skopje to find its supporting walls knocked out and the roof
on the point of collapse. "I was devastated. My home is all I have."
    Veli Mici, 31, a relative, said the police inspector was sympathetic
to their appeals to halt the destruction but each time he tried to stop
the demolition he was over-ruled by his superiors.
    Telephone calls to the ministry responsible for planning were not
answered and it was left to local politicians to intervene on the ground
in other areas. Imer Selmani, the mayor of a local council outside the
capital, managed to prevent bulldozers from levelling an Albanian house.
    "I warned the official and the policemen in attendance that if they
began flattening houses here they were declaring war on 80% of the
population here or 20,000 people. I told them that they were creating a
crisis and they would be responsible for its consequences."
    Tens of thousands of Albanian homes are not recognised by the state
and some Albanian villages that have existed for decades cannot be found
on official maps because the central government has not recognised their
right to own land or build property. Historically a visit from a
planning official was dealt with by a bribe which would supposedly lead
to legal recognition but simply gave the owners a few years grace until
the next visit.
    The destruction of houses is just one of a host of hostile actions
taken by extremists in the government which have radicalised the
Albanians in Macedonia, who make up one-third of the population.
    The NLA began their uprising in February purportedly to demand equal
rights for Albanians in Macedonia. Some Macedonians believe the NLA aims
to separate Albanian-dominated areas from the rest of Macedonia to
create a Greater Albania or Greater Kosovo.
    Boris Trajkovski, the Macedonian president and a member of the VMRO,
is keen to reach a political settlement with the ethnic Albanian
community but he and other moderates are undermined by his fellow VMRO
cabinet ministers, including Ljupco Georgievski, the prime minister, and
Ljube Boshkovski, the interior minister who controls the country's main
military force, the police.
    The two ministers have been described as "completely insane" by
government colleagues, a view which is shared by western diplomats. They
are believed to have been behind recent anti-government, anti-Nato
demonstrations during which foreigners were beaten up and shots were
fired through the window of the president's office.
    The senior government official said: "We do not know what will
happen next. Some of the police reservists are not under any official
control. I would not be surprised if there was a bombing attempt in the
capital or some kind of political assassinations. There is a battle for
the government between those who want a political solution and those who
want a purely military solution. It is not clear who will win."
    The VMRO also controls television stations and newspapers which feed
the Macedonian Slav public their prejudices in which the terms
'Albanian' and 'terrorist' have become synonymous. One report featured a
presenter placing a round in a mortar and then firing it at an NLA
position. Faced with such reporting, Macedonians, who have mostly
co-existed peacefully with Albanians, are coming to distrust and fear
    The Albanian community have become increasingly alienated since the
dispute began in February. Every military assault on a rebel-held
village begins with the shelling of the mosque, which to Albanians
symbolises not merely an attack on the NLA but an attack on their faith.
    This week has seen the arrest and harassment of senior Albanian
figures and Albanian journalists . According to Human Rights Watch, some
refugees have been refused re-entry into Macedonia. In one incident
confirmed by the government, police reservists harassed and threatened
civilians in the village of Rasce where there has been no NLA activity.
    Over 100,000 refugees, mostly Albanian, have left Macedonia. In
Kosovo, the international community is preparing for many more. Eight
miles north of the Macedonian border, the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees has prepared a large refugee transit camp with
water, sanitation and plenty of room for expansion.
    The Macedonian government has increased its firepower, leasing or
buying an airforce of eight helicopters and four ground attack fighters
from the Ukraine. The aerial power has flattened Albanian villages but
made only minimal impact on the NLA, whose numbers have swelled from 300
to 3,000 over the past five months. Government officials admit they do
not have the equipment or the ability to defeat the rebels.
    The NLA is likely to carry on growing as instability continues and
it develops new supply routes to circumvent increased policing of the
Kosovo border by Nato troops. It can draw on the arms and manpower of
the Kosovo Liberation Army, from which it emerged, while recruiting
disaffected Macedonian Albanians.
    In the Kosovar town of Elisan, Vebi, 28, said that he was resting
after fighting with the NLA in Gracani. A former KLA fighter, he said
that there were around 150 men from his town currently with the NLA,
while dozens of others were waiting to be summoned into action.
    "Crossing the border into Macedonia and avoiding Nato troops is
easy. I have been smuggling here for years and guiding supplies into
Kosovo during the war. They would need to build a wall to stop us.
    "And even then, we would just tunnel under it," he said.

The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday