Life on the border of conflict

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By Kelvin Chan 

TETOVO, MACEDONIA — Overgrown with weeds, a blue Mercedes flatbed truck sits idle by a winding road that leads to Nebi Mamuti’s mountain-top home near Tetovo, Macedonia. 

Before the war started in the former Yugoslavia, Mamuti used to load the truck with potatoes, corn, tomatoes and peppers from the family garden to sell in nearby Yugolsavian cities like Zagreb, Belgrade and in the now troubled Kosovo region.

For 10 years, he made a good living that way.  It was enough to buy an orange BMW 320 coupe, and a yellow four-door Fiat.  Now both cars sit unused.  One sits plateless in the garage-cum-kitchen and the other rests on blocks in the front yard.

During the war, Christian Serbs wanted to keep non-Serbians out making it very hard for Mamuti, an Albanian Muslim living in Macedonia, to enter the country.

And because of discrimination he faces in Macedonia, Mamuti says he can’t find work in the nearby capital, Skopje.  Finding a job to support his family has become a daunting task.

I met Mamuti on a bus from Sofia, Bulgariar to Skopje, Macdeonia.  He was returning from the only work he could find — as a machine operator in Bulgaria.  I was leaving Bulgaria where I worked for an English language newspaper to review my visa.

Muslim Albanians living in Macedonia like Mamuti worry the rabid nationalism which has turned neighbouring Serbia upside down will spill into Macedonia, putting the lives of the large Albanian Muslim minority in the western part of the country at risk.

After striking up a conversation with my traveling companion and I, Mamuti invited us to stay with him if we ever went to Tetovo where he lives 40 kilometers west of Kopje and 30 kilometers south of the Serbian border.  A day later we accepted the invitation to his house.

The 4,500 people of this area are almost exclusively Albanian Sunni Muslims.  Men wearing traditional shapkas (fez-like knitted hats) and women with headscarves walk its sound of the amplified hoja (Albanian for call to prayer) rings through the valley several times a day.

Mamuti was very hospitable.  He paid for our cab ride and gave us the best room in his clean, white, Alpine-style house.  His daughter-in-law offered countless cups of silty Turkish coffee and sweet Indian tea.

Sitting comfortably on a fuzzy green and red couch in their front yard, it was hard to imagine the civil war raging in the valley beneath us between the Christina Serbs and the Muslim Albanians in the Kosovo province of what’s left of Yogslavia.

Confusing labels like “Albanian,” “Macedonian,” and “Serb,” belie that Albanians are Muslim, and Macedonians and Serbs are Christian.  The conflicts in the region are both nationalist and religious.

And as I talked to Mamuti, his family, his neighbours and other townspeople, I found out every day they live in Macedonia they face frightening hints of the same religious nationalistic bigotry that precipitates the brutal Bosnian war and the current clashes in Kosovo.

It’s no secret Macedonians already resent and openly discriminate agrainst Albanians.  The flood of Muslim refugees entering Macedonian to escape the conflict in Kosovo is raising the tension.

Officially, Albanians make up 25 per cent of the population here — around 500,000 people.  Unofficially, the number is said to be as high as 40 per cent — nearer to one million.

The two large Macedonian universities in Skopje and Bitola don’t teach in the Albanian language and less than 3 per cent of students accepted are Albanian.  So the Albanians, in spite of government opposition, set up the University of Tetovo three years ago.

As Gajur Luma, an English professor at the new university, told me, “They don’t accept us.  The system doesn’t pay anything [of the cost of education] for us.  We pay taxes but we don’t get anything back.”  He is referring to the fact the government funds the two Macedonian universities but gives nothing to the Albanian university in Tetovo.  The people of Tetovo pay all tuition and processors’ wages.  Despite the lack of funding the university is growing.  Since the inaugural year in 1995 enrollment has grown by at least 30 per cent each year and this  year the university taught 1,530 students.

Communism kept rampant racism in check as Albanians had equal rights.  “Even though the people were poor, the state provided all the necessities,” says Rakip Mazlami, the principal of the village’s primary school.  Now, Mazlami says Albanians can only unfurl their flag in their homes.  Albanian MPs, who make up one quarter of the Macedonian assembly, are fighting for their people’s rights, says Mazlami.  But it’s tough against the Macedonian majority.

As in Kosovo, police are one of the primary tools of aggression in Macedonia.  Mazlami says the police, who are almost exclusively Macedonian, “are aggressive [against Albanians] because of the politicians and the politicians are a bit nationalist Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who doesn’t yet have a counterpart in Macedonia.

Albanians in Macedonia want to continue living there, as they have for years.  All they want, he says, is freedom.  Freedom to live like the rest of the world.  Freedom for education and freedom to display the Albanian flag.

After a dinner of salad and chicken and potato stew at the Mamuti house, the family does what many families the world over do:  watch TV.  Mamuti brings out an old, miniature black-and-white TV and sets it on a blue-painted tree-stump coffee table.  There is no cable, just an antenna to catch the fuzzy signal.  When the Macedonian evening news comes on, the major news items are all on Kosovo, and everyone falls silent to watch intently.

There is footage of Albanian Muslims fleeing the fighting.  A UN official says, “We have no idea how many refugees are coming into Macedonia.”  Mamuti’s neighbor, Milena Sefiri, says quietly “Here no problem, problem Kosovo.”  It’s a statement and a plea.

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