Stories and reports

Is the Lipkovo war over?

Skopje, 03.09.2001

On the 24th of August, the three local NGOs: "Natira", "The Grain of Benevolence" and "Yeta", organized a humanitarian convoy headed for the municipality of Lipkovo. This was the first convoy since the beginning of the deployment of NATO troops for the operation Essential Harvest. I am a representative of the MCIC (an organization which took part in the assistance in the previous three convoys), and I joined the convoy approximately in front of the entrance to the village of Aracinovo. This village fell victim to ferocious clashes between the security forces and the extremists. I had not visited a crisis region for a long period, and I could not wait to see what I would come upon.

Around 11 o'clock, I met the people that were supposed to join me. Bajram Sulejmani, president of "Natira", was also in charge of the convoy which came from Kumanovo. After we gathered and became acquainted, we headed for the first police control point at the entrance of the village of Aracinovo. It was then when Bairam announced that I was to become the person in charge and I was to take full responsibility. I was a bit surprised, but I did not mind much. After saying hello to the proper authorities in the control point and making a few calls on the mobile phones, the convoy was granted permission to proceed. The vehicles which were not included in the specification were detained. As we headed for Aracinovo, we could spot the scars of war (if we can call it that) right upon the entrance: many demolished houses and crushed electrical and telephone posts. I could not believe it, but that was the harsh reality; I just hoped that there would not be that much devastation in the other villages.
We went trough the village quickly and reached the second police control point. We were given permission to proceed in the nick of time. We headed for the next villages where the Army was taking over control from the police. I could not believe that we went trough the two control points so easily.

We headed for the village of Nikustak. The Army was located a few hundred metres in front of the village. The convoy was halted. At one moment, I saw several soldiers holding rifles running out of the shadows in front of the convoy, and a little further down, I could spot a senior captain approaching. When they came to the first vehicle, where I was sitting, I came out of it and hailed the senior officer. He asked me if I was Fatimir, adding that he knew that I was in charge of the convoy. After a scrupulous inspection of all the people, trucks and goods, seven persons and one vehicle could not be found in the specification sent from the Crisis Management Centre. When they asked me why such incidents happen and what would they do when it happened, I answered that that was their responsibility, and that they should handle such problems. Finally, it was decided that the people who did not belong to the specification should return, and the convoy should proceed to Nikustak, the first extremist-controlled village of the municipality of Lipkovo. So far, I was pleasantly surprised by the professionalism and the correctness of the policemen and the army troops at the Macedonian security forces control points.

As we are approaching the entrance of the village of Nikustak, we can see three vehicles in the distance. Two of them belong to NATO, while a "PU" sticker (which is an abbreviation for Military Police in Albanian) is put on a Mercedes with no plates. When they saw that we were coming, a grey-uniformed man with a radio approached, greeted us and asked us if we were the convoy that was supposed to go to the municipality of Lipkovo. After we confirmed, he commanded that we follow his vehicle and in no circumstance should we go astray.

As we entered the village, the ramifications of the several-month clash were striking: houses were devastated, objects were burnt down, a mosque was bombed. That was the image I saw at the entrance of the village; as we penetrated the village, I saw a larger group of uniformed persons. I asked what was going on, and I soon found out that we were in front of the KLA headquarters, where the preparations for the forthcoming disarmament were in progress. They consisted of registering and issuing licences to the people who were demobilizing, as well as giving up their clothes and weaponry. I realised that they were giving up their clothes and weapons because all the soldiers which came out of a big house were wearing civilian clothing. A Volkswagen vehicle, with no licence plates, and filled with almost one hundred automatic rifles, was a proof that the weapons were given up. Judging by the proportions of the preparations, and the number of people present, I could almost positively say that after the operation of disarmament and demobilization was completed, we would be at peace not only in this region, but in the whole country.

We went forth towards the next villages, the ones of Vistica, Matejce and Otlja, which was the last village before we reached our final destination. The scenery was ubiquitous. It was only the names of the villages that changed. Finally, at around 14:00 o'clock, we arrived at the municipality of Lipkovo. In the centre of the village, there was a large mob. Children, younger and older people and a vast number of KLA members were all gathered in the same place. I wondered: "What is going on?" One of the people from the mob told me that there was an annual commemoration of the death of one of the KLA commanders, who came from the Kumanovo region.

We met the head of civilian protection in the municipality building. He was utterly disappointed when we told him that we have nearly 13 tons of flour. He asked: "What shall I do with 13 tons of flour, when I have 15,000 people to feed?" I wondered: "...that is less than a kilo of flour per person..." The president disrupted my thoughts when he thanked me, saying that this help is better than having nothing.

After the obligatory humanitarian assistance procedures, the process of unloading of trucks commenced. As the trucks were being unloaded, we had a little spare time on our hands, so we went to observe the commemoration.

There, after a very long time, we could feel moments of joy. I asked a few youngsters what they thought of the situation, and what was to be done after the disarmament. They simultaneously and wholeheartedly answered: "We do hope that this crazy war has ended. We are tired, and simply exhausted. We can only try to resume normal life." A few elderly people said: "We are thrilled that they have reached an agreement. We hope that they will not defy it, and that this craziness (as they have labelled the war) will be finally over." All the comments of the few people that I met and could speak to, basically said that "The worst is over, the terror is no more. Now we can try to go back to our normal lives." They were all optimistic for the future.

We were supposed to leave by 16:30, so that we could meet the same police shift at the control points, but because of the large crowds, the trucks were stranded in the village. After a while, we could finally start our journey. But, some of the people from the convoy, who were still observing the commemoration, were nowhere to be found, so we could not assemble.
Around 17:15, we finally departed, escorted by a vehicle of the KLA Military Police. We were familiar with the road, and in order to compensate for the lost time, we only stopped at Otlja, to take a photo of the NATO-appointed weapon gathering point, and in Matejce, to photograph several destroyed buildings and a destroyed tank of the Macedonian Army.

Our escort saluted us at the exit of the village of Nikustak, and we headed for the first Army control point by ourselves. The same shift from the previous time was there. Everything went as it was supposed to, and after a few minutes of chit-chatting and vehicle inspection, we left the control point. At the second point, the shift had changed, so there was another person there. He had not received any information that we were approaching, and he seemed quite tense. So, he asked us to step out of the vehicle. He began to inspect us, at times harshly, one by one. But, that was soon over, and after the long voyage, the convoy entered Skopje in the sunset.

Fatmir Bitiki, MCIC

Devastated house in Matejche
Children playing in Lipkovo
Mosque in Matejche
(Hold cursor over photos for detailed description)

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