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Macedonia: Predominantly Albanian Town Avoids Conflicts

In recent days, fighting has intensified in northern Macedonia near the villages of Slupcane and Vaksince, close to the border with Kosovo. At the same time, fighting around Tetovo, which was heavy on 23 May, now appears to have eased. In the south, the heavily ethnic Albanian districts of Gostivar, Debar, Struga, and Kicevo remain quiet. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele visited Debar, the most Albanian of towns in Macedonia, to see how it has avoided unrest. Here is his report.

Debar, Macedonia; 25 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The town of Debar on Macedonia's border with Albania has been an island of peace in the nearly three months of scattered, on-again off-again clashes between ethnic Albanian fighters and Macedonian security forces to the northeast.

Debar, ringed by snow-capped mountains, has traditionally been the most Albanian of towns in Macedonia. The market town is located on a bluff at the confluence of the Radika and Crni Drim (Drini i Zi) rivers, which flow through a lush valley stretching northwest into Albania.

With the establishment after World War I of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes -- later known as Yugoslavia -- Debar was cut off from its hinterland and suffered a prolonged period of decline and decay. The district on the other side of the border with Albania is still officially called Dibra, the Albanian name for Debar.

The atmosphere of an old Balkan market town was retained in Debar longer than elsewhere in the region. As recently as 15 years ago, a visitor could easily imagine being in Albania rather than Yugoslavia. The town had a large percentage of ethnic Albanians, its buildings displayed turquoise-colored walls everywhere, and there was a general atmosphere of neglect.

But since the late 1980s, demographic forces have been at work transforming the face of Debar. Some 10,000 residents have emigrated, most of them to the New York City borough of Staten Island. Many more are now guest workers in Western Europe. They send back remittances enabling the remaining Debar residents to build spacious new homes, shops, and cafes that are changing the town's appearance, making it look much like almost anywhere else in Macedonia. At the same time, thousands more peasants have given up the hard life of the mountains and abandoned their isolated communities for the bright lights of Debar.

Debar Mayor Imer Ollogu says the town's population at present is over 14,500, of whom he says more than 80 percent are Albanian and the balance Macedonians, Turks, and Roma.

Since ethnic Albanian fighters demanding equal rights for Macedonia's Albanian community began their campaign of violence in February, their clashes with security forces have come no closer to Debar than Tetovo, some 70 kilometers to the northeast. In fact, all of the clashes in the three-month-old conflict have occurred within 20 kilometers of Macedonia's border with Kosovo.

Gezim Ostreni, the head of the fighters' National Liberation Army, or UCK, is a native of Debar. Other Debar residents are believed to be fighting in the ranks of the UCK, along with Albanians from elsewhere in Macedonia, Kosovo, and southern Serbia.

There are several reasons why fighting has not erupted in Debar. They have to do with geography, international diplomacy, and local politics.

First, with the exception of the Crni Drim Valley, Macedonia's border with Albania is mountainous terrain even more difficult for military maneuvering than is Macedonia's border with Kosovo. Also, Albania's Socialist-led government has striven to portray itself as a peacemaker. It has often consulted with the Macedonian government and with some ethnic Albanian political leaders from Macedonia and Kosovo.

The Macedonian news media has charged that the UCK has training camps in eastern Albania not far from Debar, between the towns of Peshkopi and Kukes. Debar Mayor Ollogu, a member of the largest ethnic Albanian party in Macedonia -- the Democratic Party of Albanians -- says that reports of sightings of UCK and gun-runners in the Debar area are what he calls "rumors and disinformation."

But Ljubco Taskovski, a Macedonian army reservist who one week ago ended a three-week stint on the eastern slopes of Mount Korab -- the highest mountain in Macedonia and Albania -- says he witnessed gun-running on the border.

"I was on duty for 20 days up in the hills [between the villages north] of Debar -- Tanuse and Zirovnica. We caught one soldier dressed as a civilian who said he had been bringing weapons from Albania into Macedonia. He was an Albanian from Albania. He said his brother was with the UCK in Pristina and that there were five others with him. He was supposed to go back [over the border with Albania] to tell them everything was OK but he didn't do so [because he was caught. The other five] went up the mountain anyway and were sighted by us from a great distance, so they ran back [into Albania] and were not caught."

As a sovereign state, with ties to NATO and the European Union, Albania could hardly risk taking any other stand but that of a peacemaker. How genuine its desire is to stabilize the situation in Macedonia, however, is unclear.

The Albanian government denied knowledge of UCK training camps on its territory in 1999, although they certainly did exist, and is now again denying their alleged existence.

Mayor Ollogu dismisses suggestions that Albania has ulterior motives.

"Albania's Prime Minister Ilir Meta is supporting the sovereignty and integrity of Macedonia and [opposes] changes of borders, or the like. We can assure you that nothing bad will happen from the other side, that is, from Albania.

Mayor Ollogu is equally dismissive of recent predictions in the Macedonian media that Debar will be the next flashpoint in Macedonia.

"The Macedonian media think Debar will be the next place where fighting will erupt. We are building up an office for civil defense and watching the situation day and night, so the people of Debar have no cause to fear a war will erupt here. Whether fighting does erupt, however, does not depend on us. "

Ollogu commands the district civil defense council, which consists of nine members and 17 advisors. It is charged, among other things, with ensuring that the basic needs of the population -- including emergency shelter -- are satisfied. Ollogu says that during the fighting in Tetovo in March, the Debar civil defense council worked 24 hours a day and passed the test with flying colors.

But in and around Debar there are visible reminders that normalcy has not yet returned. Numerous recently deployed ethnic Macedonian police from other parts of the country man sandbagged checkpoints and drive about in vehicles without numbered plates. Ollogu says:

"It is true that since the crisis began, a large number of soldiers and police from all over Macedonia have been deployed in Debar in a show of force. They took control of strategic points and sparked fear in Debar's population."

For the time being, the waiting game goes on. Gezim Haxhihalili, the mayor's chief advisor, says:

"In our town we feel some tension -- endless waiting, waiting for dialogue, waiting for some kind of peaceful solution between [the] Macedonian and Albanian blocs. If the crisis continues to deepen, the UCK must be present in the talks."

Whether Debar can avoid the fate of Tetovo and the villages west of Kumanovo will be largely up to the UCK's military command, led by Debar's native son Gezim Ostreni. As for the authorities in Tirana, who clearly favor the granting of equal rights to Macedonia's ethnic Albanians, they certainly have no desire to become a pariah state in the process.