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Macedonia: Members Of Disbanded UCK Look Back At Last Year's Fighting

  • Jolyon Naegele

Eight months after ethnic Albanian insurgents laid down their weapons and ended a revolt against Macedonian authorities, the former rebels of the National Liberation Army (UCK) -- all of them amnestied -- have returned to civilian life. Their former commanders, meanwhile, are using political means to pursue their goals of making Macedonia a civil society with equal rights for all. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele traveled to Sipkovica and Tetovo, where he spoke with three key UCK leaders about last year's conflict and their attempts to reintegrate into Macedonian society.

Sipkovica, Macedonia; 17 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Eight months after the end of ethnic hostilities in Macedonia, only a few visible signs of Albanian defiance remain. One is in Sipkovica, a village nestled high in the fog-enshrouded Sar Mountains, where an Albanian flag flies above the squat minaret of the local mosque.

Ethnically mixed police patrols were recently introduced in this former rebel stronghold. Many rebel leaders have resettled at the base of the mountains in and around Tetovo to enable improved contacts with ethnic Albanian politicians and the international community. But the chief of staff of the disbanded Albanian National Liberation Army (UCK), Major General Gezim Ostreni, remains in Sipkovica.

Ostreni is armed with several cell phones, a fax machine, and a few maps. He is overseeing the reintegration of the UCK's fighters into Macedonian society.

When fighting erupted last year between Albanian rebel forces and Macedonian security forces, Ostreni assembled a formidable, highly mobile force of Albanian fighters. Initially numbering in the dozens, Ostreni's force gained strength until -- by the time the Ohrid peace agreement was signed in August -- he had more than 5,000 fighters from both Macedonia and Kosovo.

Ostreni said that toward the conflict's end, he began sending recruits home because of a shortage of weapons within the UCK. Even in relatively friendly territory -- like the UCK base at Brodec, five kilometers from the Kosovo border -- it was dangerous to remain unarmed, the former commander says.

In a matter of months, with relatively few casualties, the UCK won what ethnic Albanian politicians had failed to achieve in a decade: an agreement signed by Macedonia's main political parties to institute constitutional and legal changes to ensure full and equal rights for Macedonia's Albanian community. It also secured an amnesty for all combatants in the seven months of fighting -- both Albanians and Macedonians.

Ostreni described the UCK's strategy: "I tried to avoid having many casualties. We were trying to avoid massive engagement of soldiers in the war. We were careful to protect the territorial integrity of Macedonia. We were not interested in any division of Macedonia, because we knew that it would not bring anything good. Material damage was considerable, but we were really working to protect all citizens, regardless of their ethnic background. We protected them because we knew that citizens are not politicians, and we tried to avoid what happened in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo -- to avoid ethnic cleansing, so we can succeed in living together."

The UCK reports it lost 64 men in last year's fighting. Macedonian security forces claim to have lost 63. But Ostreni claims an unknown number of Serbs, Bulgarians, and Ukrainians aiding the Macedonian security forces may have also perished and gone uncounted. Some 45 Albanian civilians and a small number of ethnic Macedonian civilians were also killed in the conflict.

Former UCK leaders say the entire insurgency was planned in exile near Lucerne, Switzerland, starting in 1999. They say that with the exception of a skirmish in the Sar Mountains that same year, they planned all subsequent actions. These included the January 2001 attack on the police station in Tearce, the February rebellion in the northern border village of Tanusevci, and the seizure of the "kale," or fortress, overlooking Tetovo in mid-March.

Property losses were considerable in Albanian-inhabited villages in the Sar Mountains and in the Karadak hills west of Kumanovo. But compared to all other conflicts over the past 11 years in the former Yugoslavia, the loss of life in the Macedonian insurgency was minimal.

The uprising was the brainchild of Fazli Veliu, a Macedonian Albanian who spent 20 years working in Switzerland. Veliu masterminded the rebels' initial seizure of inaccessible, sparsely inhabited mountainous terrain that proved all but impossible for Macedonian security forces to defend. In an interview with RFE/RL, he described his larger role in planning the insurgency.

"My role was organizing the Albanian side so as to advance the issue of changing the constitution. For Albanians, [the constitution] wasn't sufficient and had been merely a formalist constitution ever since [Macedonian independence in] 1991. We organized ourselves based on local and international principles, pushing forward to fulfill our aims as the second-largest people [in Macedonia], since we deserved to be able to strive for our rights vis-a-vis the Macedonians and others," Veliu said.

Veliu's second cousin is Ali Ahmeti, UCK's political commander. Ahmeti helped make Veliu's dream a reality by maintaining contact -- first privately, then publicly -- with Albanian political leaders in Macedonia. But he said public support for the uprising among the country's Albanians was key.

"I don't think [the rebellion] came as a surprise. There was inner tension. The population had had enough of the discrimination and violence. So the generator was unhappiness with the institutions that weren't solving problems but provoking and instigating problems. That eventually ignited the explosion, with Albanians using all means within institutions, as well as outside -- starting with street protests and petitions to urge a resolution. All that led to the conflict," Ahmeti said.

Ostreni, a professional soldier, led the military side of the rebellion. Ostreni was raised in Debar, on Macedonia's border with Albania. As a young man, he headed the local Communist-affiliated youth organization and later led the Debar branch of the Territorial Defense Force -- a sort of Yugoslav national guard -- and achieved the rank of major in the Yugoslav Army reserve.

Ostreni says he foresaw the conflict in Kosovo, and joined the Kosovo Liberation Army long before NATO air strikes began, commanding the group's operations in the Dukagjin plain of western Kosovo. After the war, he served in the Kosovo Protection Corps before returning to Macedonia to lead the uprising.

Ostreni says it was "scientific," rather than emotional, arguments that inspired him to revolt against what he perceived as discrimination by ethnic Macedonians. "In my opinion, dignity and the rights and freedom of Albanians were the reasons for the conflict in Macedonia. The facts are there: discrimination against Albanians in terms of civil rights, language rights; the low number of Albanians in state institutions; education; manipulation of the census; and other instances of injustice against Albanians in Macedonia. A large number of Albanians died in pre-trial detention, or while serving in the police and army. The Slav-Macedonian government used mono-ethnic institutions like the police and the army to discriminate against almost every segment of Albanian society."

Ostreni noted that between 40 percent and 60 percent of Albanians in the Karadak hills -- one of the key regions of rebellion -- even today have not been granted Macedonian citizenship, although many have spent their entire lives there. He says Macedonians are traditionally vulnerable to assimilative pressure from neighboring nations. Recognizing the rights of their ethnic Albanian countrymen, he argues, can only help ethnic Macedonians strengthen their sense of national identity.

"There is plenty of work ahead to change the awareness of the Slav population in Macedonia. They have to take a greater interest. I say this because their Macedonian identity can survive only with the help of the Albanians. Otherwise, they will lose their Macedonian identity regardless of whom they rely on. If they align themselves with the Bulgarians, they will lose their identity. With Serbs they'll become Serbs. Only with the Albanians can they remain Macedonians," Ostreni said.

Ostreni added that, "We want to live together and avoid bloodshed -- this was what we were trying to achieve even during the war, because we have to coexist."

But, he warned, the security situation remains fragile even now.

"The security situation in Macedonia is secure and depends on the role and awareness of Macedonia and its will to implement the [Ohrid] agreement. Any procrastination inevitably creates a vacuum which is used by destructive forces. I think the presence of the international community in Macedonia -- such as NATO forces, the EU and U.S. -- plays a positive role and contributes to democratization. Macedonia needs to exist as a state of citizens and needs to function as a parliamentary democracy like other states in Europe, as well as the U.S."

Addressing the deep-seated problem of political corruption in Macedonia, Ostrenia said such roadblocks must be eliminated in order for democracy and stability to take hold. "I think that in any state where democracy is insufficiently developed, there is the risk of citizens responding with negative actions. I think that in Macedonia, democracy needs to be developed further. Macedonia's institutions need to be much more democratic than they are. Otherwise they won't be able to fight corruption within the state. So every political subject needs to make space and enable equality for all citizens, rather than treating citizens according to their political-party allegiances or preferences. As long as we have this kind of situation, corruption will continue in vulgar forms like the buying of votes," Ostreni said.

International observers agree that Macedonia faces an uncertain future, primarily because of corruption -- a problem that knows no ethnic boundaries. However, the other main obstacle to stability -- ethnic discrimination in education, the military, and the police -- appears to be on the way to a resolution.

But last year's fighting left a legacy that will take many years to heal: a virtual end to communication between the country's Albanian and Macedonian inhabitants. Mistrust lingers on both sides of the divide. Macedonians fear Albanians could again resort to violence; Albanians fear Macedonians will not live up to the terms and spirit of the Ohrid agreement.