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Thursday, 17 May, 2001, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
Inside Macedonia's rebel-held territory
Ethnic Albanian man looks through a hole in a wall of his house caused by a shell
House after house is damaged by shells
By Nick Thorpe in Slupcane, northern Macedonia

The soldiers at the last Macedonian army checkpoint are stern, but not hostile.

"Be careful, there are terrorists - up there on the left."

'Terrorists' is their word for the rebels.

Residents of the northern Macedonian town of Slupcane find shelter in a basement
Women and children shelter in basements
Suitably advised, we turn left, and after one or two villages, reach the first rebel roadblock.

Young, unshaven men in the black uniforms of the military police of the UCK, or National Liberation Army - emerge nervously from a roadside bunker. On their uniforms is the black, double-headed eagle on a red background of the Albanian flag.

This is the first shock. This is a uniformed army, albeit a rather ragged one. The letters 'UCK', are a little different on each uniform - embroidered in red thread onto berets or uniforms, by wives or sisters, or perhaps, to judge from the sewing, by the men themselves in the long hours of waiting.

Waiting game

The hills all around are quite beautiful - the black mountains of Skopje, as they are called. But in fact these are mere foothills to the taller, more jagged outbreaks of rock further north and west. Spring is giving way to summer, and scarlet poppies line the roadsides.

In the rebel-held territory, everyone is waiting. Waiting for the government ultimatum to expire. Wondering whether the Macedonian army will launch a ground attack, or just continue their pattern of the past fortnight - of firing artillery and tank shells at rebel positions from a safe distance.

Ethnic Albanians pass a dead horse killed during Macedonian bombings
Dead animals are starting to rot
In small villages, everyone waves at us. They do not get many visitors here, and our big armoured Land Rover looks like a weird white bird, the letters 'TV' on the side, in fluorescent orange tape, like strange wing markings. Chickens flutter out from our path, like in any other Balkan village. But the look in the eyes of the civilians, and of the rebel soldiers, is one of nervous apprehension.

Men flag us down, anxious to show us the damage which Macedonian army shells have done to their homes, but we hurry on, towards the village of Slupcane, along a poor road in full view of army positions.

Some are burnt out ruins, where a missile smashed through the roof

This is one of two villages which has borne the brunt of the shelling. We park the armoured car carefully between two houses, in the centre of the village.

A small crowd gathers. Rebel soldiers and villagers. Rubble and broken tiles are strewn across the street. Cars, all the glass knocked out of their windows, screech past, packed with men in the camouflaged uniforms of the National Liberation Army.

It is surprising to see how many men of military age are not in uniform. Some locals have clearly joined them, but many have not. But the civilians refer to the rebels as 'our army' or 'the Albanian army' - defending their villages.

There are also hints of frictions. An elderly man loudly berates a soldier across the village square. By digging in, and making their bases in villages such as this one, the rebels have turned whole villages into targets for the Macedonian army.

Homes under fire

Hardly a roof has not been hit by mortar fire. The first Macedonian army position is less than a kilometre down the road. The civilians are indignant.

"They are targeting our homes," they say. "They see all Albanians as the enemy."

Army spokesmen consistently deny this, and say they target only the armed groups.

Slupcane villager
The villagers have mixed views on the rebels
But it is hard to imagine how a helicopter gunship, flying at 500m over the roofs of these houses, its crew terrified of shots coming up at them, could be accurate in its attack. House after house is pockmarked by fire from helicopters. Some are burnt out ruins, where a missile smashed through the roof.

In the yard of one house, I found the burnt pages of the Koran, and nearby, the smashed handle-bars of a child's bicycle.

"We don't want to break the ceasefire," the rebels explain. "Nor waste a single bullet."

Political songs

In the gloomy cellar of one modern house, right on the front line, about 70 people, mainly women and children, are sheltering - some of the 3,000 or so civilians still said to be here, living mostly off bread and increasingly murky water.

They deny Macedonian reports that they are being held by the rebels against their will. As if to prove it, the children sing in unison an Albanian anthem from the conflict in nearby Kosovo.

"The day has come, to defend our lands, UCK, UCK, you are the heart of Slupcane."

I ask if they know any less political songs. And a little girl begins to recite a song to the émigré - the hundreds of thousands who have left the Balkans, to work in Germany.

"When I was a child, you didn't understand me at all, how my mother wept, as you said goodbye, her face was awash with tears.

"Oh exile, oh black raven, bring my father home, to show how much I love him."

We leave, quickly, afraid for our own lives - bounce away in our bullet-proof bird, back to the city. The nervous banter we shared in the morning replaced by a deep silence.

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See also:

17 May 01 | Europe
Rebels face Macedonia deadline
14 May 01 | Europe
Macedonia coalition gets to work
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