Fighting between Macedonian security forces and ethnic Albanian militants in villages northwest of Kumanovo has died down this week following two weeks of shelling and shooting. The government yesterday set a deadline of 1200 tomorrow (17 May) for the Albanian fighters to abandon the area and retreat to Kosovo, and for civilians to leave their homes. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele visited Macedonia's border village of Sopot and talked with residents and later with Macedonian authorities. Here are some pages from his reporter's notebook:
Sopot, 16 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As he weeds his cornfield barefoot, Mustafa Mustafa -- a 75-year-old ethnic Albanian peasant -- can monitor the course of fighting across the Tabanovacka Valley in the villages of Vakcince and Lojane, some four kilometers away from Sopot.
"From here we could see how [the Macedonian army] fired cannon shells at Lojane and Vakcince, setting homes on fire and sending up smoke."
At the same time, Mustafa can also hear the frequent shooting and shelling only a few kilometers across the border in southern Serbia's Presevo Valley, where the Yugoslav army in a fierce battle earlier this week expelled ethnic Albanian insurgents from the village of Oraovica. But a sandbagged Macedonian border monitoring post, on a slope 50 meters from his house, blocks the view northward. All that can be seen is a plume of smoke rising from shelling around Oraovica, about eight kilometers away.
Soldiers from the army border post recently stopped by at the Mustafa farm and told the family not to be afraid because they were there to protect the residents.
Clashes between ethnic Albanian fighters and Macedonian police erupted in February along Macedonia's border with Kosovo. The fighting has since spread across much of the north and northwest of Macedonia. The ethnic Albanians say they are fighting to win greater rights for Macedonia's Albanians. The Macedonian government says they are terrorists led by criminal elements from outside the country.
Heavy fighting in the area of Sopot, including the use of tanks and helicopter gunships, has frayed the nerves of most of the village's residents. But like most of the villagers, the Mustafa family stayed until Macedonian police entered their village last Saturday (12 May) and, they say, began harassing residents. Within 24 hours the village emptied, including seven members of the Mustafa family who fled to the capital Skopje, leaving Mustafa and his wife Hana to work the fields and milk the cows.
Sopot's deputy mayor, Zeqiria Morati, notes that some 375 of Sopot's 387 natives are ethnic Albanians, the others Serbs. No ethnic Macedonians live in this or nearby villages.
Established as a purely administrative boundary by the Ottoman Turks, the present Macedonian-Serbian border bears no relation to ethnic identities. Morati says the village's relations with Serbs were never particularly good, while relations with the Macedonian authorities have been hampered, he says, by Skopje's unwillingness to grant citizenship papers to qualified residents in the nearly 10 years since Macedonia seceded from the former Yugoslav federation.
Macedonia's Constitution requires a 15-year residency to qualify for citizenship. Most village residents without documents say they were born in Sopot.
"I take responsibility for what I say: 55 percent of the population [of Sopot] does not have citizenship. And according to the constitution, the Constitution of the Republic, we qualify 100 percent. But they aren't granting [citizenship] to us."
The deputy mayor also points out that, as a border village with fighting erupting nearby, Sopot is subject to frequent and thorough police checks. A lack of proper documents, he says, can result in police harassment and beatings. He insists that the ethnic Albanian fighters of the National Liberation Army, or UCK, have not been operating in Sopot.
"Until now, we lived very well. But this war -- and I really mean war -- what we are witnessing live, in which the Macedonian army and the Macedonian police are firing on homes in communities inhabited 100 percent by Albanians -- we can hardly perceive this as good. It is the worst thing possible for us and for all the people who live in this republic."
Morati says the closeness of the fighting has resulted in panic, especially among women and children. And, he says, "everyone expects matters will get considerably worse."
Morati says most residents of Sopot fled in terror after a police detachment from Kumanovo showed up in the village Saturday morning. According to him, the police harassed members of the family of 65-year-old Osman Lutfiu, pointing their guns at his children and grandchildren, detaining nine young men and beating three of them with clubs and fists. Two days later, the mayor of the district capital Kumanovo, Slobodan Kovacevski, visited Sopot in an effort to calm frayed nerves.
Family patriarch Osman Lutfiu says:
"To rouse children from their sleep and point a gun at their heads, not even the [Serbian extremist] Chetniks work the way the Macedonian Kumanovo police do."
Lutfiu says his entire family fled to Kosovo the same day (Saturday).
In Skopje today, a Macedonian Interior Ministry official told our correspondent the police had been searching for an UCK fighter from Sopot, Xhelat Qaili, also known as "Dracula," whom they suspected was at home in the village.
The official -- speaking on condition of anonymity -- says the police had court-issued warrants to search three houses. He says they detained three members of the Qaili family and five members of the Lutfiu family on suspicion that they knew something about Dracula. He says that after a brief interrogation at a police station in Kumanovo, they were released and no criminal charges were filed. In the official's words: "In the entire action in the village of Sopot, no physical force or harassment was applied or directed at anyone." The fighter known as Dracula was not found.
Sopot's mayor, Xhemal Limani, describes the current situation in his village as "chaotic." He says that, after last weekend's incident, no more than a quarter of the population remains in the village. The others, he says -- including most of the women and children -- have fled out of fear of the police. He calls the treatment of the Lutfiu family "an illogical incident."
"The one who was beaten was not guilty [of anything]. The guilty one is the one who started this [beating] and should be brought to account."
Mayor Limani, like his deputy Morati, is not affiliated with any political party because, he says, they want to serve the entire community. He says he expects the new broad coalition government in Skopje to come up with a better way to change what he calls the "second-class status" of Macedonia's Albanian population than by harassing Albanian civilians.