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Friday, 31 August, 2001, 11:01 GMT 12:01 UK
Macedonia: Wobbling Balkans domino
Nato soldiers on patrol in Debelde, Macedonia
Nato troops are expected to leave within a month
When Nato troops leave Macedonia after collecting rebel weapons, they will leave behind two communities divided by ethnic hatred and mutual distrust. The BBC's former Belgrade correspondent Jacky Rowland has spent two weeks in Macedonia and saw ominous signs for the peace process.

Nato has embarked on its latest mission to the Balkans - a strictly limited operation, it says, to collect arms handed in by ethnic Albanian rebels in Macedonia.

Broken icon in Lesok church
Ethnic differences have triggered violence
Nato says its troops will finish the job within a month and then they will leave.

But the voluntary disarmament by the rebels is only a small part in this latest Balkan jigsaw puzzle. The majority population in Macedonia is supposed to reciprocate by giving the Albanians more rights.

Meanwhile, a convoy of buses and private cars winds along the steep, twisting lanes, deep inside territory controlled by Albanian rebels.

On board, several hundred Macedonians are coming back to the village from which they were hounded out a few weeks earlier.

Peering out of the windows they see their gardens, grown wild with roses, while bursting tomatoes run to seed on the vines.

This is the village of Lesok, a ghost town apart from about 20 elderly people who have stayed behind.

Destroyed petrol station in Tetovo
Businesses have become targets for attack
They stayed because they had nowhere else to go.

It was a different scene when I came here a week earlier.

The village was silent, eerie, edgy. During the night, someone had planted explosives in the church at the monastery of Saint Atanasius.

I found a pile of rubble in place of the building. The painted icon over the door was fractured from the blast, a crack through the face of the saint.

But now the villagers have returned to celebrate Assumption Day in the grounds of the monastery.

In the surrounding hills, Albanian rebels made no attempt to conceal themselves as they looked down through binoculars.

Such a scene would have been unthinkable in neighbouring Kosovo. I remembered one Orthodox Good Friday I spent there, when an Albanian crowd stoned a bus-load of Serbs as they tried to go to their church.

German soldiers disembark
Nato is distrusted by many Macedonians
But the contrasts end here. The venom expressed by the Macedonians on the bus towards their former Albanian neighbours was as strong as any ethnic hatred I have encountered in the Balkans.

The villagers came back for the day, but it is questionable whether they will ever come back for good. The experience of Bosnia and Kosovo tells us that ethnic cleansing, for the most part, has proved permanent.

It is against this background that Nato troops have started collecting weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels.

Each day, troops from various Nato countries set up a temporary collection point in a barn or a house somewhere behind rebel lines.

Travelling circus

Then, right on cue, the fighters roll up, wearing camouflage combined with sportswear and carrying an equally motley selection of weapons.

It is a travelling circus and inevitably it has become a media circus as well.

Nato says it wants the process to be transparent, which means there have been plenty of photo-opportunities, none of them particularly edifying.

Greek soldier collects rebel weapons
More weapons are collected every day
Nato loves to give its missions catchy titles and this is no exception. We are witnessing Operation Essential Harvest. But there are signs Nato could suffer a crop failure.

The first ominous event was the killing of a young British soldier - miles away from the lines of confrontation.

Western politicians described the killing as a mindless piece of hooliganism - a freak incident that had no relevance for Nato's mission.

In fact, the killing was an eloquent message from a large section of the Macedonian people. They do not see Nato as an honest broker and they are convinced it is helping the enemy.

Nato is working on the premise that the Albanian rebels are disarming in exchange for legal rights. But the Macedonians dispute the entire basis for this Western-sponsored peace process.

They believe the rebel army wants territory not human rights - and they are convinced the Albanians have buried their weapons in the mountains, out of Nato's view.

I headed to the mountains myself, to the rebel stronghold of Sipkovice, to test the Macedonian theory.

Elderly Albanian woman and child
Albanians are promised more legal rights
It was a few days before Nato was due to start harvesting the weapons.

The atmosphere in Sipkovice was calm, even nonchalant.

Rebel fighters sat chatting with old men outside the village coffee house.

I got talking to one of them, an emigre from Switzerland who sported a splendid waxed moustache.

He and his comrades had agreed to disarm - with no security guarantee from Nato whatsoever. Yet they showed no signs of anxiety.

"Take me to your leader," I asked, and was soon on a terrace overlooking the mountainside with a young man who called himself Commander Ilir.

What would he do if the peace process broke down, I asked him. How would the rebels defend themselves if they had given up their weapons?

The vaguest hint of a smile flickered across Ilir's face. The rebels know they are not really giving up their insurance policy. They can and will get weapons again.


Operation Essential Harvest starts to look like an irrelevance.

Nato is setting and meeting its own targets, and declaring itself pleased with the results.

Meanwhile a suspicious and resentful Macedonian public wants its territory back and the people it regards as terrorists out.

As for the Albanians, maybe they will get their constitutional changes.

But 10 years of backsliding in the Balkans has taught us that passing a law is not the same as implementing it.

Macedonia, the latest Balkan domino, continues to wobble.

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24 Aug 01 | Europe
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