Macedonia / Places We Go

Skopje, Macedonia

Skopje, Macedonia

Looks relatively quiet and peaceful, no? That was not the case a few years ago…

Skopje, Macedonia

The Macedonian Insurgency

In early 2001 a group of ethnic Albanian rebels began operating in several villages near the Macedonia-Kosovo and Macedonian-Albanian borders. The insurgency centered on the town of Tetovo and in the Sar Mountains north of Tetovo. The group used several names, most prominently the National Liberation Army (NLA) and later the Albanian National Army (ANA). Calculated small-scale attacks pressed the Macedonian government security forces (which were predominantly Macedonian Slav). The Bulgarian government provided the Macedonian government with weapons and ammunition, including a shipment of tanks. Meanwhile, Western European nations promised security aid if Slav and Albanian Macedonians could reach a political settlement. However, fighting continued.

In June 2001, Turkey reported that thousands of Macedonian refugees (Macedonian Muslim refugees) were entering Turkey. That same month a major battle developed around Aracinovo (an ethnic Albanian suburb of the capital, Skopje). The NLA had at least 400 fighters in Aracinovo. The Macedonian Army introduced tanks and attack helicopters and the fighting began to escalate.

The NLA threatened to attack Skopje which prompted NATO and the EU to help negotiate a ceasefire that led to the removal of the NLA fighters – with NATO protection. However, the ceasefire quickly collapsed. At that time, KFOR units in Kosovo arrested several members of the NLA who were operating inside Kosovo.

On August 10th, Bulgaria called for an “international mobilization” to stop the civil war in Macedonia. Bulgaria feared that the Macedonian conflict could spread, affecting Bulgaria and the rest of the Balkans. On August 13th, the Macedonian government and ethnic Albanian leaders signed a peace agreement, which the NLA claimed it would support. The government agreed to enact laws to protect Macedonian Albanians, including language rights. On August 14th, the NLA signed an agreement with NATO which said that the NLA agreed to give up its weapons to NATO peacekeepers.

NATO reinforced its peacekeeping presence inside Macedonia with Operation Essential Harvest. Troops arrived at the same time the Macedonian government reported an NLA incursion from Kosovo near the village of Banjiste on August 18th. The August 13th ceasefire became the Framework Agreement (Ohrid Agreement) which encouraged ethnic Albanian political participation in Macedonian politics. Intermittent fighting, however, continued for another two years.

Skopje, Macedonia

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5 thoughts on “Skopje, Macedonia

  1. From Rob Krott…

    Author of: SAVE THE LAST BULLET FOR YOURSELF: A Soldier of Fortune in the Balkans and Somalia

    Dispatches from the Next Balkan War – Part 1: End Game or Time Out?

    by Rob Krott on March 19, 2010

    Rain plastered my t-shirt to my body. Even with the overcast sky and the drizzling rain it was hot in Tetovo. The soldiers manning the roadblock and yelling at me in Macedonian made that obvious. Clad in civilian clothes, albeit also wearing a green SOF t-shirt and GI jungle boots, I didn’t present a military target and tried to exit the battered Mercedes as nonchalantly as possible.

    I could hear the unmistakable rattle-rattle of automatic weapons fire in the distance. My driver was nervous and begged me to leave my camera in the car…

    Tucked into the rolling hills near the Kosovar border and about 25 miles west of Skopje, Tetovo, one of the five largest cities in Macedonia, was the latest simmering conflict in an area that has become the boiling pot of modern European land warfare. Tetovo is a large northwestern town with a mainly ethnic-Albanian population.

    The political tensions between the Macedonian government and the country’s Albanian minority first erupted over the University of Tetovo, an Albanian-language university in the city. Established by ethnic Albanians in 1995 it quickly was declared illegal by Macedonia and became a symbol of the ethnic strife, resulting in violent clashes between police and demonstrators.

    In the Spring of 2001 minor ethnic clashes and street demonstrations grew into a full-scale guerrilla war. Adding this to Croatia and Bosnia it was my third Balkan war … having sat out the whole Kosovo thing.

    This conflict, like Kosovo, was a surprise to no one. I was bumming around Eastern Europe that summer parachuting and decided I’d take a look. For most of the summer the conflict escalated after the initial hostilities and was soon a full-blown counter-insurgency in northern Macedonia.

    Leaving Bulgaria where I was hanging out with their special forces, I was off to Skopje on the next available flight. I scanned the English language papers for news on Macedonia. It was obvious that the fighting and a possible impending ceasefire wasn’t front-page news, even in Europe.

    The “news” was Britain’s negotiations for an IRA ceasefire and the Palestinian problem — which occurred to me, have been pretty much constant headlines since I was old enough to read a newspaper. On my flight into Skopje I noticed the home team was in town.

    The three guys with short haircuts wearing the Levi’s and the Wranglers were definitely North Americans. Americans stick out in a European crowd unless we wear too much cologne and purposefully dress like euro trash.

    Even if the snuff can rings on the back pockets weren’t enough of a giveaway, one stud with a G.I. haircut had the “danger mines” death’s head patch visible through the net mesh pocket of his daypack while another was wearing a C-130 Hercules ball cap. How low key is that?

    Macedonian police in camouflage uniforms and combat body armor were dispersed on the runway awaiting our disembarkation. I guess this very visible yet meaningless heightened security was in case some well-known Albanian terrorist decided to alight from the airliner. An improbable situation I thought at the time but in light of recent events, definitely possible.

    Two teenaged boys looked out the window after landing and exclaimed “Hey, that’s a Kalashnikov!” Their mother didn’t look as thrilled. Inside the terminal some G.I. duffle bags came off the luggage belt. I didn’t attempt any conversation with the G.I.s or whoever they were as they didn’t need any more attention than they were already drawing to themselves and I certainly didn’t want to complicate my arrival. I grabbed my Becker ruck and walked under the Marlboro welcome sign to customs.

    Heavily armed national police manned several checkpoints and sandbagged positions along the drive into Skopje. I soon learned that the taxi fare to or from the airport went up or down depending on the fortunes of war. If things were less than peaceful and there was a real possibility of an ambush on the highway, then the fare was 50 Deutschmarks (DM) or maybe as much as 100 DM — German money being a popular medium of exchange in Macedonia.

    On the way to my hotel I heard the unmistakable rush of a helicopter turbine and looked out the window to see a Macedonian Army HIND-D attack helicopter skimming the rooftops. I would see several helicopters and fast movers over the city in the next few days and from my vantage point, a hotel on a hill in the city’s outskirts, I watched them fly through the valley on their way to the fighting near Tetovo.

    I learned from the Ministry of Defense that there were a total of seventeen helicopters in action including Mi-17, Mi-8, and Mi-24 HINDs for transport, recon, and combat missions. There were four Sukhoi-25 attack aircraft committed to the fighting.

    The situation in Skopje when I arrived was tense as a police counter-terrorist operation the day before my arrival was the talk of the town. The police claimed five Albanian “terrorists” were killed in a firefight in an apartment in a Skopje neighborhood.

    However, I learned that an Albanian woman said she was awakened in the middle of the night when the police/military raid team hit the house and killed five male “visitors.” I guess one man’s terrorist is another man’s, er, visitor… She claimed the five men (who she of course did not know) were not Albanian terrorists.

    I wondered how these completely innocent men came to be in possession of a large arms cache. The raid made the front page of the Macedonian papers. In a photo of the contraband captured in the raid I counted at least six assault rifles, one scoped folding stock assault rifle, several loaded magazines, camouflage uniforms, and a large pile of ammo bandoliers for the Armscorp 40mm grenade launcher.

    I recognized the packaging and distinctive labeling from my experience with them in Bosnia and there were loose rounds displayed on top of the pile. There were two of the distinctive revolver-action, six-cylinder, folding-stock, optically sighted grenade launchers lying nearby. Just what every visitor keeps in his overnight bag. Another successful operation had just occurred as I left the airport: an Albanian convoy was shot up and several Albanian “terrorists” were killed.

    Macedonia’s foes were supposedly homegrown ethnic Albanian rebels of the National Liberation Army (NLA). Roughly a third of Macedonia’s population of 2 million is Albanian. In many areas of northwestern Macedonia, where the Albanians are concentrated, Albanian paramilitary groups were formed and trained in 2000 by veterans of the now-disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

    I soon learned that most of the Albanian fighters were actually Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) or in Albanian: Ushtria Clirimtare E Kosoves (UCK). Weeks later when the Albanians turned in their weapons many were seen wearing UCK emblems on their uniforms and caps. The Kosovo Liberation Army does not believe in negotiations and diplomacy and say they will liberate the Albanian people.

    The KLA’s spokesmen have stated its mission only too succinctly: “Our job is to liberate the whole of Kosovo, as well as the Albanians in Macedonia and Montenegro.” The obvious agenda is the formation of a “Greater Albania.”

    Ivan Marovic, a Macedonian veteran of the old Yugoslav Army, told me that the NLA would stop at an Albanian house and leave two uniforms. If they don’t receive the uniforms back with two bodies (recruits) inside them the next day, then they go back to the house and leave two bars of soap. This means wash yourself – to a Muslim: prepare to go to heaven. Sometimes they may pay a DM 5,000 indemnity for excusal from military service.

    ***************************

    Original is here:

    http://www.robkrott.com/2010/03/19/dispatches-from-the-next-balkan-war-%E2%80%93-part-1-end-game-or-time-out/#more-104

  2. Another interesting bit from Rob Krott…

    Dispatches from the Next Balkan War – Part 2: The Bin Laden Connection

    by Rob Krott on March 19, 2010

    At least ten of Osama bin Laden’s close associates were involved with the organizing, financing and arming of the NLA in Macedonia

    According to the Utrinski Vesnik, a Skopje daily newspaper, at least ten of Osama bin Laden’s close associates are directly and personally involved with the organizing, financing and arming of the NLA were in Kosovo during the crisis. Using false passports they infiltrated Macedonia to organize the NLA.

    Two Saudi nationals, Fatah Ali Hasanin and Omar Alavadi, are considered the principal founders of the NLA in Macedonia. Utrinski Vesnik published a list of bin Laden’s associates in the Balkans claiming that Hasanin, an Al Qaida member, is supposedly in charge of the jihad in Southeast Europe.

    During the Kosovo crisis, “according to some intelligence sources,” Hasanin was in Macedonia, i.e. in Skopje, Tetovo, and Gostivar to organize military training for the NLA. He occasionally traveled to Kosovo via a KFOR vehicle with French license plates. He had a meeting with Hashim Taci, who used to be a KLA(UCK) leader and is now a leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo.

    During the past few years, Hasanin stayed in Vienna, where he had founded a humanitarian organization, named “The Third World,” tasked to finance the expansion of Muslim fundamentalism in the Balkans, especially in Kosovo and Macedonia. Formerly a councilor to President Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia, he traveled throughout the Balkans.

    According to the Skopje paper, Omar Alavadi, is an associate of Bin Laden and is closely connected to Hasanin. It is believed that he made necessary arrangements for military training of Albanian terrorists in Macedonia, coordinating with them in Tetovo, Gostivar, Skopje, and Kicevo. His associate, Edi Debsi, is thought to be connected in some way with German intelligence.

    The war in northern Macedonia was direct spillage from the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo. I know for a fact that weapons bought on the black-market in 1993 in Tomislavgrad, Bosnia, were shipped to Kosovo. The looting of Albanian armories armed most of the NLA rebels.

    Hundreds of thousands of AK-47s and other weapons were looted from Albanian Army supply depots during the Albanian crisis in 1997. Many were smuggled across the border by Albanian militants to arm the Kosovo Liberation Army in their secessionist war against Serbia. Those weapons have since found their way into northern Macedonia. Usually strapped to the back of a KLA veteran.

    A Capital At War

    Skopje, the capital of Macedonia (population about 440,000), is located in the north central part of the country where it straddles the Vardar River. Skopje is also the birthplace of Mother Theresa and a plaque in the main square, Macedonia Place, marks the site of the house where she was born.

    In ancient times Skopje was the capital of the kingdom of Dardania. In the late medieval period it was captured first by the Serbs (1282), then by the Turks (1392), and became a key city in the Ottoman Empire. Following the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), it was ceded to Serbia and became part of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (renamed Yugoslavia in 1929).

    An earthquake destroyed most of the city, including many of its ancient mosques, in 1963, but some of the city’s surviving architecture still reflects the Ottoman influence.

    Unarmed soldiers in BDU pants and green t-shirts walked around openly in Skopje. Skopje like any modern city has a myriad of soft targets for dedicated urban terrorists, whether an unarmed soldier wearing his cammies and walking home, a street-side cafe, the Macedonian telecommunications building, or a crowded shopping center.

    Yet people went about their business shopping, working, and hanging out in cafes. Young boys were trying to cool off in the Vardar River, lovers lounged in the park, Albanian-Muslim women wearing head scarves and the heavy dark dresses which look like winter coats did their shopping, and pairs of young men sat in cafes where they drank beer and watched the girls go by.

    I was doing much the same. Having arrived in late afternoon, too late to coordinate with the Ministry of Defense or anyone else, I dropped my ruck in a cheap bed and breakfast type hotel, stuffed my notebook and some film in my pockets, grabbed one of my cameras and caught a cab down to the city center.

    I took a walk around the historic section taking in the square with Mother Teresa’s monument, the 15th century bridge over the Vardar, and the old Kale fortress ruins – all Skopje landmarks. Having worked up a good sweat in the summer heat, I stopped at a popular cafe to cool off with a cold Skopsko beer. After about ten minutes people began to stop on the sidewalk nearby to look up the street.

    I left my table to see a group of marchers with a Macedonian flag and a few carrying signs of protest. I followed the crowd which swelled with other curious onlookers and, as can be expected, the usual gaggle of kids, teenagers, and lay-abouts looking for trouble and / or excitement.

    Having blocked the street with bicycle racks and small dumpsters the demonstration gathered in front of government offices in the lee of the hill occupied by the Kale ruins.

    A girl wrapped in a Macedonian flag saw my camera and waved at me … some of these kids were media savvy. Some were obviously University of Skopje students. After I photographed the girl with the flag the local press finally arrived: a reporter from a newspaper but without a photographer, a photographer from another paper, and a TV cameraman.

    The cops (some were already blocking the street to vehicle traffic) then showed up in force in a van. About ten cops piled out. Some wore helmets with riot visors, but most looked unprepared for riot control – unless that meant popping off 9mm rounds into the crowd. They pushed through the crowd and took up positions by the doors.

    I went over to take a photo. Having initially stood atop a three-foot high dividing wall as many people were doing and been screamed at by one old lady on my right and some guy with a sizeable beer gut on my left, I had moved to the outer ring of the crowd. Crowds sometimes become mobs, and I made sure I had an escape route. But now there was no other recourse but to move quickly and aggressively into the crowd to get pictures of the cops.

    A few of the cops saw me and waved me off. I got off a few frames and then some asshole wearing only knee shorts appointed himself boss and pushed me yelling, “Go! Now, go! Now.” Well, hell, I thought that’s not very nice. The local press could take photos but I was not welcome. There were no other non-Macedonian journalists there.

    I told one of the reporters to be careful, we’d been talking previously and someone might think he was with me. The crowd moved off down the street, resuming their march, to demonstrate in front of the American Embassy. Yes, everything was America’s fault!

    I’d only been in country three or four hours and soon experienced some obvious anti-foreigner feelings in Skopje. Friends in Bulgaria told me this the day before. Yep, when your country is all screwed up … blame the foreign journalists.

    There was a widely held belief that the Albanian insurgents were hiding behind EU/NATO/US forces and diplomats whenever things got tough. Whether true or not this perception was not making us any friends in Macedonia.

    I was warned a few days later by three Skopje twenty-something’s that if I saw another demonstration or a group gathering to beat feet as the level of anti-western and anti-U.S. sentiment was so high that it could be very dangerous. The U.S. had stepped in to prevent the sale of more heavy military weaponry to Macedonia from Ukraine (like the Hinds).

    This was greatly resented in both countries (I had just left Kiev the week before traveling to Skopje). Most Macedonians thought the west supported Albanians because of what happened in the village of Arachinovo where strong diplomatic pressure and U.S. soldiers with buses re-located beleaguered Albanian fighters.

    The papers were full of articles about U.S. instructors working in Kosovo with “Albanian terrorists” and the U.S. Army’s support of the Kosovars. Americans definitely weren’t flavor of the month in Skopje.

    I had noticed a few looks from people just in passing, but by and large the average person in Skopje was friendly toward me and quite a few shopkeepers and taxi drivers made a point of giving me unexpected change — passing up the opportunity to rip-off a foreigner. However, it was a different dynamic in a mob of angry demonstrators.

    ************

    Original is here:

    http://www.robkrott.com/2010/03/19/dispatches-from-the-next-balkan-war-%E2%80%93-part-2-the-bin-laden-connection/

  3. In April 2010, a weapon cache believed to be intended for the UCK group was discovered near the border with Serbia, it included uniforms with UÇK marks. On May 12, four people were killed by Macedonian police, in a village close to Kosovo. Police seized four bags of explosives, anti-infantry mines and other weapons. The militants killed were wearing black uniforms and Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) insignia was found in the vehicle. The days after, as Macedonia petitioned Kosovo for informations 70 criminal suspects linked to ethnic Albanian criminal gang, 4 men, a father and his three sons, were arrested for illegal weapons possessions. The 4 men were linked to the men killed on May 12.

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