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Sunday, 17 March, 2002, 16:49 GMT
Macedonia - one year on
An ethnic Albanian man shakes hands with a member of an ethnically mixed police patrol in Radusa
Progress: An ethnically mixed police force patrols an Albanian stronghold
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By the BBC's Nick Wood in Selce, Macedonia
Exactly a year ago, Selce - a sprawling hillside village in northern Macedonia - was filling up with young men, ready to take part in what many thought could be a fifth Balkans war.

An Albanian guerrilla in Selce during last year's fighting
Selce was the guerrilla HQ in last year's fighting
On 16 March 2001, the first major clashes between the country's security forces and so-called National Liberation Army (NLA) took place in the surrounding hills.

Selce, positioned just a few miles north of the city of Tetovo, served as the ethnic Albanian guerrilla group's temporary headquarters.

This weekend, those young men were back again, but this time dressed in civilian clothing and taking part in an open air concert.

For some of them, the return to Selce has been a very long journey.

"I was sure I would be back here again, dead or alive," said Fazli Veliu, the keynote speaker at the event and a co-founder of the NLA.

Return to normality

After more than six months of fighting, and a Western-brokered peace process that has lasted even longer, the often-quoted fifth Balkans war appears to have been avoided.

Celebrations such as this weekend's in Selce are an awkward reminder of the support which that guerrilla army still holds

Macedonia has now slipped far from the world's headlines, especially in the wake of 11 September.

Selce now looks much like any other Macedonian village. Any damage from the conflict has been repaired.

Still, the very the fact the celebration took place is a reminder of the disbanded guerrilla army's pull on the local population.

At the entrance to the village was a huge red banner hung with the words "Honour the dead of the NLA."

Marshals, dressed in black with the word "sigurimi," or security, emblazoned in red across their chests guided the crowds - uniforms almost identical to those of the gunmen's military police.

Disconcerting image

It is these types of images that many among the country's majority Slav population find hard to reconcile with NLA's avowed aims - that Albanians should have the same rights as their Macedonian Slav neighbours.

In other words, last year's war was not for territory but for civil rights.

"My vision was to make people understand us, especially the Macedonians so we could be integrated in the Balkans and in Europe," said Mr Veliu, who has exchanged his baggy camouflage uniform and revolver for a charcoal grey suit.

Ethnic Albanians, who make up an estimated quarter of the population (some say much more), are well on the way to being granted those rights.

Albanian gains

Local councils have greater powers, the Albanian language can be used in parliament, and identity papers - once so hard to come by - are being promised with greater ease.

Ethnic Albanians sit in a cafe in Radusa
Ethnic Albanians have won greater rights
In return, the guerrilla army has disbanded and Macedonian security forces have returned to nearly all of the territory once occupied by the rebels.

The message presented by the guerrilla army's former leaders is clearly one of victory, and that the war was worth it.

At the cost of 64 dead (excluding the number of civilians killed or injured,) Macedonia's Albanian population got the recognition they wanted.

"The key factor was launching the war, which was just and unavoidable, and then the intervention of Nato and the European Union," explained Mr Veliu.


But not everyone in Selce shares his views.

Ganimete Xhelili, a 36-year-old house wife, sometimes questions what the war has done for her family.

Along with her 76-year-old mother-in-law, husband and three children, she was forced to flee the village as the fighting began.

"Men from the headquarters came and told us to leave because the village would be shelled," she said.

They trudged for 12 hours through a snow-ridden mountain pass into Kosovo, returning home six months later to find their house ransacked by the Macedonian army.

Ganimete says she has yet to see the benefits of fighting. She says little has changed.

"After the war we were supposed to get something, but we didn't get anything. We live off humanitarian aid. We hoped for better but it doesn't look that way."

The Xhelili family may eventually see the benefits of the peace process, as half a billion dollars' worth of aid promised by a donors' conference earlier this month makes its way into the economy.

Likewise, it is Western aid and mediation that has ensured Macedonian politicians stick with the peace process.

Uneasy ending

There is still little faith in the intentions of the NLA's leadership.

While EU officials based in Skopje say renewed fighting is highly unlikely, they admit that Albanians still hold far too many guns, and believe that further weapons collections may have to be made.

Celebrations such as this weekend's in Selce are an awkward reminder of the support which that guerrilla army still holds.

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