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War Mentality Is Spreading in Macedonia

Balkans: The gap widens between civilians on both sides of the ethnic divide even as talks continue. Anti-rebel protest in capital attracts 3,000.

July 29, 2001|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SKOPJE, Macedonia — Even here in Macedonia's capital, where people still live in mixed neighborhoods, many ethnic Albanians say they are reconciled to a renewal of the armed conflict with ethnic Macedonians that began in February.

That sentiment did not seem to be waning Saturday despite a shaky cease-fire and continued intensive negotiations between the top political leaders of the two ethnic groups. There was no concrete progress reported in the talks, which began at midday in the lake resort city of Ohrid, but President Boris Trajkovski's office said they will continue today.

A hardening of position similar to the one evident among ethnic Albanians, who make up at least a quarter of the country's population, is visible on the ethnic Macedonian side. By early evening Saturday, about 3,000 ethnic Macedonians were thronged in front of the parliament, hoisting placards with messages that included "Stop Albanian Ethnic Cleansing," "Stop Albanian Nazi Fascism," "NATO Liars" and "Uncle Sam and Euro-Man Free Yourself From the Great Albanian Nazi Fascist Grasp."

The crowd booed each time speakers said either the word "Albanian" or the name James Pardew, the chief U.S. mediator.

On Friday, in fact, the State Department ordered all "nonemergency" U.S. Embassy personnel and their families to leave Macedonia. It also recommended that all other U.S. citizens leave because of heightened tensions and anti-Western sentiments. Additional U.S. Marines are scheduled to arrive soon to protect remaining embassy staff.

With the sense of threat heightening, ethnic Albanians in Skopje, who have tended to maintain some psychological distance from the fighting in majority Albanian regions, say they now feel heartened by the rebel activity.

"In the first days, when the fighting started, people said, 'OK, maybe it's not a war, maybe the Macedonians will want to solve the problem because they do not want a bigger problem,' " said Sulejman Rushiti, co-owner of a cafe popular with artists and students.

"But then, when we realized they did not want to have a real dialogue, Albanians, especially young men, did not feel safe being civilians, because being a civilian felt like being a target. At every checkpoint of the Macedonian security forces, you were vulnerable if you had bad luck," he said.

A subtle but significant change has taken place in the outlook of a number of ethnic Albanians: The National Liberation Army, which is the ethnic Albanian guerrilla group and which hardly existed two years ago, has become a credible and respected force.

"In the minds of many ethnic Albanians here, the NLA has gone from being viewed as criminals to being viewed as heroes," said a Western diplomatic source.

It would be impossible, for instance, for the ethnic Albanian political leaders taking part in the negotiations with their Macedonian counterparts to make a deal without the tacit approval of the rebels.

In Skopje, which has the largest concentration of both ethnic Albanians and ethnic Macedonians in the country, there is still a lot of interchange between the two groups. Increasingly, though, Albanians say they are being treated by authorities as suspected rebel sympathizers.

On the ethnic Albanian side of Skopje, north of the Vardar River, which divides the city, fewer ethnic Macedonians are coming to shop or go out with friends. At a cafe near a bustling bazaar where two large mosques overlook the busy streets, young Albanian men were exchanging stories Saturday of abuse by Macedonian authorities and even former colleagues.

Arsin, an electronics wholesaler who refused to give his last name because he works closely with many ethnic Macedonians, said that since the fighting began, his Macedonian customers have refused to pay him.

"We sell refrigerators, televisions, audio equipment, and I have 200 customers. Probably 90% are Macedonian, and I have a big problem collecting money from them since the war started," he said.

"I am owed about 1.5 million deutsche marks [about $750,000], and they are not saying that they are not paying because I'm Albanian. But they say they will pay me only after the war stops," he added.

The man's conclusion is that there are only two options for Macedonia: that it be divided into two countries, or that North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops patrolit to keep order, as they do in the neighboring Yugoslav province of Kosovo.

Fueling such views are the increasingly hawkish demands from grass-roots ethnic Macedonian groups, one of which organized Saturday evening's rally in front of the parliament. The first of a long list of demands read to the crowd was for the Macedonian security forces to launch an offensive against ethnic Albanian guerrillas and take back the territory that the rebels occupied in recent fighting.

Another demand was for the U.N. tribunal in The Hague to turn its attention to "crimes against humanity by the terrorist NLA."

Such language is exactly what makes ethnic Albanians eager to embrace the rebel force. Increasingly, people who are labeled terrorists are people many ethnic Albanians know personally.

"We don't like to be called terrorists," said Vllaznim Emini, a university student in economics who was at the bazaar cafe Saturday.

Drejtim Bina, a fourth-year medical student sitting with him, nodded emphatically. His view of the situation was affected by an incident a week ago in which a young man in a nearby ethnic Albanian village was injured when government security forces threw a grenade into his family's home.

"That young boy who was injured a week ago, the Macedonian media called him a terrorist, but that boy was a student at the university. I knew him, and he went home for a visit, and now he's lost a leg because the [security forces] threw the grenade," Bina said.

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