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Macedonia: Albanian Refugees Flee Border Fighting

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says more than 1,000 Macedonian Albanians have fled the recent fighting near Macedonia's border with Kosovo. While most have fled across the mountains to Kosovo, about a quarter have sought refuge in the Macedonian interior. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele is traveling in Macedonia this week and spoke with some refugees about conditions in the border region.

Aracinovo, Macedonia; 8 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Three weeks of violence in the border area between Macedonia and Kosovo has sent more than a thousand mostly ethnic Albanian residents fleeing for safety. Most residents of the border village of Tanusevci have already left their homes, and now residents of three other nearby border villages (Brest, Malino, Gosince) are evacuating their families.

Many refugees are choosing to cross the border into Kosovo, but some are remaining in Macedonia and moving to areas south of the border zone such as the village of Aracinovo.

Sabedin Hajdari, an agricultural worker, left the mountain border village of Malino, east of Tanusevci, on Tuesday with his 30-member extended family. He tells our correspondent his family is now camped out in an unfinished house in Aracinovo. In his words, "there is a lot of shooting up there about one kilometer from the village, though we don't know who is [doing the] shooting." He says the shooting came closer to Malino and increased in intensity on 5 March, forcing the family's decision to leave.

"A few of the old people stayed behind to look after the livestock. We've got cows, horses, sheep, goats. [My daughter told me that as soon as the bombing stops, we'll go back.] We have to save our property."

Lutfie Nebiu left Malino with her five children on Sunday (4 March), the day two Macedonian soldiers were killed after their vehicle hit a mine and a third was killed by a sniper. But she says shooting around a Macedonian army post some two kilometers from Malino and fear for her small children caused them to flee to her sister's house in Aracinovo. Her husband stayed behind in the village to look after their livestock.

"We were afraid that it would be the same as in Kosovo with all the shooting. My children are small. We were the first to leave, but now others are coming down the mountain from our neighborhood."

Nebiu says she doesn't know who is doing the shooting, but she says the men are strangers and are not wearing uniforms.

The Macedonian Interior Ministry says there is no reason for people to flee as they claim there is no military activity in the area other than around Tanusevci. A spokesman for the ministry, Stevo Pendarovski, says fleeing only raises tensions.

Nevertheless, some 3,000 to 4,000 Macedonian soldiers and police are believed to be deployed in the area, including three elite Macedonian special forces units: the Wolves, Tigers and Scorpions.

Pendarovski alleges that the rebels, claiming to belong to the National Liberation Army, are using recruitment and training centers in Kosovo around the town of Vitina/Viti, where the NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers maintain a strong presence. He says the rebels are training "right under KFOR's nose."

Nurije Emini, another refugee, came to Aracinovo with her children from Tanusevci three weeks ago just as fighting was erupting.

She says she is trying to register herself and her family with authorities in Skopje as Macedonian citizens. Many inhabitants of the isolated border villages lack registration papers or birth certificates.

Emini, who is illiterate and stands barefoot in the winter cold, says she does not send her children to an elementary school in the village because "it is too far." The nearest middle school is in Kosovo.

She says villagers without papers are subject to frequent harassment by Macedonian police who occasionally detain them or beat them. In her words: "they even beat cowherds and people going to the woods for firewood."

Villagers tell of one instance when a young man went across the road to see relatives but was detained by police for not having papers. They took him to Skopje where they held him for two days until he could find two witnesses who certified that he is from Macedonia.

Adem Bajrami is 20 years old. He left the village of Brest three years ago to work in Aracinovo. On 6 March he went back to Brest to get his family. He says he heard large-caliber weapons being fired as family members trudged through snow over fog-bound mountains before they reached the nearest road. Bajrami denies frequent allegations that the fighting is not about Albanians' rights but rather related to gun-running and smuggling.

"There are no connections. There is no smuggling of cigarettes, weapons or the like. They (Macedonian security forces] killed a person groundlessly, and the crisis in the village of Tanusevci [three weeks ago] started. There are no other problems. The border zone is there. People from the villages of Tanusevci, Brest and Malino do their shopping in Kosovo. But there is no business in arms, cigarettes or other smuggling."

Bajrami insists the rebels are all from Tanusevci and that there are none from Kosovo, since the border is sealed off by KFOR on one side and Macedonian forces on the other.

"Albanians are fighting for their rights. Macedonians already have all the rights. It's self-defense to protect one's home. If your home is now threatened by someone and you defend it, that's not an organized army or the like."

In Skopje, Suzana Saliu is the deputy republic ombudsman and the only Albanian lawyer in the office. She says Tanusevci has been a particular problem in the past, noting that the elementary school director was unable to enroll children lacking birth certificates or other identity documentation. Saliu says many Macedonian Albanians have no proof of citizenship. She also says that Macedonia's Interior Ministry does not recognize identity documents issued by the UN administration in Kosovo, UNMIK.

"[Macedonia's] law on state citizenship, which is considered to be very restrictive and very rigorous, sets many difficult conditions. This is a law aimed particularly at Albanians. Albanian communities are very mixed, especially with citizens of Kosovo. There are Albanians who do not have a house or family in Macedonia but nor do they have any family connections with citizens of Kosovo."

Saliu says her office responds to requests for assistance in securing identity papers but so far it has not taken the initiative to protect the rights of the residents of the northern border villages.