Macedonia's ethnic cleansers claim first victim

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The Independent Online

It took Tafil Veseli more than an hour to die, a terrified child almost cut in half by the bullet wounds across his stomach. There was no warning when the masked gunmen came to his house in the middle of the night: they just opened fire.

Tafil, the first person killed by ethnic cleansing in Macedonia, was 13 years old. As he lay bleeding to death, the local ambulance refused to come for him. Some of the gunmen who shot him were wearing police uniforms, according to his uncle, who witnessed the shooting.

They buried Tafil under a scorching sky in the barren mountains of central Macedonia last week, the red and black Albanian flag draped over his coffin. Old men wept uncontrollably as Tafil's father, Sabir, lowered his son into the grave, a tiny bundle of white in his shroud.

This is the reality of what is happening in Macedonia, while the West flounders for a way to contain the growing crisis. Nato insists it will send troops to Macedonia to collect the rebels' weapons only if they agree to hand them over voluntarily. A peacekeeping force is out of the question.

Tafil was killed just a few hours after the European Union's envoy to Macedonia, François Léotard, announced a peace deal had been agreed to end the fighting between security forces and Albanian rebels. Since that announcement, the fighting has been the bloodiest yet. Yesterday an eighth Macedonian soldier died following a huge land-mine explosion near Tetovo, where the government and the rebels are battling for control.

Meanwhile, the ethnic cleansing has begun. Within hours of Tafil's death, his family had hurriedly packed up what possessions they could and left their house for good. They did not even have time to pack the photographs of their son when he was alive.

Rastan, where they lived, used to be a mixed village. Now it has been ethnically cleansed. Some local Albanians said the police had ordered the Veselis out. The family did not comment, but as soon as they were gone, the police sealed off access to the house where Tafil died. A short distance away, Macedonians sat drinking beer in the sun. They seemed unconcerned by what had happened. "There's nothing to see here," one said. "They've left the village. We don't know where they've gone." But everybody knew the funeral was taking place a few miles up the road, in the entirely Albanian village of Slivnik. The police tried to stop reporters going there, too, claiming it was "dangerous".

Tafil and his family lived a long way from the fighting, in the mountains outside the central city of Veles. It is a bleak, unforgiving landscape. Most in this area are ethnic Macedonians, but a few thousand Albanians live in a handful of dirt-poor villages.

After the funeral, Tafil's father, Sabir, told the story of his son's death in an emotionless voice. He seemed dazed by shock.

"The children were sleeping on the terrace because of the heat, my three and my brother's son," he said. "My wife, my brother and I were upstairs. At around 11.30, we heard dogs barking and looked outside to see who was coming. There were 10 of them, around five of them in masks. They just started shooting. We lay down on the floor, but when Tafil woke up he automatically stood up to see what the noise was. He was shot in the stomach. There were so many bullet wounds." Tafil's uncle, who did not give his name, said five of the gunmen were wearing police uniforms.

This was not the first "ethnic cleansing" in Macedonia – but it was the first killing. Mr Veseli says his family received no warning to leave before the attack, although there had been general warnings to Albanian villages like Slivnik. The first time was during the Kosovo war, when Albanian refugees fled to Macedonia from Serbian ethnic cleansing. Two weeks ago masked gunmen drove through Slivnik and other Albanian villages, ordering the Albanians to leave. Five or six houses in the area were burned down last week, according to locals.

The second largest city in Macedonia, Bitola, was "cleansed" of Albanians in June. They fled after Macedonians burned several houses, desecrated the local mosque and dug up Albanian graves. Meanwhile the capital, Skopje, is full of Macedonian refugees who say they were ordered out of their homes in and around the Albanian-majority city of Tetovo, most of which has been captured by the rebels. Houses there have been burned too.

As Tafil's funeral ended, the mourners set off for their homes in the mountains. They knew any of them could be next. "I don't know what we will do if they come," said one. "But we have no money to go anywhere else. These are our homes."