Stories and reports

Aracinovo, the deserted village

Skopje, July 29, 2001

Aracinovo is a village lying about ten kilometres from the centre of Skopje, just beyond the city limits. The resident population is predominantly Albanian, with ethnic Macedonians making up 15% of the total. The village is also home for a certain number of Turks, Serbs and Bosniaks. The church and mosque were built next to each other in a sign of coexistence. Aracinovo was not strongly agricultural, but its closeness to Skopje meant that it grew steadily over the past forty years as a dormitory for the large industries in Skopje, which used to employ many of the people. However, with the transition of the past ten years, all this changed. The social crisis forced many people to look for jobs in western countries, and more than 40% of the families are classed as "social cases" and receive social aid from the State. The crisis also opened a space for black market activities such as cigarette smuggling in the village.

The name of Aracinovo became famous throughout the world in early June this year, when it was captured by NLA extremists. In two days almost the entire population of 10,000 left the village, apart from a few elderly people who decided to stay. From then on, the village has been virtually empty. At the end of June came the three-day offensive by the Macedonian security forces, followed by the mysterious evacuation of the extremists under NATO supervision. After government control was re-established, measures were taken to prepare the village for the return of its people: demining, removal of the bodies of dead animals, cleaning of the wells etc.

On July 28th, I joined the UNHCR inter-agency assessment visit to the village, representing the only local organisation in the group, the Macedonian Center for International Cooperation. On that hot Saturday morning, we passed the last military checkpoint and headed towards the village centre. Close to the entrance of the village the few cows and horses that had survived were gathered around a small, muddy spring. Immediately we saw that the houses at this part of the village, which had been settled mostly by ethnic Macedonians, were almost completely destroyed. This was the front line in the battle of a few weeks ago, so it was the part most heavily bombed by the Macedonian security forces. Most of the houses were marked with red paint, a sign that they were classified as unrepairable. Along the road we saw the damage done to the electricity network.

In the centre of the village we found several police officers, who accompanied us for the rest of the visit. They said the NLA was just half a kilometre away, in the hills above the village. The OSCE were present too.

A few villagers came to join us. They were most concerned about the water situation. Less than two years ago, MCIC oversaw the construction of the central water supply system, so I was able to share my information with them. The system was half-built. Most of the primary network was completed, but the secondary network was not even started. This was an expensive project costing 1,5 million Euros, and there had not been time to complete it before the crisis came. In the meantime, the villagers had been using their own wells for water, but since there was no electricity for the pumps, this source was not available either.

We walked through the ethnic Albanian part of the village. The damage was not so evident here. Many windows were broken, but most of the roofs were still intact. The first destroyed building we came across here was one of the village's three mosques. We moved back to the lower part of the village. The school was totally destroyed. Close by there was a barber's shop. The owner had clearly left in a hurry, as everything was still in its right place. It was as if life had suddenly stopped.

Marika Platova remained all the time in the village. Now she was expecting her family to come to collect her and her remaining furniture. She said the youngsters didn't want to return for fear of new NLA attacks.

Close by was the medical centre. After the Kosovo crisis, this had been reconstructed with the support of an international donor, whose sign still stood undamaged outside the remains of the building. Looking through a broken door I could see a microscope and other equipment.

We moved back to the ethnic Macedonian part of the village. A local government representative explained to us that out of a total of 1,300 houses, about 160 have minor damage, and 310 have significant damage.

We ended our visit. On the road back to Skopje, we had a lively discussion about the return process. The minimal conditions for the return of displaced people to Aracinovo, including electricity, water, and shelter, do not exist. One of our group asserted that the most important issue was the security of the returnees, but with a combination of nervous Macedonian security forces, with NLA forces close by, as well as people returning accompanied by a lot of international aid workers, the village seems to be an attractive target for further attacks.

The following day I received a call from the UNHCR and the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy telling me that the displaced people from Aracinovo were allowed to return. MCIC was asked to help with the urgent need of water. One truck with bottled water was dispatched immediately. We found the village a totally different place. Now it was full of life. Whilst some people are happy to be back home, others are angry because their homes are destroyed and they have lost everything. Some ethnic Macedonians are packing their things and moving. The say they don't have the confidence to stay. Other say they are not going to move because everything they own is in Aracinovo.

The reconstruction of the damaged buildings is a task for the immediate future, but it will be a much greater task to rebuild the confidence between our country's different groups, and to reconstruct our national life again.

By Saso Klekovski, MCIC

A red mark on the gate means the house is beyond repair
Destroyed homes on the village frontline
Horses roam freely in the empty streets
The mosque, which the police said was used as a sniper nest
[Hold cursor over pictures for detailed description]

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