During the recent armed conflicts in Macedonia, many communities have found themselves surrounded by forces from the "other side" which have limited their movements, deprived them of supplies and effectively cut them off from the rest of the country. These conditions have lead to a severe worsening of the humanitarian situation of thousands of people in these areas.
Providing humanitarian aid for the vulnerable people in these locations is one of the primary goals of the Macedonian Center for International Cooperation (MCIC), a partner of ACT International.
For some months now, both Lipkovo and Sipkovica, where the so-called NLA operates, have been surrounded by the Macedonian security forces. From July, Vratnica has been in the opposite situation, as this area is controlled by Macedonian security forces but is surrounded by the forces of the so-called NLA.
By the beginning of August, Vratnica had become a new priority for humanitarian intervention. Vratnica is a community of around five thousand inhabitants living in six villages, with an almost equal number of ethnic Macedonians and Albanians. It is situated on the Tetovo-Jazhince road and the area borders Kosovo. This road is the front line between the so-called NLA, who occupy the north side of the road, and the Macedonian security forces who are holding the south side. The community was cut off from the rest of the country for more than four weeks and the people sent out an appeal for help. By the end of July, the International Committee of the Red Cross considered it unsafe to deliver humanitarian aid to Vratnica. Nevertheless, on the last day of July a symbolic delivery of aid was made to Vratnica with the help of the Coordination Crisis Management Body (CCMB) of the Government of the Republic of Macedonia.
This encouraged MCIC to organise a humanitarian convoy for Vratnica. After three days' preparation, approval was received from all involved parties. For security matters, MCIC coordinated with the Crisis Management Center, (the operational body of the CCMB), the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM), and the OSCE. A precise specification of the aid was provided, as well as details of the vehicles and escort personnel. MCIC was ready to go.
On August 4th, five trucks with forty tonnes of aid in the form of basic food products, vegetables and hygiene products, set off from Skopje heading for Vratnica. The convoy was led by Aleksandar Krzhalovski, humanitarian activities coordinator, and myself. We were accompanied by three television crews, including the national MTV. Just before Tetovo our convoy was joined by representatives of the EUMM and OSCE. Segundo Martinez, the leader of the EUMM team, confirmed that the Tetovo-Jazhince road was open.
We moved on to the centre of Tetovo and then to the city's football stadium. The last police checkpoint is here, on the junction of the Tetovo-Jazhince road. It was a short distance to Poroj and Dzepchishte, both NLA strongholds. All was peaceful.
After a few kilometres more, we arrived at our first destination, the village of Leshok. The people of this ethnic Macedonian village were forced to evacuate their homes under pressure from the so-called NLA in the fighting of 23/24 July, but about fifty residents returned after the signing of the ceasefire. We supplied them with bread because they were afraid to go the stores in the surrounding Albanian villages. We ventured further, past Tearce, which was the scene of fierce fighting just ten days before, and where immediately after the fighting the first meeting of representatives from both ethnic groups took place in an attempt to achieve mutual guarantees of security.
It was about midday and we were more than halfway to our destination. All was going well, until suddenly we came across a blockade of tractors about 100 metres ahead. We stopped immediately. Men, women and children were standing behind the tractors, and in a matter of minutes there were about 150 people in the crowd, some carrying placards. We learned that we were in the ethnic Albanian village of Dobroshte, only a few kilometres from our destination of Vratnica.
The EUMM observers in the leading vehicle left their car and started towards the barricade. They began a discussion with the people blocking the road which went on for about an hour. The people said they were unhappy because the aid was intended not for them, but for Vratnica which they claimed did not need any assistance. Meanwhile, two buses had been brought into the blockade. After about two hours, the news came through that the "Chief" was coming. The man duly appeared, with about thirty armed young persons, none of whom had any badge or mark on their uniform. For a while, they even tried to hide the fact that they were armed. The "Chief" demanded that the convoy be searched. The EUMM team informed us that they did not have the right to carry out a search, but if they were in our shoes they would not resist armed men. The EUMM agreed to have the search performed in their presence. As my vehicle was being searched, the man who was given this task found my floppy disks and asked me what I needed them for and what information I already had on them. He did not hear out my response that they were for my digital camera. "I know you", he said. " You are either a major or a colonel in the Macedonian army. I did my nine months' service in it". Not succeeding in finding anything in the vehicle, he returned to me. "Why don't you bring any help for Sipkovica?" he asked. My attempt to answer again remained unheard. All this was recorded in Albanian as it happened by two local television stations, whilst we were not allowed to take photographs. The local television was only interested in what the people blocking the road had to say. They were not interested at all in what we had to say.
The search lasted an hour and the "Chief"
then gave us his decision: we had to turn back. For the rest of the day,
strong reactions to our experience were expressed.
All this demonstrates how humanitarian aid has now become a part of the conflict. By increasing the threat to the civilian population, the escalation of the situation continues. To stop this escalation it was necessary to complete the initial action - delivery of aid to Vratnica. This action could lead to the end of the blockade of Sipkovica, an improvement of the security along the Tetovo-Jazhince road, and could contribute to the building of mutual trust.
On August 7th, we assembled our convoy for Vratnica for the second time at a petrol station outside Tetovo. Representatives from CCMB, EUMM, OSCE and NATO joined us at about 1p.m. They were unsure about the security situation because there were reports of fighting in the vicinity of the road at the village of Neproshteno, which lay on our route. Consultations began. Time passed. The level of nervousness increased, made greater by the presence of a dozen newspaper teams. The convoy was the main point of the interest for the Macedonian public and all television channels carried reports of it in their news bulletins. By about 3 p.m. we had received guarantees and the convoy was ready to move. But by this point, the tension was too high for some, and four of the truck drivers refused to continue on the mission. Therefore the convoy started out for Vratnica reduced by one half, but with the most important cargo - the basic food items. We took the same route as the last time. The representatives of NATO, OSCE and CCMB drove in front of us. As we reached Dzepchishte, a car overtook us and blocked the road in front of us. Very soon a tractor joined the blockade, and the people from the car called the people from the nearby teashops to join them. Once again, we had been stopped by a civilian blockade. Bedradin Ibraimi, the Minister for Labour and Social Policy, member of the Democratic Party of the Albanians, arrived on the scene in about ten minutes and talks began. This time they lasted only a short while and ended without success, so with a feeling of real disappointment in our hearts, we turned the convoy round and prepared to head back to Tetovo. At that point we saw a jeep approaching. I recognized the "Chief" from the previous blockade. He asked for Segundo Martinez, leader of the EUMM team. They withdrew and had a ten-minute conversation. Later the reporters claimed that the "Chief" was in fact Commander Daut Redzepi of the so-called NLA. Martinez informed us that they would let the convoy through. Their request to lead the convoy was declined, but they still guaranteed our safety. At last, some good news. We headed for Vratnica as fast as we could. The night was closing in and we had to be back before dark.
We reached Vratnica and drove up the narrow streets to the village centre. Hundreds of people were gathered to greet us there with tractors ready to transport the aid to the outlying villages. I delivered several individual packages sent by friends and relatives from Skopje. After exchanging greetings we had to speed up the unloading. They told us that the aid had arrived just in time, because the local store was empty and some families only had supplies to last them a day or two. The newspaper and television teams took their pictures and then headed off in search of personal stories. And there was plenty of stories to be heard on the square. A number of people came to me with various problems, or just to make conversation. An elderly man asked if he could join the convoy on the return journey, because his wife had a pacemaker and needed treatment, but there was no doctor in the village. The only medical care was offered by a dentist assisted by a medical student who happened to be spending his vacation in the village. There were also two elderly people who said they were American citizens, on vacation in their birthplace. Many other refugees from this area are not prepared to come back until security and peace are restored. But there are people who think otherwise. A thirty year-old man approached us with his head bowed down. He asked us whether we could take his wife and two daughters, one aged five and the other five months, to Skopje. He asked if they could join our convoy at the end of the village. He was embarrassed and he did not want his neighbours to see anything. "I will stay", he said.
Meanwhile one truck, escorted by my colleagues Aleksandar Krzhalovski and Gramoz Shabani, and the NATO team, set off for Jazhince, an ethnic Albanian village right on the border with Kosovo. Aleksandar was looking for Muso, our local contact, who was to take delivery of the aid. He found him in the village teahouse with a group of villagers, who seemed suspicious. They exchanged greetings in Albanian and Gramoz explained our mission. The villagers relaxed a little and said that up to now, they refused to believe they would receive any help, or that it would be only symbolic.
By 7 p.m. we had completed all our tasks and we hurried to re-form the convoy and head back to Tetovo, and then to Skopje. We reached Tetovo at dusk. The reporters rushed off to Skopje to file their reports, but the rest of us stopped again at the same petrol station where our day had started. An unpleasant surprise was waiting for us. One of the truck drivers said shots were fired at him during the return journey about 3 km from Vratnica, near the of village Odri. One bullet ended up in the bonnet. The driver himself managed to keep up our good spirits by telling us that this was nothing compared with his experience driving a truck in Basra, Iraq, during the Gulf War. We were all elated and relieved that we had completed our assignment successfully.
P.S. One week later, the first humanitarian convoy arrived in Sipkovica, organised by El Hilal. MCIC and El Hilal made an agreement for further joint convoys in areas where access is limited.
[Hold cursor over pictures for detailed description]
all pictures except no.5 by Filip Antovski