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Crisis in Yugoslavia

At Macedonian Border, Locals Support Serbs

April 02, 1999|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KUMANOVO, Macedonia — In this hilly region where Serbian forces are embraced as cherished brothers by many and U.S. troops sneered at as ruthless bullies, the capture of three American soldiers on their doorstep was greeted Thursday with shrugs and even some vengeful satisfaction.

"I'm not interested in your three soldiers," said one man, a 65-year-old doctor who refused to give his name.

"Have you heard about your troops killing our Serb soldiers?" he added with great agitation. "You care more about three Americans than hundreds of Serbs."

The government of tiny Macedonia, to the south of Yugoslavia's war-torn Kosovo province, supports the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and even hopes to join the alliance. NATO nations have between 10,000 and 12,000 troops in the country. But many citizens, at least in some pockets of the country, detest NATO and the United States and are rallying around their Serbian neighbors to the north.

The Kumanovo area, where the three U.S. soldiers were surrounded by hostile forces Wednesday afternoon while on a reconnaissance mission, is just such an unfriendly region.

Given their location near the frontier with Yugoslavia and the similarities between the languages and cultures of the Serbs and Macedonian Slavs, Kumanovo locals have long had intense personal and business ties across the border. Many people watch Serbian television and listen to Serbian radio, with all of its anti-U.S. and anti-NATO propaganda.

There is a relatively large Serbian minority in the Kumanovo region, and there are many mixed marriages between Macedonians--the ethnic Slavs who make up the majority in Macedonia--and Serbs. Like the Serbs, the Macedonians' main religion is Christian Orthodox.

Macedonia is the only republic to have seceded from the former Yugoslav federation without bloodshed.

"We are like brothers with the Serbs," said Dragan Stojkovski, 26, a salesman at a sports store named Adidas in the town that bears the same name as the region. Then, spouting some popular Serbian propaganda, Stojkovski denounced the NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia, saying, "Their main targets are not arms factories but the civilian population.

"The Americans are the aggressors in Serbia," Stojkovski said. "I don't feel sorry for them."

Stojkovski's friend Zoran, 27, who owns a nearby clothing store, insisted that he likes Americans but opposes the airstrikes. But even he expressed little sympathy for the plight of the captive American soldiers.

"This is war," said Zoran, who refused to give his last name. "There are no laws in war. I'm not surprised this happened."

The pro-Serbian attitudes such as those voiced in Kumanovo are at odds with the Macedonian government's pro-NATO stance. Those who support the Serbs also are diametrically opposed to the sympathy and outrage that the country's large ethnic Albanian minority--about 23% of the population--feels for the tens of thousands of ethnic brethren being driven from their homes in Kosovo.

The influx of ethnic Albanian refugees, with their accounts of brutality and "ethnic cleansing," also raises the specter of nationalist feelings--and with it, fears of a drive for neighboring Albania to consolidate with the ethnic Albanian areas of Macedonia.

Ethnic Albanians living in the Kumanovo region expressed support for NATO and sympathy for the U.S. soldiers.

"I have a good opinion of NATO," said Imeri Adnan, 30, who is unemployed and lives in the village of Opaj a few miles from the city of Kumanovo. "They're here to defend us and to keep the war from escalating and spreading across the border."

But at a corner table in the Lion Cafe in Kumanovo, a lively conversation among Macedonians was spiced with comments such as, "Americans are like wolves."

But when pressed, not all of the diners revealed unequivocal feelings.

One of them, another Zoran, said he works for a U.S. military contract company. His job is painting jeeps and other vehicles green that had been white--the color of a U.N. peacekeeping contingent that is now being disbanded. The captured soldiers belong to an interim mission.

His political views reflected his pocketbook. "It bothers me that they captured the Americans because my salary is from an American firm," said Zoran, 30, who also would not give his last name.

His friends did not echo his concern. Sasha Maksimovski, a 27-year-old butcher, did not hide his disdain for NATO troops and his lack of pity for the captured soldiers. "Every war has captives," he said.

Zoran and his friends also disagreed about the threat facing Macedonia across its northern border. He said he fears that the Serbian troops, who are posted en masse just across the border, may invade Macedonia, spreading the war to his country.

President Clinton shares this concern and offered as a reason for the current NATO intervention in Yugoslavia his determination not to see the warfare and instability spread through Macedonia to Greece and Bulgaria.

But Zoran's friends scoffed at this notion.

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