Stories and reports

"There should be help for everybody"

In spite of ceasefires and political agreements, the number of people who are suffering directly because of the violence in Macedonia is increasing all the time. At the same time, the humanitarian situation is deteriorating constantly. In early August, a number of Macedonian NGOs came together to make a common appeal on behalf of the civilian victims of the situation, both displaced people and those trapped in their blockaded villages. The appeal was to support peace with humanitarian aid, and for aid to be distributed to all those in need regardless of identity.

Accordingly, on August 22, four local organisations1 prepared a convoy of humanitarian aid for Vratnica (four ethnic Macedonian villages and two ethnic Albanian villages) and Sipkovica (ethnic Albanian). This convoy assembled at the usual place for our missions: the petrol station outside Tetovo. Two buses were already there with displaced villagers from Lesok, Tearce and Vratnica who wanted to visit their homes, and several local journalists. There was also a representative from the Coordinative Body for Dealing with the Crisis (CBDC) and the European Union Monitoring Mission team (EUMM).

The convoy formed up in two lines, one for Sipkovica and one for Vratnica.

Gramoz Shabani continues:

This was our first convoy to Sipkovica. Accompanied by representatives from the organisation El Hilal, we set off with our two trucks, with an OSCE vehicle in front. We proceeded through the busy streets of Tetovo and reached the last police control post, before the road to Popova Sapka. Ahead of us was the great Sara Mountain. In recent months, this was the scene of much fighting between the Macedonian security forces and the NLA. After the routine check, we continued on the narrow tarmac mountain road.

Sipkovica is situated at about 10 km away from the town. As we passed the village of Gajre we noticed many houses destroyed in the fierce fighting, but since we were not allowed to take photographs, we did not stop. We passed three NLA control posts and arrived in the village. The children followed us through the narrow streets to the centre yelling "NATO, NATO!", thinking we were foreigners. The teahouses were full of people. A group of old men sitting on the ground in conversation waved to us.

The El Hilal representative got out of the vehicle to ask where we were supposed to unload the aid. We were told to go to the school at the end of the village. The mayor of the municipality had gone to Tetovo, so the Imam was immediately summoned to come and receive the aid on behalf of the community. Whilst waiting for him to arrive, we had a moment to enjoy the beauty of the place: Sipkovica lies in a canyon on one side of the Pena River (Shkumbin), on the other side are the villages of Selce and Lavce. Some horses came to the fountain to drink before starting their journey to the mountain, where the villagers cut timber.

After half an hour, the Imam Zendel arrived. We exchanged greetings and told him we had brought aid for the people. He immediately designated a team to unload the goods and put them in the school storehouse. The children were keen to help, as far as they could. I noticed an old man sitting near the fountain observing what was going on. I asked him about himself. His name was Safer Muaremi. He was 67 years old and had lived in Leverkusen, Germany, for 32 years, working at the drug factory. "When I came here two weeks before Easter, the war broke out and I couldn't go back. I have to go there to collect my pension". His family of four children and eight grandchildren were hiding in the basement during the fighting. "I was most scared for my grandchildren. My life has nearly passed, but they still have to live their lives ahead of them. We used the food we had in storage. Some of the people borrowed from those who had more food. Most of the cattle died because we couldn't feed them". "Uncle" Safer took some water from the fountain as we were joined by the Imam.

"Our municipality has about 7,000 inhabitants. The food may be enough for now, but we will have a problem later on, because many villagers are coming back from Kosovo. They spent the money they had there. It is not easy to live for three or four months away from your own home. The hygiene items are our main problem because the aid we received from the International Red Cross and El Hilal did not contain any detergent, soap and other hygiene items. I have no idea how I am supposed to divide these things that you brought," says the Imam with a shrug of his shoulders.

"The most important thing is that the fighting is over", continues grandfather Ilmi. "We will manage somehow. People from the other villages need to reconstruct their houses, because the winter is ahead of us. You can't imagine how cruel winters can be here. We have had no electricity since April. We thank God we have plenty of water that we don't have to pay for".
The trucks are already unloaded and we prepare to leave. We can hear shooting from time to time. "Don't be afraid, we are used to it," says grandfather Ilmi. Later I heard that the NLA members were firing in the air to celebrate their return to their homes on the Sara Mountain and they were preparing to hand over their weapons. We say goodbye to our hosts and head back to Tetovo, where we met the convoy returning from Vratnica at the petrol station.

Alexsandar Krzalovski describes the journey to Vratnica:

The four trucks set off, led by the EUMM team vehicle, with our friend Segundo Martinez who was with us on the previous two convoys to Vratnica. I took up the rear of the convoy in my car with my colleague Fatmir and six journalists. As we approached Tetovo, a large group of people was waiting for us. They wanted to join the convoy to visit their homes in Lesok, Neprosteno and Tearce, but our decision was not to stop but to continue on our way. However, several vehicles joined the convoy.

We passed the city stadium and headed out of Tetovo. We soon reached our first destination, the village of Lesok. The buses entered the village whilst the trucks remained on the road. The journalists with us asked to visit the monastery and I agreed to accompany them. Fatmir stayed with the drivers, "to guarantee their safety."

When we reached the monastery complex, we met all the villagers moving in a sad procession towards their homes. Their first act was to light candles at the ruins of the church. They seem not to believe what they have just seen. The two remaining domes over the main door are silent witnesses of the grandeur of the building that has gone. For me, after my experience in Kosovo, this was just another picture in the endless stream of images of destroyed houses, churches and mosques, and of destroyed lives.

We gave some fresh food to the few remaining residents of Lesok and moved on towards Vratnica. At the police post outside the village we were subjected to a detailed check of our documents, but it passed without problems. On arriving in Vratnica we met the same people who had taken delivery of the goods on our previous visit: the mayor Toni Kocevski, Mite, and many others. They forced a smile as they greeted us, but there was no joy behind their smiles. As one woman said: "It is good of you to bring all this and we are very grateful, but we don't want to live like this. We don't need help, we just want to be able to go freely to Tetovo, to go to work and to earn a salary."

Another woman tells us what they were missing during the recent days: "We don't have fresh food and vegetables, hygiene items, medicines and cattle feed." I felt satisfied because this was exactly the contents of the trucks, this was confirmation that the real needs of the villagers were being met.

The trucks were quickly unloaded and the storehouse was getting full. As I relaxed for a moment with a glass of spring water, I heard a woman's voice saying:

"There should be help for everybody. The Albanians in Jazince are in the same situation as we are. Someone should help them too."

The woman was correct. It was important for us to support both Macedonian and Albanian communities with humanitarian aid, but the truck intended for Jazince broke down earlier in the day and therefore had not joined our convoy. But I had an extra motivation for making a distribution in Jazince, for on our previous visit there, we could only deliver a small quantity of aid and I had promised that a full consignment would be delivered with the next convoy. I called my colleagues back in Tetovo to check on the situation, and they told me that the entire contents of the truck for Jazince had been loaded onto another truck, which was now ready to leave. Only the escort needed to be arranged. But the problem was that there was not enough time for the EUMM vehicle to return to Tetovo to collect the truck and to reach Jazince by four o'clock, which was our return time. Once again, Segundo Martinez found a solution. He contacted the OSCE Team and they agreed to provide the escort. The truck, accompanied by Fatmir and myself, arrived safely in Jazince. Zulfi Azizi, the president of the village committee, welcomed me with a smile and big embrace, quite unlike the first time when I was greeted with suspicion and distrust and had to persuade the village leaders to accept the aid. The people were very satisfied and asked us to stay longer, they wanted to offer us coffee, but it was already four o'clock and we had to leave.

On our way back, we collected the people who had visited their homes in Tearce and Lesok for the return journey to Skopje. But this time we noticed there were no vacant seats on the buses, which were now full. People were still leaving their homes; this is the reality of the situation.
While we were waiting for the buses to join our convoy, several vehicles passed us travelling at top speed. Some of them had foreign registration plates and some had no plates at all. There were three or four young men in each one, who looked at us suspiciously. Some were wearing green or black uniforms, some with the badge of the NLA. There were no provocations and we did not feel threatened in any way, but still the feeling was unpleasant. But this could not take away our feeling of satisfaction with the results of our work. Four local NGO's, acting in cooperation, had provided significant assistance to the civilian population in the Tetovo conflict area.

1 Milosrdie ("Charity" - humanitarian organisation of the Macedonian Orthodox Church), El ilal (humanitarian organisation of the Islamic Religious Community), Klasje na dobrinata (Spike of Goodnes) and the Macedonian Center for International Cooperation (MCIC).

NGO logos together on the trucks
IDP's from Lesok and Tearce, waiting to visit their homes
Imam Zendel explains the situation in Sipkovica
Assistance for Sipkovica
Conversation with Safer
Destroyed church in the Lesok Monastery
Arrival of aid in Vratnica
Hospitality in Jazince
[hold cursor over pictures for detailed description]

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