A much less scary swamp now the monster has gone

Comment: John Sweeney
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The road up into the hills above Skopje switched back and forth under a darkening sky. Dusk was gathering in, and all the signs were bad: no traffic coming the other way, nobody walking along the road and, the clincher, no children.

The road up into the hills above Skopje switched back and forth under a darkening sky. Dusk was gathering in, and all the signs were bad: no traffic coming the other way, nobody walking along the road and, the clincher, no children.

After a while in war zones you learn that this means big trouble. The tension builds, and with it anger that we had set out north from the Macedonian capital too late, that it was getting so dark we might be shot at by mistake.

But nothing happened. No shooting, no pledge of war to the death. We got to where we wanted to get to, an Albanian village in the middle of a host of Macedonian villages, talked to the right people and everybody was OK. In war zones, reporting the boring bits is career suicide. But every now and then there is value in reporting that nothing is happening in, at least, some villages in Macedonia. Far up above in the hills just across from the border with Kosovo, the National Liberation Army (NLA) rebels had taken the village of Gracani. There are two roads up to Gracani and both were blocked by the Macedonian forces

A few miles to the east is another road, that stops at the village of Vostani. There had been a lot of fighting in the area in the last day or two, and it seemed possible that shepherds and other civilians from Gracani had come down to Vostani. It seemed worth a punt, but we started too late.

The village itself was full of kids. In the local shop a middle-aged farmer explained that Gracani had been abandoned for maybe 10 years. "The only things you'll see there are a dog or a donkey," chipped in another of the locals, who seemed as though he might have had one glass of shandy too many.

The shop was filling with one young man after another, all grinning at the arrival of the foreign journalists. Clearly, there wasn't much on the telly. Then the village head man arrived, a youngish school teacher. He repeated what the farmer had already told us, that no one lived in Gracani.

So, far from supplying vivid accounts of battles between the invading NLA and the Macedonian army, the people of Vostani knew nothing about it, apart from hearing the soft thumps of mortar and artillery explosions across the valleys. "How can we get to find out? Is there someone who could show us the way?" we asked.

The schoolteacher replied: "You should ask the police."

The significance of the remark is that in the Tetovo region ­ where the fighting has been at its most intense ­ the Albanians have pretty much given up all faith in institutions controlled and run by the Macedonian ­ Slavic and Christian Orthodox ­ majority. But not here. The infections of war and hate had not come this far. The Albanians here still put some trust in the cops.

So, many things seem the same when you compare the opening weeks of the war in Macedonia with the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo that it is important to underline one huge difference: the absence of Slobodan Milosevic.

Is it the swamp of the Balkans or the monster of Milosevic? It is true to say that Macedonia's two communities do not get on, that they differ in religion, alphabet, hopes and fears, customs and jokes, and that now the killing has started. The extremists are beginning to get the upper hand, and moderation seems a tired force. The swamp is a wretched place for peace.

But where will it end? Bang-bang and bloodshed, yes, but the organised wholesale butchery of northern Bosnia in 1992 and Srebrenica in 1995 and the valley of the White Drin in Kosovo in 1999? Milosevic was, for a time in his career, Yugoslavia's man on Wall Street.

Once in power he combined great charm ­ winning over diplomats with a cynical but cunning advocacy of Serbia's case ­ with organising mass murder. Killings of more than 100 people at one time started in 1991 in Vukovar, when Milosevic was in effective control of rump Yugoslavia and continued through to Kosovo. Even after that, Belgrade saw a wave of political assassinations. They stopped when Milosevic was booted out of power.

So, even though the news from Macedonia looks all bad ­ and there is much more blood to come ­ the orchestrated mass killings of civilians are not happening, thank God. That they are not is strong evidence that the swamp, despite all its horrors, is not as bad as it used to be. Especially, now the monster has gone.

John Sweeney is a BBC correspondent