The seven-month armed conflict that erupted between rebels and security forces in North Macedonia in January 2001 is now seen as a turning point for ethnic relations between the country’s Macedonian majority and Albanian minority.
By Sinisa Jakov Marusic
It was January 22, 2001 when news about the shelling of a police station in the village of Tearce, near the north-western town of Tetovo, shook the Macedonian public.
Although there had been other violent incidents earlier that month, the attack carried out by ethnic Albanian insurgents from the National Liberation Army, NLA, which claimed the life of the police officer Momir Stojanovski, marked the start of the armed conflict that would continue for seven months and eventually prove to be a turning point for Macedonian society.
After the conflict ended in August 2001 with the signing of the internationally brokered Ohrid Peace Accord, North Macedonia issued an amnesty for NLA fighters, changed its constitution, made Albanian its second official language, and started employing more Albanians and other minority groups in the public sector as well as in the security forces.
Former MP Mersel Biljali, a law and political science professor, said that despite delays in implementing the peace deal over the years, it has helped the country to ease ethnic tensions and avoid greater bloodshed.
“It sobered us, directed us towards living with one another, building a joint future together, understanding each other a bit better, and building trust,” Biljali said.
Twenty years later, ethnic divisions in North Macedonia have largely subsided, but there are still echoes of the past. The names of former conflict hotspots like the villages of Aracinovo, Tearce, Tanushevci and others are still synonymous with the conflict, and during every significant political crisis that the country has been through since then, fears return that ethnic unrest could erupt again.
While society as a whole has moved on a great deal since 2001, traumas also remain among those who lost relatives or friends, lost their possessions or were internally displaced, never to return to their old homes.
Insurgents strike, security forces retaliate
Although the country these days only commemorates the anniversary of the Ohrid Peace Deal, the attack on the police station in Tearce was significant because for the first time, the NLA identified itself by issuing a press statement taking responsibility for the attack, saying that ethnic Albanians were being oppressed by the Macedonian majority, and that it considered all members of the security forces to be legitimate targets.
Ethnic Albanians represent around a quarter of North Macedonia’s population of just over two million people. At the start of the conflict, the NLA swore to oust Macedonian security forces and take control over what it described as “Albanian” territories of the country, although it softened its demands as the year went on.
After the Tearce attack, the authorities were no longer able to downplay the scale of the problem with the NLA rebels by describing media reports about the stationing of armed paramilitary troops in villages and areas close to the country’s northern border with Kosovo as speculation, or by treating the insurgents as localised criminal gangs.
The official tone changed and the NLA were dubbed “terrorists” by the state authorities and Macedonian-language media, although officials abandoned the description after a peace deal was ultimately signed.
As tensions grew and the security forces engaged in daily exchanges of fire in some of the country’s mountainous border areas, the next big shock came on March 14, when the NLA launched its first major offensive, besieging the predominantly Albanian-populated town of Tetovo.
That day, chaos erupted on the streets of Tetovo as police forces poured in to defend it from incoming fire from the nearby hills. Despite a successful counter-offensive by the security forces on March 23, which briefly drove the NLA away from the surrounding hills, the insurgents returned to their previous positions around the town, and Tetovo remained a flashpoint throughout the conflict.
On May 4, another front opened up, this time north-east of the capital Skopje, near the town of Kumanovo, where several thousand well-armed NLA fighters took and fortified a large stretch of villages in nearby hilly and mountainous areas. Heavy fighting ensued but neither side was able to make significant military progress.
On June 9, the NLA took over control over the large, predominantly Albanian-populated village of Aracinovo, which marked another escalation of the conflict. Located at just a few kilometres from Skopje, it signified major trouble for the authorities, as the NLA threatened to launch artillery attacks on the capital from the location.
On June 22, combined police and army forces launched a large-scale offensive on Aracinovo, deploying artillery, tanks and the air force. But after initial progress, the offensive was halted after just three days on the order of the then president, Boris Trajkovski, when the insurgents started waving white flags of surrender.
The security forces were infuriated by the abrupt halting of the offensive, under intense pressure from Western powers that were trying to broker a ceasefire, and by the fact that the NLA fighters were allowed to evacuate the village with the help of NATO on June 25.
That same night, an angry mob, which was joined by many members of the security forces from Aracinovo, stormed the parliament building in Skopje, accusing the country’s leadership of treason for agreeing to the ceasefire, and demanding that the military offensive be allowed to continue.
Peace deal prevents further escalation
In August that year, both sides continued to exchange fire while US and EU diplomats prepared for peace talks between the country’s Macedonian and ethnic Albanian political party leaders, under the auspices of then President Trajkovski.
By that time, the NLA had altered its rhetoric, and instead of talking in its press statements of banishing the country’s security forces from “Albanian territories”, it started stressing that their struggle was for greater rights of the Albanian population.
But the attempts to secure peace faced serious challenges as the violence comtinued. On August 8, ten army reservists were killed in an ambush at a location called Karpalak on the highway between Skopje and Tetovo.
There was another massacre happened on August 10, when the entire Skopje valley was rocked by two consecutive landmine explosions that killed eight soldiers near the village of Ljuboten, an incident that provoked a prolonged gunfight.
The killings happened as talks aimed at reaching a peace deal were ongoing. Nevertheless, the deal was finally signed in the city of Ohrid on August 13 by the President Boris Trajkovski, and the four main parties at that time: the Social Democrats, the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE, the Democratic Party of Albanians and the Party for Democratic Prosperity, another ethnic Albanian party.
The Ohrid agreement envisaged the disbandment of the NLA, the ethnic Albanian insurgent force. The NLA was later transformed into the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, which to this day remains the biggest ethnic Albanian party in the country and is now part of the government.
Under the peace accord, the country kept its unitarian character, instead of becoming a federalised state, but the constitution was changed and positive discrimination towards the ethnic Albanian population was introduced in the public sector, the military and the police force. Wider official use of the Albanian flag and language was also allowed.
Two decades on, despite delays and political bickering over the years, all of the Ohrid deal’s provisions have been implemented, including the planned employment of more ethnic minority staff in state offices to meet equitable representation targets.
Last year, partly as a result of the enduring peace, North Macedonia became a NATO member, a goal that had always been equally shared by the country’s Macedonians and Albanians. The majority of people in both ethnic groups hope that EU membership will come next.
“We are now on a good track, so now we are slowly moving away from focusing too much on ethnic problems and more on functional problems, creating a just state, better democracy, and more wealth for our citizens,” said former MP Biljali.
Wounds heal, but scars remain
The conflict in 2001 left 72 soldiers and police officers dead. Many were killed by NLA guerrilla operations and in ambushes. The exact number of NLA fighters who were killed remains a mystery, with numbers varying from about 100 to several hundred.
The total number of civilian casualties also largely remains a matter for speculation. A book that the Interior Ministry published about the conflict said that the NLA killed ten civilians. But the exact number of civilians killed in Albanian-populated villages, which were sometimes heavily shelled by the security forces, remains unknown.
Some of those who took part in the conflict as fighters on the ground are still dissatisfied.
Borce Davidov, a taxi driver from the predominantly ethnic Macedonian town of Prilep, drove an armoured personnel carrier during the conflict and participated in the security forces’ offensive at Aracinovo, where he lost a colleague to mortar fire. Davidov still believes that the armed forces could have won a military victory over the NLA, if they were allowed to do so.
“But the execution was bad and sluggish. Politics started interfering right from the start. On the first day of the offensive [in Aracinovo], we were ordered to dig in, as we were half way through [the village]. We were outraged because we wanted to continue progressing, but the commanders were reluctant, or afraid, I don’t know…
“A colleague from my platoon died in the most stupid way possible. While we were digging in instead of progressing the enemy pinpointed our location and started shelling us with mortar fire. One of the shells killed him. There was a lot of rage off course, a lot of anger, but in that situation, who would not go mad?”
Davidov said that he will never forget what he went through.
“I would be lying if I say I don’t hold a grudge. Not against Albanians in general, but against the terrorists. They were killing our people, massacring them. But I learned not to expect anything from anyone, because in a way, our own commanders and leaders betrayed us as well,” he concluded.
Estimates suggest that at the peak of the conflict, up to 170,000 people were displaced from their homes in areas where the fighting took place. By 2005, the vast majority of them had returned, apart from some 2,000 ethnic Macedonians and Roma, some of whom remain displaced to this day.
Sixty-eight-year-old Danica is one of those who never returned to their old homes. An ethnic Macedonian, her family fled the outskirts of Aracinovo as soon as the bullets started flying. She now lives in the capital Skopje, after she and her family refused to go back to Aracinovo because they feared possible retaliation from their Albanian neighbours.
“I was afraid to return after all we went through. Our house was heavily damaged, robbed several times, and graffiti was written on the walls wishing death on Macedonians. And all of this was done by some of our neighbours. That hurts me most, because we shared a life together with some of these people,” Danica said.
Eventually, some other Albanian neighbours helped her family to sell their plot of land and what was left of the house for a fair price.
“They could have easily blackmailed us into selling it for far less. Because they knew we were not going back. But they turned out to be fair and set up a buyer so we were ultimately able to buy this flat in Skopje,” she said.
“I thank them for that, but I will carry some traumas until the rest of my days. One does not forget such things,” she added.
Civil rights, but no reliable water supply
Fifty-two-year-old Dritan, an ethnic Albanian from Aracinovo, could well have been on the other side of the front line from Macedonian soldier Borce Davidov during the battle in the village. Dritan was an NLA fighter and still lives in the same house in Aracinovo as he did in 2001.
He insisted that the Albanians’ grudges against the authorities were based on fact.
“Back then, we saw nothing good from the Macedonians. From time to time, the police would barge into the village, make a mess and then leave… So the entire village was NLA, understandably,” he recalled.
Dritan now has his own business, travels to Skopje often and has a daughter who studies in the capital and has many ethnic Macedonian friends.
“What happened, happened. We cannot turn back the clock. But I now live for my children. I hope our country will be better for them than it ever was for me,” he said.
“My daughter has many Macedonian friends now and I am particularly happy about it, that she has a different experience from mine. They go out together, study together. Her friends even came to visit [Aracinovo] once or twice,” he added.
Dritan said that he has other worries now. Living in one of the hilly areas of the village, he said that problems with the water supply and the lack of a proper sewerage system now loom larger in his everyday life.
“It was good that we gained the [civil] rights [for Albanians]. The language and everything. But that alone will not feed my family, and will not make the village better,” he explained.
“We need roads and a better water system, as half of the village still has problems. But none of the politicians care about that – the Albanians and the Macedonian ones. That’s what I worry about these days.”
One Macedonian convicted of war crimes
After the 2001 conflict, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague took an interest in four cases related to alleged atrocities committed by NLA members. But in 2008, the UN court returned these cases to North Macedonia’s judiciary without pressing charges.
Then in 2011, in a move that angered many ethnic Macedonians, the ruling alliance between the VMRO DPMNE party and the Democratic Union for Integration, the party that grew out of the disbanded NLA, voted to abandon the four cases, insisting that the suspects were eligible for pardons.
One of the cases charged the NLA leadership with command responsibility for the alleged atrocities committed by rebel forces. Another case accused the rebels of capturing and torturing several construction workers.
In the two other cases, one accused NLA insurgents of cutting the water supply to the town of Kumanovo for several months, while the other accused the rebels of the kidnapping and killing of 12 ethnic Macedonians and one ethnic Bulgarian.
But the only person ever jailed for war crimes related to the 2001 conflict was police commander Johan Tarculovski. The Hague Tribunal convicted him of leading a police unit that killed ethnic Albanian civilians and committed other atrocities in the Albanian-populated village of Ljuboten near Skopje. In the same case, former Interior Minister Ljube Boskoski was acquitted of all charges.
Tarculovski served eight years of his 12-year jail term before he was granted early release in 2013, and returned home to a hero’s welcome staged by the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE party.
He was then elected as a VMRO-DPMNE MP, before the party was ousted from government amid allegations of corruption and authoritarianism.