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(BBC) Double vision in Macedonia


Saturday, 24 March, 2001, 16:30 GMT

Double vision in Macedonia

People have very different views of the killing of two ethnic Albanians
By John Sweeney in Macedonia

This is a very funny kind of war. The banging is loud enough and the
tanks are real enough and the hatreds are intense enough and yet total
war it most definitely is not.
    In the capital of Macedonia, Skopje, Slav beauties still sip their
cappuccinos and pout grumpily at their bored boyfriends.
    It could be the King's Road in London's Chelsea, were it not for the
high speed gabbling of the television announcers as Macedonian
television shows fuzzy pictures of two Albanian terrorists being shot
dead, hand grenades in their hands.
    Three quarters of an hour away in Tetovo, Albanian men sip their
Turkish coffee in the cafes and talk about the war, their misery at the
repression of the Macedonians and how much they support the rebels in
the hills.
    Every now and then the Macedonian army let rip with a machine-gun at
the hills where the rebels are hiding.
    Then the men in the café listen to the gunfire, and shake their
heads. But do they take up arms? No, they sip more coffee.

Marriage made in hell'

Macedonia is a country made of two peoples who are barely speaking to
each other. It is like a marriage made in hell.
    The Macedonians are Orthodox Slavs, kith and kin of the Serbs,
martial, tough, some might say a little humourless.
    The Albanians are mainly Muslim, clever, witty, some might say a
little, well, sly.
    The Macedonians form the majority of the population, the Albanians a
mere 23%, say the Macedonians.
    "Oh, no, they don't," say the Albanians - the Macedonians are the
majority, but the Albanians will soon be the more numerous.

Political and military power

And yet the Macedonians hog real political and military power.
    "Oh no we don't," argue the Macedonians - it is like an awful
British pantomime.
    Every fact of Macedonian life is open to two different
    To report from here, you have to see in double vision - it makes for
bad headaches.
    The killing of the two Albanians in Tetovo illustrates the surreal
strangeness of the war, and the difficulty of covering it.

Divided opinion

For the Macedonians the two Albanians were terrorists who tried to kill
their soldiers and deserved to be shot.
    But the word in the Albanian cafes was that it was not a hand
grenade, but a mobile phone in a man's hand that caused him to be
    I walked to the site of the killings.
    The Macedonian police were there, and a crowd of Macedonian
civilians. They talked of terrorists. The two dead men lay in the dust,
around 200 metres away, a pathetic sight.
    We tried to get closer but the Macedonian crowd didn't want us to
get closer.
    One foreign journalist said exactly the wrong thing: "ska problem",
"no problem" in Albanian.
    Hearing the wrong language, the Macedonians pushed him and the rest
of us back, and any hope of seeing something of what happened for
ourselves was lost.
    But television is a wonderful thing.
    In an Albanian bar, I watched Macedonian TV showing the killings.

Sensitive issue

The pictures were poor and you couldn't make out the objects in the
men's hands. A soldier looked as though he was executing two men. It
looked very, very bad.
    Knowing the sensitivity of the issue, I went to a BBC office and
looked at the television footage of the shooting on a BBC monitor at
extremely slow speed.
    This time the picture was clear. The Albanians had hand grenades.
They did throw them at the Macedonians who shot them, not in cold blood,
but in a frenzy of fear because they were under attack.
    The British Army would have done the same in Northern Ireland.
    Perhaps the killings will help the Albanian moderates to argue the
case for peace and patience more strongly with their own people.