When Lipkovo was captured by NLA extremists at the start of May, about half of the local population fled to find safety elsewhere. The 14,000 people who remained in their homes became trapped when the Macedonian forces surrounded Lipkovo. Natyra immediately came to MCIC with the challenge: how to deliver aid to civilians caught in the crossfire? This was a chance for the citizens of Macedonia to show their concern for other citizens who were in need. On 11th May, in a day of high tension, MCIC attempted to deliver a small consignment of baby food and hygiene items whilst the two warring sides were observing a supposed ceasefire. The small convoy managed to pass all the police checkpoints on the way to Lipkovo, and was within two kilometres of its destination, when the mission was aborted when a mobile phone message was received from Natyra. Security could no longer guaranteed and it was too dangerous to proceed.
After this disappointment, a new plan was drawn up involving several local non-governmental organisations: Natyra/MCIC, Klasje na dobrinata, Jeta, Mother Theresa, Merhamet, the League of Albanian Women and Flora. But it was not until 12th July that the new convoy of 14 trucks set off from Kumanovo. On board were supplies of fresh food, hygiene items and medicines, in total 40 tonnes of goods. After a two-hour police inspection, we were on our way to Lipkovo.
We passed Lopate, where Macedonians, Albanians and Roma used to live together before the clashes. Now the village is abandoned with destroyed houses here and there. The next village, Opae, is completely empty as well. At Slupcanski Bunar ("the well of Slupcane") we came across a unit of Macedonian security forces. Empty shell cases littered the road. A young soldier standing on a tank followed us carefully through his binoculars. He waved us on and continued his task of observing the other side. This was the last Macedonian checkpoint.
We drove on through "neutral" territory. On both sides of the road, the endless yellow-green fields of wheat were awaiting the harvest. The Slupcane Mountain was before us, the Runica Mountain to the right, with the villages of Slupcane and Vaksince at its base. All around were the signs of heavy fighting. As we approached the village of Orizare we saw the first members of the NLA. An NLA military police car accompanied us through the roadblocks at the entrance to the village to the village centre. We could now see a number of destroyed houses and vehicles. Curious inhabitants came out of their houses to greet us. Around 200 inhabitants, who had found shelter in Lipkovo, had already returned to the village after the ceasefire. Children chased our cars excitedly. We could feel their joy for the food and the clothes that had arrived after so many days of hardship.
On entering Lipkovo, it seemed as if there had not been a war here. After several minutes we reached the town hall at the centre of the settlement. Despite the heat, there were many people there waiting for us. They wanted to embrace us as soon as we left the cars.
- Did you bring us enough food? We have nearly used
all the aid from the last time, an older man asked, who, as I found out
later, had 17 members in his family.
We took the trucks to the municipality's warehouses
where they were unloaded. One person recorded all the items. Others assisted
with the unloading of the aid. Two trucks were dispatched back to Orizare
for unloading and distribution to the people from Slupcane, Vaksince,
and Matejce who were back in their homes.
- I would like to thank you for coming and for bringing aid to the people. I do not know how we can repay you, once all this is over, said Demiri.
He described the daily life of the people for us. In this village of 400 houses, a total of 7.000 people are sheltering at the moment. This number changes often, as some people arrive and others leave. They do not have problems with the electricity supply. They get water from wells in the village, since there is no water supply system. Things have got better since the ceasefire, certainly when compared to when there was shelling. People sit in the shade and discuss their troubles until dark. The local teacher works with the children, teaching them songs and poems. Therefore, we were asked if we could provide paper, pens, and children's magazines for them.
I could not believe that the village was not damaged at all, so I asked one of our hosts about this. He explained that the Army had not shelled the village, because the Lipkovo dam is nearby. Kumanovo, after more then twenty days without water, got its water from this source. Slupcane, on the other hand, was one of the strongholds of the extremists and is now almost completely destroyed. Only about 20 houses remain out of the original 500.
An old man stood by the gate for the whole time I was there, praying with his prayer-beads. I enquired about him and was told he came from the village of Ropajce in the mountains. His sons, their wives and children fled to Kumanovo, but he would not even consider leaving his home. The solitude forced him to Lipkovo. I wondered what was on his mind: the abandoned home, his sons and daughters-in-law, or maybe his dearest grandchildren, from whom he heard from time to time. Poor old man, I thought.
- My son, he said, this is the second war that I have gone through. May God forbid the same thing ever happens to anyone else. When are we going to return to our homes, me and all these people who have no shelter? We may soon go home. I am very bored here. We sit around all day long. I had cows at home and used to walk with them sometimes. I used to go to the market in Kumanovo He shook his head several times, still fingering his beads, and the words no longer came.
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