Macedonia: Chronicle of a Tragedy Foretold

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DARKO BANDIC/AP

A Macedonian Army helicopter gunship fires rockets during an attack

Captain Muhaedin Bela, 35, could hardly believe what was happening to him. One of the most successful and hard-working ethnic-Albanian officers in the Macedonian air force, earlier this month he suddenly found himself handcuffed to a table in a dingy police station with his T-shirt looped over his head to hide the identities of his interrogators. The balding, soft -spoken native of the capital, Skopje, was being grilled by police and later by his own comrades about an alleged (and, Bela says, non- existent) connection with the ethnic-Albanian rebels fighting in the hills overlooking the city.

What Bela recalls most about his interrogation, however, was an oddly philosophical exchange. Asked for his views of the four-month-old crisis facing the tiny Balkan nation, he answered, "In my opinion, wars could be short or they could be long. But they almost always end at the (negotiating) table." Behind his back, a police interrogator cut him off. "This is one war, " said the gruff voice, "that won't end at the table."

While NATO presses for a political settlement in Macedonia — the alliance this week said it would send about 3,000 troops if the parties reach a deal and rebels agree to lay down arms — it's increasingly apparent that many in Macedonia's government and security forces still believe they can win outright on the battlefield. Key leaders of the Macedonian Slav majority, such as Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, continue to sound off about a military solution even as they participate in on-again-off-again talks with ethnic-Albanian political parties. Those talks are a long way from conclusion, having briefly collapsed this week over ethnic-Albanian demands for veto power over major government decisions and Macedonian Slav reluctance to accept radical constitutional changes. But even as those talks continued in Skopje's cavernous parliament buildings, the government took delivery of eight new attack aircraft —including four helicopters — from Ukraine, doubling the size of its air force, and further draining the country's treasury . On Friday, government forces ended a two-week cease-fire by launching a withering artillery bombardment of the hill towns just outside the capital recently seized by ethnic Albanian rebels. The aim, said a government spokesman, was "crushing and destroying terrorists."

Similar language has accompanied every new government offensive over the past four months, and each time the result has been the same. Despite logistical and intelligence support from NATO, the combined army and police offensives have succeeded only in driving more ethnic Albanians into the arms of the rebels. Even by territorial measure, the government efforts have backfired. In March, two weeks after the rebels launched their surprise attack on the country's second city, Tetovo, a deadly artillery offensive drove them out of villages above the city center. But last month, the National Liberation Army was back in those same towns, and without a shot being fired. In Skopje, residents have begun openly questioning why police cannot even hold territory that they have retaken.

The guerrilla attack on the small red-roofed town of Aracinovo on the outskirts of the capital earlier this month stirred panic in Skopje, emptying the streets and causing NATO to rethink its approach to the conflict. But every pundit and newspaper hawker in Skopje had for months predicted a rebel attempt on Aracinovo. "How much would it have taken to secure the town with a few detachments of police troops, backed up by forces at the nearby airport," asks a local analyst. Government ineptitude has spawned conspiracy theories, including the suggestion that Prime Minister Georgievski actually wanted to lose Aracinovo in order to persuade a reluctant parliament to accept his call for the declaration of a "state of war" — a charge the Georgievski vehemently denies.

There are other signs of desperation. Macedonian police recently began handing out automatic weapons — about 2,000 so far — to "reservists," especially those who belonged to Georgievski's VMRO-DPMNE political party. Similar efforts in the early '90s had sped the descent into war in nearby Croatia and Bosnia. Graffiti signaling the emergence of Macedonian Slav paramilitaries is scrawled in Cyrillic on walls in Skopje's tumble-down neighborhoods. And when the government recently asked for some of the weapons distributed to "reservists" to be handed back, it had only minimal success.

"What we have is an unofficial state of war that threatens each and every Albanian citizen," said Nebi Mursali, a prominent Albanian newspaper editor and intellectual. Mursali has already sent his wife and children to the relative safety of Kosovo — as have some 30,000 other ethnic Macedonians. He explains, bluntly: "I don't trust the Slavs."

The security forces' failures have, quite naturally, brought derision from the rebels camped in the mountains to the north. One commander, known as "Mjekrra" (" the beard" in Albanian), interviewed this month at a monastery high on a bluff overlooking eastern Macedonia said, "They can't fight with us. Their paramilitaries will fight with civilians — but not with us." A teenage combatant at the rebel camp looked scornfully down at a police base in the valley below, then added, "If the Macedonians lose one son or brother they will stop fighting." He claimed the authorities were using mercenaries from Ukraine and elsewhere because their own men were too frightened to fight. Such bluster is expected, especially from rebels whose only successes have come in surprise attacks on police convoys and outposts. But a senior government official, speaking under condition of anonymity, seemed equally unimpressed by the security forces. "The rebels are not very good fighters," he said. "But even against such a poor enemy we haven't solved the situation. We don't seem to be able to do much."

If anything, the impotence has only increased the frustration of some government officials. A spokesman for the Prime Minister this week denounced the NLA as the "Talibans of Europe," and compared their leaders with Hitler and Slobodan Milosevic. "Their philosophy — territories, ethnic entities, religion, heroin and weapons — must be cut down at the root. Europe is too narrow to be their home as well." Ordinary Macedonian Slavs in the streets of Skopje appear equally unwilling to face the possibility that the rebels, whatever their motives and however murderous their tactics, cannot be "crushed and destroyed," at least not by them. (NATO forces could manage the task, but the alliance insists it won't intervene until the shooting stops.)

Every artillery round fired, meanwhile, brings fragile Macedonia closer to the precipice. "At least before everyone was living their own lives, if within their own communities," said Jabir Derala, 33, a peace activist in Skopje of mixed Albanian, Turkish and Croatian descent. "Now everybody is one sided. You can see the city is empty. Albanians are on one side of the bridge and Macedonians are on the other. " In the past, he added, "we could speak about mistrust . Now it has turned into hatred." For Captain first-class Muhaedin Bela , who says he was singled out for suspicion only because he was the only Albanian commissioned officer at the strategically important air base outside Skopje, the words of his mysterious inquisitor weigh heavily. "All I can think of is what he said," Bela said this week from his cramped apartment in a crowded Albanian section of the capital. "If this war will not end at the negotiating table, then how will it end?"

With reporting by Joshua Kucera/Skopje