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Thursday, 14 June, 2001, 11:41 GMT 12:41 UK
Skopje's atmosphere of fear
A convoy pases through Skopje
The military has a high profile on the streets of Skopje
By Paul Anderson in Skopje

In a cafe in Skopje's Albanian district of Cerava, they probe the depths of history to find an explanation for the current inter-ethnic strife in Macedonia.

Over thick black coffee the date they settle on is relatively recent by Balkans standards - 1912.

That is the date they trace the first Slavic victimisation of Albanians in Macedonia, right after the war against the Turks. And to a greater or lesser degree, they say, it has continued ever since.

Terrified

"At that point we used to be 70% of Macedonia - now we are 30%," says Adem Hyseni, a primary school mathematics teacher.

Ethnic Albanian refugee
Ethnic Albanians are continuing to flee into Kosovo
Like many of Skopje's Albanian community, he is terrified at the prospect of anti-Albanian communal violence if events turn for the worse in Macedonia. Thousands of people have sent their families to the safety of Kosovo.

But Adem is staying, because, he says, Albanians are used to it by now and they want to see it through. "Nobody wants a war," he says when the talk turns to the rebel fighting force, the National Liberation Army.

"But everyone has a right to fight, to be the victim of our own cause. We can't wait all our lives. We want to stay in this territory and we want the right to live here equally."

He denies categorically that the conflict is about a land and power grab led by Kosovo Albanians, who, as the Macedonians say, have imported their violent struggle to an otherwise peaceful, democratic country and brought it to the brink of civil war.

Battles closer

Skopje has the look of calm. People eat and drink in the dozens of street cafes and restaurants. There is not much of a security presence.

But most say they are terrified and fear the worst. Macedonians too are leaving the capital in increasing numbers and it is not difficult to see why.

They point north west, in the direction of the village the rebels now occupy just 10km away.

Funeral for victim of the conflict
Another victim of the conflict is buried
The battle - once confined to mountain areas north and north-west - has come perilously close. The rebels have warned they will attack unless the government meets their demands. Among those demands is a place at the negotiating table.

Among Macedonians there is a recognition that something has to be done to address at least some of the grievances of moderate Albanians.

Rebels blamed

Macedonians are proud of the fact that until now they have remained untouched by the inter-ethnic enmities which led to the Balkans wars of the 1990s.

They are proud that Macedonia hosted - for a while - several hundred thousand Albanians fleeing death and persecution in Kosovo in 1999.

And they fervently believe that there would not be trouble were it not for the presence of a small band of professional rebels from Kosovo, who bamboozle and press-gang illiterate Albanian villagers into joining their ranks.

Gordana Popsimonova, a Macedonian and a senior agricultural scientist at Skopje University, says she is scared and angry, with the rebels lying in wait so close to the city, particularly if they hit the power and water supplies.

Money driving conflict

But her anger turns first on the Macedonian Government for failing to protect her and the rest of its citizens.

Then it turns on the people who she believes started the conflict - not the self-styled fighters for Albanian rights, but the war profiteers. These are the people who ply a huge trade in smuggling cigarettes, arms and drugs in the border areas between Macedonia, Kosovo and Serbia.

"Their trade succeeds best in times of instability and insecurity," she said.

Money is driving this conflict, she says, and only money will end it.


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