Going From Bad To Worse

Forty-two-year-old Hamdi Klenja knew it was bad when hundreds of men poured into Tsar Samuel Street in the southern Macedonian town of Bitola last Wednesday. The day before, Albanian guerrillas had ambushed and killed five Macedonian soldiers. Three of the dead came from Bitola, and now a mob was taking revenge on the town's ethnic-Albanian civilians. As they broke down his front door Klenja ran upstairs and passed his small children from the balcony to a neighbor next door. Then he jumped after them. Police stood by as looters ransacked his house, then threw in Molotov cocktails. Klenja tried to douse the blaze with a garden hose, but police ordered him to stop. "Let it burn," they said. And it did, along with dozens of other Albanian homes and shops in the city.

When it comes to winning hearts and minds, Macedonians are doing a much better job on the diplomatic front than in their own streets and front lines. As evidence of widespread human-rights abuses mounted, NATO secretary-general Lord George Robertson continued to condemn the Albanian insurgents of the National Liberation Army (NLA) for provoking the crisis. NATO pledged to tighten the Kosovo border to cut off guerrilla supply lines. The international community has supported Macedonia's government of national unity, composed of both ethnic Macedonians and Albanians, and has backed its refusal to negotiate with the NLA. But the group is increasingly hard to ignore. Last Friday a NEWSWEEK reporter saw NLA fighters dug in at the hillside village of Aracinovo, only three miles from the outskirts of the capital, Skopje. They were hurriedly bringing in truckloads of automatic weapons. Macedonian Army and police watched from a safe distance.

A series of humiliations for the military, which has few Albanian members, seems to have spurred outrages against civilians. After four months of conflict, the NLA has eluded Army pursuit and managed to fight on two fronts, near the cities of Kumanovo and Tetovo. Villages taken by the Army have been swiftly retaken by the guerrillas. The fighting has caused thousands of Albanian civilians to flee. Over protests from the Red Cross and other agencies, men have been separated from women and taken by police. Many have been beaten, even tortured. Interviews by journalists, aid workers and Human Rights Watch investigators depict systematic abuse by police and, in some cases, the Army. Many witnesses reported hearing protracted screaming from victims held in the Kumanovo police station. "One of them must have been very young, from the sound of his voice," said Zija Ismaili. "He kept screaming for his mother and God to save him." Ismaili, 52, said he was held June 3 and 4 and beaten continuously by masked--and laughing--policemen until he convinced them that he knew nothing about the guerrillas. He is black and blue from head to foot. The prime minister's spokesman, Antonio Milososki, does not rule out "isolated cases" but says, "Our policy is not to beat every Albanian."

Seeking refuge with family members in the town of Cerkes, the eight members of the Hamidi family are heavily bruised from rifle butts wielded by troops who burst into their compound in Runica on May 21. The father of the family was so badly beaten that two weeks later he can neither walk nor talk. The troops splashed their house, then their car, with gasoline and set them on fire. Then they doused 21-year-old Avni Hamidi and threatened to burn him alive before frog-marching him and the others into the village center. There the soldiers burned down the mosque, the school and, reportedly, most of the hamlet's houses. Avni saw his chance and bolted for the river. "If they caught him, he must be dead," said his mother, Avdie Hamidi, who has not seen her son since.

Last week's rampage in Bitola, some 100 miles from the war zone, can best be described as a police-sanctioned looting-and-arson spree. Numerous witnesses reported police escorting Macedonian mobs into Albanian neighborhoods--and doing nothing to restrain them. Hamdi Klenja returned the next day to pick through the charred remains of his home. All he found was three teacups, a vase, a pair of slippers and a half-burned blanket. On a wall someone had scrawled death to the albanians. One of the arsonists brazenly walked up to Klenja and informed him that Albanians had a week to leave Bitola, or be killed.

Those fighting words are likely to be returned in kind. The NLA has already cut off the water supply to the cities of Tetovo and Kumanovo, and authorities claim the rebels shelled two Macedonian villages in the hills near the capital. The next casualty may be the government itself. President Boris Trajkovski genuinely seems to want to work with moderate Albanians--but Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski has been much more hard-line, threatening to declare a "state of war" that would drive Albanian parties out of the government. "I am for war without mercy," he said Thursday. The two leaders are barely on speaking terms. Small wonder, perhaps, that authority in Macedonia has devolved to mobs and extremists.