Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 October 2017, 10:01 GMT

Newly Displaced in the Balkans: Macedonia Erupts in Violence

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 July 2001
Citation / Document Symbol Refugee Reports, Vol. 22, No 6
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Newly Displaced in the Balkans: Macedonia Erupts in Violence , 1 July 2001, Refugee Reports, Vol. 22, No 6, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3c58099a5.html [accessed 17 October 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In June, as hyper-nationalist fever threatened to engulf Macedonia, the only former Yugoslav republic to have seceded from Yugoslavia without bloodshed, Refugee Reports was on the scene, encountering the first groups of ethnic Albanians uprooted from their homes into an uncertain future.

On the border with Kosovo, the Mother Theresa Society (MTS) in cooperation with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had set up a reception tent for refugees as they left Macedonia. Outside the tent, vans and other vehicles waited to take refugees to live with host families inside Kosovo, a war-ravaged province that still has about 350,000 internally displaced people and 120,000 damaged homes (49,000 beyond repair).

Refugee Reports asked one of the MTS workers how Kosovo could manage to accommodate a refugee population, given its own precarious housing situation. This place, he answered, is the Blace crossing point, the very place where, two years ago, tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo were held up in muddy, unsanitary conditions seeking asylum in Macedonia (see Refugee Reports, Vol. 20, Nos. 4 and 5). Ethnic Albanian families on the Macedonian side of the border opened up their homes, he said, and released the logjam. "Now, we are only returning their kindness," he said.

Approaching the tent were the newest refugees, both frightened and relieved. The last several kilometers had been the hardest. A boy, about age 18, arrived without documents. This seemed unusual, because Macedonian citizens routinely carry identification cards. He said that police at a Macedonian checkpoint a kilometer or two inside the border stopped him and demanded to see his documents. After he produced them, the police refused to return them without a 200 Deutsche Mark bribe. The boy refused to pay the bribe, and proceeded without his documents.

A woman arrived, tears running down her face, several small children in tow. She came from Singelik, a town east of Skopje. A week earlier, police entered her house searching for weapons. She said that they searched all the ethnic Albanian houses in the village. During the search, the police hit her brother. He had remained behind, she said, staying in the house. "Our intention is to go back," she said. "Our belongings are still there. I don't know how long we will stay here."

Displaced in Aracinovo

Other displaced people remain within Macedonia. Refugee Reports met with villagers displaced by shelling and shooting in the Matejce and Vistica area who had fled to Aracinovo, a town northeast of Skopje. Several days later, the rebels took over Aracinovo itself, and thousands fled in anticipation of the shelling that would soon begin. Government forces did, indeed, begin shelling Aracinovo, causing additional displacement. (NATO forces – including American KFOR troops – were later involved in a controversial evacuation of ethnic Albanian fighters from Aracinovo.)

At the time of the Refugee Reports visit, however, Aracinovo was still considered safe. All of the displaced were staying in private homes.

Refugee Reports was invited to a farmhouse, the temporary home for an additional family of distant relatives, a comfortable home with carpeting, wood paneling, and a television set. Refugee Reports asked the owner of the house, the host for the displaced guests, if he was afraid that he, too, might have to flee his home. "No one would touch us here," he replied. "We [i.e., ethnic Albanians] are 40,000 strong. Anyone who touches us here would make a big mistake."

Refugee Reports had no way to contact the man a week later to see if he was still living in his home.

The displaced family had been living in this house for two weeks. They came from Vistica. What follows is their story, as told by the father of a family of seven:

We were shelled without warning. First there was artillery, then helicopters. Before that, we really had no problems. Yes, people were sometimes bothered on the street by policemen, but I was never personally harassed. The night of the shelling, we loaded what we could onto our wagon, hooked it to the tractor, and left. Everyone left our village at the same time, about 50 families. We let the cattle loose. I have no idea what has happened to the village or our cattle since then.

Fifteen days before the shelling, the electricity to the village was cut. Because we get all information from radio and television, we did not have any information about what was happening. Maybe that is why we had no warning before being attacked.

We had no problems when leaving. We heard about other places where men and women were separated, but that didn't happen to us. When the bombing started, we were all very frightened. The children continued just to be frightened, but that is all.

If our houses are not burned, we would like to go back. If we are not shelled, if we are not mistreated, we will go back. In the meantime, we have no problems here with the police or the local people.

Refugee Reports met with the deputy mayor of Aracinovo. He said that 2,000 to 3,000 displaced people had arrived in his town in the past week, and that its population had swelled from 13,000 to about 20,000 in the past month. "We are full, but we can't say ‘no' if others will come," he said. "People go where they have relatives." He raised a litany of problems. "We need humanitarian aid. We don't have beds, blankets. Water is a constant problem. It is not clean. Even before the emergency, the Ministry of Health said not to drink the water here. Local residents have built up immunity to it, but these thousands of newcomers from the mountains will have a problem. They are used to drinking clean water in the mountains. We need to have clean drinking water trucked here."

Refugee Reports also spoke with a truck driver for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delivering humanitarian assistance to Aracinovo. "We are bringing food parcels, flour, blankets, and mattresses, but not water," he said.

While expressing gratitude toward the ICRC and a Muslim charitable organization, Al Halal, the deputy mayor said that the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy, the government agency responsible for such a humanitarian situation, had not responded to the humanitarian needs facing Aracinovo.

An ethnic Albanian intellectual in Skopje confirmed that key government ministries have been unresponsive. He said, "The minister for labor and social policy did not go once in four months to see the people affected by this situation." He told Refugee Reports, "The government's humanitarian institutions are holding back from the situation. We have the Red Cross, but where is the government?"

He said, "The problem in Macedonia is not inter-ethnic conflict among the population, as in Kosovo, but is about the attitude of the government toward Albanians. There is a feeling toward Albanians of institutional distrust." He had lived in Kosovo, and noted the complete separation there of Albanians and Serbs, but said that such animosity has not characterized life in Macedonia.

He described his own experiences crossing into Macedonia and having border police specifically and exclusively search the luggage of ethnic Albanians, of discrimination when he tried to establish an office "on the wrong side of the river" in Skopje, and of daily reminders of second-class status, such as road signs that do not give place names in the Albanian language, and the continuing failure of the government to recognize the Albanian Tetovo University as part of the state university system, which, he said, underscores for ethnic Albanians that their children lag behind Macedonian Slavs in education. The solution, he said, is not the dissolution of Macedonia, but rather "basic human rights." He added, "The police should give Albanians the presumption of innocence, not the presumption of guilt."

Displaced people expressed similar views. A farmer from Matejce displaced into Aracinovo, who expressed open support for the rebels, told Refugee Reports:

I had remained for three days and three nights where bullets were hitting. I saw no way out. I was among the last to leave. I asked the police for permission to get out. I had to let my cattle go. In four days, 100 horses were killed in the village and the cows were stolen and taken away. The army took them. Shells began hitting everywhere, and the houses started to burn. Now everything in the village is burned. They said for us to go to Albania, but I want to stay in Macedonia. The NLA [National Liberation Army] is fighting for our rights, not to create a separate territory. We just want equal rights.

Asked what the government could do to satisfy his desire for equal rights, the farmer said, "We want to be equal as Macedonians. I want to feel that I am a citizen of Macedonia. We need more Albanians in the police. My brother, a professor, has been waiting for work for 15 years. I am an ordinary citizen. I don't understand everything politically, but we need changes in the Constitution."

Not all are so positively disposed toward the NLA. A senior representative of an international humanitarian organization told Refugee Reports that the NLA was using civilians in villages such as Lipkovo as "human shields" in contravention of international humanitarian law. He said that the ethnic Albanians were not hostages, but that peer pressure in the besieged villages not to move was such that "it is impossible to make an individual rational decision," and that the group decisions have been not to flee.

The villages are experiencing shortages of food and medicine, in addition to shelling. The official criticized both sides for violating Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, saying that Macedonian troops have illegally launched military operations directly on civilian populated areas, but that the NLA has also violated the same provision of the Geneva Conventions by placing snipers in homes still occupied by civilians. He said that the Macedonians had provided "numerous opportunities" for civilians to leave the conflict area, but that the NLA had refused to cooperate.

One plan would have brought civilians from Lipkovo and surrounding villages to Bedinja stadium, where they would be interviewed to determine if they preferred to remain in Macedonia or be assisted to travel to Kosovo. Although the police would not have had a formal role under the plan – which international humanitarian agencies would have supervised and facilitated – police would have been permitted to search the evacuees for weapons. The NLA would not agree to that condition. Although more than 400 particularly vulnerable civilians had been evacuated from the Lipkovo area by mid-June, many still remained.

Kosovo "Gypsy" Refugees in Macedonia

The rise in tensions between ethnic Albanians and Macedonian Slavs has also made Roma and other "gypsy" refugees from Kosovo living in Macedonia feel increasingly anxious and fearful. These tensions extend outside the camps to the gypsy population of Macedonia itself. [Because the other subgroups do not consider themselves to be Roma, for clarity, this article will use the term gypsy, despite its pejorative connotation.]

Refugee Reports conducted interviews in different locations with gypsy refugees from Kosovo, who consistently described their sense of impending doom. "We are afraid we will experience again here what we experienced in Kosovo," said one of the elders in the Suto Orizori camp (commonly called "Shutka"). Another added, "For peaceful people like us, there is nothing. We have suffered for two years. Our children don't go to school; we are without human rights. We are known, but not counted as human beings. Is there a place on earth for us? We ask only for a normal, decent life. I don't see any solution here. I have a dark image about what will happen in the future. This is not just a Macedonia question; it is a whole Balkans question."

There are two camps in Macedonia that primarily accommodate Roma, Ashkali, and "Egyptian" refugees from Kosovo (various gypsy subgroups). Shutka holds 1,264 people, and Katlonovo holds 518. Refugee Reports visited both camps in June. A third camp, Roolusha, accommodates 221 people, mostly ethnic Albanians from southern Serbia. Most of the refugees came in June 1999 and were initially accommodated in the Stenkovic II camp. They have been transferred from camp to camp during the past two years.

Macedonia registers Roma, Ashkali, Egyptian, Serb, and mixed-marriage refugees from Kosovo (but generally does not register ethnic Albanians). Those accommodated in camps are issued blue cards. Currently, there are 1,947 blue card holders in Macedonia. The Ministry of Interior issues red cards to refugees from Kosovo who are staying in private accommodations. In June, there were 2,541 red card holders. Blue and red cards are valid for six month periods. They are due to expire at the end of September 2001, but could be renewed again.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy issues white cards to habitual residents of Kosovo who hold Macedonian identity documents. The 930 white card holders are currently living in refugee-like circumstances and may likely be able to regularize their status.

In addition, about 63 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo who claim they cannot return on account of a fear of persecution have been issued yellow cards. These are valid for 72 days while their protection claims are pending. Another 125 Bosnians have Red Cross documents, some of whom may eventually be able to resettle in other countries. Finally, the Macedonian government has issued one green card denoting full-fledged refugee status for an Afghan refugee resident who has lived in Macedonia for more than 20 years.

The Katlonovo camp is isolated, which heightens the sense of anxiety among its inhabitants. They were transferred from four smaller collective centers to Katlonovo two months previously in an effort to consolidate the logistics of assisting them. But being moved from camp to camp has added to their sense of insecurity.

Katlanovo residents told Refugee Reports of current protection problems. "The soldiers at the gate tell us we have Muslim names, that we are terrorists," said a war-injured refugee woman. "But when we go out, and Albanians hear us speaking Serbian, we have problems with them too, so we avoid talking in public. Today, five policemen were killed in Tetovo, so things are tense with the police. No one will leave the camp today."

The woman, who suffered a near fatal chest injury when a grenade was thrown at gypsies selling vegetables in the street market in Vitina, Kosovo in June 1999, said that her daughter caught a piece of shrapnel in her leg in the same attack. After recovering from her injuries in an American KFOR hospital, the woman decided to leave. "I saw no life in Kosovo, no chance for freedom. I couldn't go to the market; I felt scared and threatened all the time. I never thought I would leave my home in Kosovo, but after that I had to leave."

She said, "Here in Macedonia, we are lost. Two years have passed, and my children have no future. We have no money for the children. The food is not good. It is better than in Stenkovic [camp], but not good, not enough. I would sell my shirt to buy fruits and vegetables for them. At first my son went to school, but he was too old for his class. All of the other children were younger than him, so he stopped going."

She added, "The situation now in Macedonia, it's like déjà vu. I see happening again what happened in Kosovo. I would ask the people of the international community to have mercy on my children, so that they could live at least one year not in fear. They can leave me here. Just take my children. I don't want them to ever hear more about war."

The guards at the front gate are armed and uniformed, and sit behind a sandbag bunker. Placing Roma near ethnic Albanian communities presents a number of problems. It creates tensions not only because ethnic Albanians have persecuted and are still persecuting Roma in Kosovo and because Kosovar Albanians and their nationalist colleagues in Macedonia continue to accuse those who fled to Macedonia of collaborating with the Serbs, but also because most Roma do not speak Albanian, but only Serbian (more Ashkalis and Egyptians speak Albanian).

Although residents of Shutka also expressed anxiety about their situation, their immediate circumstances appear less threatening than those in Katlanovo. Shutka is located on the outskirts of a predominantly gypsy municipality, so the neighbors are sympathetic, and movement of residents in and out of the camp – though controlled – does not appear to be as difficult as in Katlanovo. In Katlanovo, the tension is more reflective of the general sense of foreboding and insecurity among all gypsies living in Macedonia. As one man said, "We feel like we are living between two fires."

UNHCR Appeal

On June 26, UNHCR appealed for up to $17.5 million to help about 100,000 refugees and internally displaced people in the region, including some 65,000 ethnic Albanians from Macedonia who have fled to Kosovo, 6,000 Macedonian Slavs who have gone to Serbia, and about 32,000 persons displaced within Macedonia. UNHCR said that the money would be used to purchase food for ethnic Albanian families in Kosovo who are hosting refugees from Macedonia. Earlier, on June 11, the new UNHCR high commissioner, Ruud Lubbers, said at the end of his visit to Macedonia, "More than one million people in the Balkans remain displaced from conflicts of the past decade. The last thing the region needs is more refugees.

SOURCE: Refugee Reports, Vol. 22, No 6 (2001)

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