MACEDONIA

Macedonia clashes: ‘My town looks like a war zone’

After a two-day gun battle between the police and alleged terrorists, calm has returned to the town of Kumanovo in northern Macedonia. But a local resident explains that it has left part of his town ravaged, with many homes destroyed..

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The aftermath of fighting in Kumanovo.

After a two-day gun battle between the police and alleged terrorists, calm has returned to the town of Kumanovo in northern Macedonia. But a local resident explains that it has left part of his town ravaged, with many homes destroyed.

Eight officers and 14 gunmen were killed in the operation, which ended Sunday, according to police. A further 20 gunmen surrendered. The authorities said the band of gunmen were ethnic Albanian terrorists, mostly Macedonian, but led by five Albanians from neigbhouring Kosovo. They are awaiting trial in the capital Skopje.

Both NATO and the European Union called for calm following the bloodshed, as well as a transparent investigation. This comes less than three weeks after about 40 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo briefly took control of a police station in a village on Macedonia’s northern border, calling for an independent Albanian state within Macedonia.

These incidents raise the spectre of the 2001 uprising, when rebels demanded more rights for ethnic Albanians. Today, about a third of Macedonia’s population is ethnic Albanian.

Video courtesy of RFE/RL.

"The police blocked roads, trapping people in their homes"

Sasho (not his real name) lives in Kumanovo. One of his parents is Albanian, the other Macedonian.

After the fighting stopped, I went to visit the neighbourhood that was affected. It was like a war zone. Approximately 50 homes were damaged; about 30 of these were destroyed. They belonged to both ethnic Albanians and Macedonians. Some were able to evacuate when the fighting began, but many residents were trapped in the area after the police blocked off the roads in order to keep the rebels trapped in. Entire families had to spend two days with no water or electricity, and some didn’t have enough food. Many of them took refuge underground, in their cellars, out of fear for their lives.

Damage to a home in Kumanovo.

Of course, these people were very angry with the police for not letting them all evacuate. According to local residents, eight civilians have been killed, but the government has counted them among the rebels. But many people here are not at all certain that what the authorities say is true, that these were really Albanian rebels. [Editor’s Note: Many residents interviewed by local media shared similar doubts, especially after the wife of one of the men who was arrested wrote a letter published by several outlets in which she plead with the authorities to release her husband, who she says is just a barber, not a terrorist.]

Damage inside a home in Kumanovo.

Now, people need help to rebuild their homes. We’re hoping we’ll learn more about what happened, and that peace will return to our city. We don’t want another war like in 2001. Albanians and Macedonians get along well in our city; the Albanians’ problem is with the authorities, who don’t give them basic rights like access to education and employment [Editors’ Note: Albanians are under-represented in the civil service and in government].

Fighting on Saturday in Kumanovo. Video courtesy of TvFesta Kumanove.

Damage to a building in Kumanovo.