Waiting for war: The Agony of Tetovo

'There's been a lot of bang-bang, but very little dying. But for those of us who have covered the wretched break-up of former Yugoslavia since 1991, you can feel the killing coming'
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The Independent Online

Tetovo, this week, is a town fizzling with fear. Heads turn too fast at the slamming of a car door, people stare transfixed at the spiral of dirty grey smoke rising against a blue sky from a burning Albanian home. An old man inspects his vegetable patch and then jumps as a rocket-propelled grenade swooshes into the hillside. The guns stop, and an uneasy silence settles once more. A black puppy sits in the sun, nuzzling its paws.

Tetovo, this week, is a town fizzling with fear. Heads turn too fast at the slamming of a car door, people stare transfixed at the spiral of dirty grey smoke rising against a blue sky from a burning Albanian home. An old man inspects his vegetable patch and then jumps as a rocket-propelled grenade swooshes into the hillside. The guns stop, and an uneasy silence settles once more. A black puppy sits in the sun, nuzzling its paws.

What is so eerie is that Tetovo - not exactly a one-horse town, more a 100-donkey village - is fully plugged into modern Europe. You can watch the cricket on BBC World in the hotel. You can make phone calls on your mobile to anywhere in the world. The reception is better than in Newton Abbot. You can pop into the fully stocked supermarket, jam-packed with Snickers, Coca-Cola, Fanta, and all the rest of affluent Europe's consumer effluence.

What is eerier still is that, so far, fewer people have died here than in the average American high-school shooting. The latest violence was sparked last Wednesday, when a hard-line Albanian demonstration was rounded off by rebel fighters, in the hills above the town, shooting into the air. Hearing this, in the town below, the crowd took up the forbidden chant of the rebel UCK, or National Liberation Army: "UCK, UCK, UCK" (pronounced "Oo-Cha-Ka"). At this, the Macedonian army went bonkers, firing up into the hills with abandon. Since then, the situation has wobbled further out of control. To date, one Albanian civilian has been drilled in the forehead - presumably by the Macedonian military - and one Albanian policeman killed in a shoot-out with the UCK. That's two dead Albanians. Plus one Macedonian soldier, killed when one of the country's four military helicopters crashed into a hillside. There are whispers of 10, 15 dead, and of children killed - but where are the corpses?

You feel that both sides might want to show off their bodies, glorifying in the propaganda victory. Instead, there has been a lot of bang-bang and very little evidence of dying. But - and for those of us who have covered the wretched break-up of former Yugoslavia since 1991 - you can feel the killing coming. It is like watching the beginning of an avalanche, the slow, unstoppable, mass of hate piling up momentum. Old neighbours turning into new enemies. The closing down of old routines, the switching off of common humanity, the end of mutual respect.

And then the Macedonian army gunner lets rip again with his heavy machine-gun on top of his olive-green armoured personnel carrier, and it spits flame. The puppy yowls at the racket echoing around the hills, and takes a few steps in reverse, wishing the noise away. No one fires back. The machine-gunner had been firing at shadows from 2am. He fired away all through the rest of the night and stopped sharp at 7.40 local time. (At that moment, I did a live interview with BBC Radio 5; all you could hear in the background was birds tweet-tweeting. I could have been in Berkshire. The moment the interview stopped, he started firing again. But that's showbiz.) The point is, far from showing fire-fight discipline, the Macedonian army wants to make as big as fuss as it can. Bang-bang, bang-bang means: "Look at how bad these Albanian terrorists are."

Some - too few - Albanians are still prepared to give the Macedonians the benefit of charity. Are the Macedonian traffic cops really as bad as the Serbs were in Kosovo, I asked Ahmed, the owner of a modish (at least, for Tetovo) café? "No, they were correct," he said, slowly shaking his finger. He motioned to "upstairs", his fellow countrymen in the hills. "The situation is stupid," he continued.

Ilir would not agree. "The time has come," he said defiantly. "I am sick of being treated like a second-class citizen. For 10 years we have waited. We have been patient. The Macedonians have done nothing for us. I am with the men in the hills." But the difference between the two men was that Ahmed whispered his displeasure to me, while Ilir spoke proud and strong. WB Yeats unwittingly summed up the mood in his famous line: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of a passionate intensity." And, in this case, the worst - Albanian and Macedonian alike - have guns.

Fatuously ugly modern flats apart - a touch of Basildon New Town in the Balkans - the agony of Tetovo is, like all the great tragedies, taking place in a landscape of heart-breaking beauty. The old part of town is steepled with Ottoman minarets, washed by fast-running streams of snow-melt. Above the town, villages are sprinkled among the forests. Above the forests are the snow-sugared peaks of the Shar mountains, where hawks ride the thermals. That's upstairs, where the rebels of the UCK hang out, unseen for the main part, silent, waiting.

Downstairs is Tetovo, 80 per cent ethnic Albanian, but ruled by the Macedonians, kith and kin of their fellow Orthodox, the Serbs. Downstairs, the Macedonian army is much better equipped but much less motivated than the rebels upstairs. Downstairs boasts six Bulgarian tanks of a certain age. One Macedonian soldier boasted: "So here are the tanks. We've got to push them because only the Bulgarians know how to make them work." And the rebels know that tanks are useless high up, where the hawks fly. They are playing a clever game of "come and get me".

Thus far, the Macedonians have simply bedded themselves in beside Albanian homes and begun firing. At some point (perhaps not far off: as I write this, tanks are firing into the hills dotted with Albanian homes), some of the deadly killing technology will connect with the wrong target - schoolchildren, for example. And then, one fears, the avalanche will roar.

Macedonia is the one bit of old Yugoslavia that has avoided the bloodbath thus far. It lies at the most southerly chunk of the former Yugoslavia, riding the northern tip of Greece. The majority population is Orthodox. Countrywide, the Albanian minority is 23 per cent of the population, at least according to the Macedonian-led government. Oh, no it's not: it's 45 per cent, say some Albanians. The Macedonians are Orthodox, the Albanians Muslim. The inter-marriage rate between Macedonian and Albanian is less than 1 per cent. They live in the same country, but don't get on. Macedonia is a schizophrenia with a seat at the United Nations. Imagine two armed men, both suffering from splitting migraines, in the same bar, both spoiling for a fight, and you get some idea of the picture. It is not enough for one part of the split personality to succeed; the other must fail.

In 1999, with extreme bad grace, the Macedonians eventually allowed in Albanian refugees from Kosovo, but not before many of the old and the very young had died waiting in the disgusting pit of the Blace containment camp on the border. I remember vividly the despair of one man, who had escaped from the killing fields on a train with his family, only to be turned back by the Macedonian border guards. He made a second attempt by car, and succeeded in getting his family out. He showed off his passport: there were two exit visas from Yugoslavia, proof that he had got out of hell twice. He laughed at the irony of it, and then burst into tears, a broken man. The callousness of the Macedonian border guards in 1999 will stick in my mind for the rest of my life. So I share some of the Albanians' amazement at what is happening now. It feels as though a horribly contagious virus is eating into the people of Tetovo - a virus so strong that it will soon affect the whole of Macedonia. But I hope I'm wrong.

One evening this week, Nato's Secretary General, Lord Robertson, came on TV and denounced the handful of Albanian extremists who were making all the trouble. Two years ago, I had sat in an Albanian bar in Tetovo and watched Robertson denounce Serb barbarities in Kosovo. He had been cheered. Now he was heard in cold silence.

For those of who have followed events in the former Yugoslavia, it's like watching a film in the negative: you can't believe what you're seeing. Suddenly, white is black, up is down. And Nato has switched sides. How could it be that the innocent victims of Orthodox hate in 1999 are now, just two years on, extremist terrorists to be denounced by Lord Robertson? How did the powers that be change their minds so quickly?

The answer is contained in a single date, 5 October 2000, the day that Slobodan Milosevic went down the toilet pan in Belgrade. For his demise also spelt the end of the Albanian dream of their own state in Kosovo - even, one day, of the possibility of a Greater Albania. Nato - Europe and the United States - was once at war with Milosevic's vision of a Greater Serbia. But with Milosevic gone, and Kostunica is place, Nato is now handcuffed to a constitutional framework created by Tito. He gave the Serbs, the Croats, the Bosnians and the Macedonians their own republics, but denied the claims of the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo and their brothers in Macedonia. Because Nato is powered by the US and the Western European democracies, there can be no question of tearing up that map. But the map of old Yugoslavia is, for Albanians, a cruel and false whimsy. Europe is using the wrong map, they say.

Worse still, some of the Albanian dreams had begun to come true in 1999. All the world knew they had been cruelly wronged, that Milosevic's death squads had killed thousands of Kosovar Albanians, and that 800,000 more had fled the country. Almost for the first time, Tirana became a fashionable place to visit for Western statesmen. Tony Blair himself wore a red shirt and black trousers when he addressed Albanian refugees - the colours of the Albanian flag.

But that was then. And now, with the possibility of their own state - or something like it - within their grasp, the hopes of the Albanians have been officially smashed. The Albanians don't believe - refuse to believe - their bad luck. Leading the dream is the theoretically disbanded KLA, and its Macedonian offshoot, the UCK. The word is that the KLA doesn't want openly to fight Nato in Kosovo, so it has gone for the soft target: the Macedonians. And the commander behind the latest violence is rumoured to be one Emrush Xhemajli, the former secret service chief of the KLA leader Hashim Thaci. I believe I met him once in Pristina, just after the Nato invasion, a clever, soft-spoken man, in his early thirties, with no hint of a killer in the making.

So you have two colliding realities: Europe's veto on change, and the Albanians' dream of it. The Serbs were quick to play on their good luck, as evidenced by the smile on the face of the Yugoslav general who took over border duties between Kosovo and Serbia proper from the scaredy-cat Americans. The Macedonians are scrambling to build on their opportunity, hence the uncontrolled bang-bang, the mirror-image replies to the extremist KLA. But listen to the silence: why isn't Lord Robertson - who is a thoroughly decent man - scolding the Macedonians for yesterday afternoon's indiscriminate shelling of Albanina villages? Never mind the UCK; women and children were living there yesterday, and random blasting of civilians is against the rules of war. Thus far, only silence.

What is so utterly depressing is that we have all been here before. I remember the picnic war in Slovenia 10 years ago in 1991, and then, fast forward through the horror: a man with no eyeballs in Osijek; a five-year-old lad with a shell injury near his groin in Dubrovnik; a 12-year-old tennis player in Sarajevo who had lost the use of her legs...

"You have no idea what this [the shooting in the hills] will lead to," I told Ilir.

He shook his head: "It is too late now," he replied.