The voice of unreason drowns out the noise of bombs and bullets

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The Independent Online

In an apple orchard, blossom drifts down on to the helmet of a Star Wars Imperial Stormtrooper, kitted out in olive green, nuzzling his heavymachine-gun. By the side of a motorway sliproad, three tanks like ugly metal armadillos point their big snouts at the unseen rebels in the hills. Near by, an old lady takes down some of her voluminous lingerie from a washing line - not the most martial of acts.

In an apple orchard, blossom drifts down on to the helmet of a Star Wars Imperial Stormtrooper, kitted out in olive green, nuzzling his heavymachine-gun. By the side of a motorway sliproad, three tanks like ugly metal armadillos point their big snouts at the unseen rebels in the hills. Near by, an old lady takes down some of her voluminous lingerie from a washing line - not the most martial of acts.

In a café in Tetovo, a rebel sympathiser insists on paying for the coffees ("No, no"; "Please, let us pay"; "No I insist") as two corpses lie in the road 300 yards away, drilled by the Macedonian Army, their hand grenades in the dust.

While waiting for a war, something like ordinary life goes on. The courtesies of normality co-exist with the "bang-bang".

The result in disintegrating Macedonia is bizarre, comic, affecting, and is etched in your memory - and then the guns speak. At night the tracer fire is surreally beautiful, shooting stars of aorta-red whizzing through the blackness, from the Macedonian positions in the town to the rebel dug-outs, high up, just below Jupiter. They say the rebels fire back, but you never see or hear them.

The beauty is beguiling, because every explosion spreads the virus of war. That, and the funerals. Yesterday the violence began to spread from the hills above Tetovo eastwards towards the main border crossing with Kosovo, and into the suburbs of Skopje.

To say that very few people have been killed is still true, but the Petri dish of hate is quietly teeming. So far the fighting has been largely for display purposes only: a one-sided artillery barrage by the better armed but more scaredy-cat Macedonians at the Albanian rebels. Once the virus reaches the villages, away from the watchful reproach of the German Army Leopard tanks in Tetovo, well...

Almost worse than the "bang-bang" is the hopelessness of the two sides. They live cheek-by-jowl, Slav Macedonian and Muslim Albanian - endless rivals. Everything is mediated and modulated by how it impacts on your own side. Whether someone laughs at a joke, whether the two dead Albanians were lobbing hand grenades or mobile phones in Tetovo, whether you help or hinder someone when he asks for directions.

The Albanians have been the losers in the past, and, for the moment, will be for years to come. The Macedonians are the victors, haughty, martial, not much of a laugh at the best of times, still less behind their armour-plating. As always, the defeated have the best tunes, the most heart-rending stories, the power - or is it the trick - of exciting one's compassion.

In company, both sides declaim in Commie concrete-speak, bashing out the party lines. But on their own, a more vulnerable humanity emerges.

Arlinda was a tough young Albanian woman with a degree in economics at the Alternative University of Tetovo, which is not recognised by the Macedonians, and therefore useless for jobs. She expressed her support for the rebels in the hills with the usual vehemence. But won't this fighting just mean that many innocents will suffer? "We have been patient for 11 years, in this, what is supposed to be a democracy. Before that, we were patient with the Communists for 45 years. So we have been patient for half a century," she replied.

She was uncompromising. The Macedonians took all the riches of the state for themselves and flung only the scraps to the Albanians. The contractors building the shiny big new motorway across Macedonia were Macedonian, not Albanian.

The engineers, pilots, economists, television journalists were Macedonian, not Albanian. She was talking inideologue-speak. She then let slip that her home was on the hills, in the area that had been plastered by shell-fire from the Macedonians. She had been up to it. What was it like? "The homes of my neighbours had been destroyed." And your home? "My home was OK, but my dog ..."

She burst into tears at the recollection, and suddenly the Albanian ideologue had become a human being racking great sobs out of her lungs. And then she recovered, and turned back into the ideologue again. Photographs of her boyfriend were produced, his naked body livid with purple black bruises. He had been beaten black and blue by the Macedonian police. The message was simple, that no Albanian could ever getfair play from a Macedonian-controlled state.

The Macedonian night porter was slumbering on a kind of home-made chaise longue in the Teke hotel in Tetovo. Outside, the "bang-bang" was lighting up the sky: red tracer fire, the odd splattering of brilliant flashes on the hillside from tank shells, the "woof-woof" of the mortars going off.

There was no one else around. How did this night compare with other nights? In almost flawless American English, he replied: "On a scale of nought to ten, about two."

It was a great line, delivered deadpan. I laughed at his coolness, and we started talking. So, what did he think of the situation? He gave an epic shrug, and then opened up: "I am not a racist. I have many Albanian friends, I have lived in this town for almost all my life, apart from a few years in the United States, and my father before me. This is my home. But now...", he shrugged again. His wife and daughters had been moved out to relatives in the safety of the capital, Skopje.

What did his Albanian friends think of the rebels? "They apologise to me, they say sorry, but they are Albanian." There was a long pause. "Listen, when I had a bike, they had cars, big houses, everything. What do they want?"

The Albanians want his job, although saying so is not appropriate. The hotel sits in a walled garden, and close by is a 200-year-old Dervish shrine and a Muslim graveyard. Decades ago, the Yugoslavs shut down the shrine and opened a hotel, and employed not Muslims but Macedonians to run it. It is as if the two sides are playing a game down the centuries revolving around the question: "Why should I live as a minority in your country, when you could live as a minority in mine?"

In the distance, the guns banged out their bad-tempered conversation. It is pretty much the same as the ordinary conversations, only the volume is much louder.

John Sweeney is a BBC correspondent

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