Macedonia: Seeking Solutions

When I met Aledin Osmani last Sunday, he was standing in the cellar of his home in a Macedonian village called Slupcane explaining why he no longer goes outside. Hiding out with him were some 40 other members of his family, including eight children, a pregnant woman and the family's 78-year-old matriarch. Their food supplies? Just one five-pound bag of flour, 20 cans of meat and some sausages.

Many family members were crying quietly in dark corners, avoiding the two windows that were boarded up after the head of the family, Ramzi Osmani, died from shrapnel wounds a week ago. "I know you will understand if I don't show you out," Aledin Osmani, 46, told us fearfully as we said our good-byes-minutes ahead of a tank and artillery barrage from Macedonian government forces positioned less than a mile way.

When I went back to the Osmani house today, 14 family members had managed to get out of the village. The men, including Aledin, were outside, taking advantage of a temporary ceasefire to scavenge for water, food and information about the latest round of conflict in their tiny southern Balkans country.

Today's news was slightly better than usual. Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski has succeeded in persuading a key ethnic Albanian political group, the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PDP), to join a broad government of national unity scheduled to be formed tomorrow.

The coalition government-formed largely in response to international pressure-will include political parties representing both the country's Albanian minority and Slav majority. Its aim: to stop the latest outbreak of fighting while simultaneously having enough power to change some of the country's laws.

Inevitably, of course, that's easier said than done. One of the coalition's first hurdles will be winning the trust of the people and presenting some concrete plans for addressing the top issues concerning residents: government corruption, a staggering 40 percent unemployment rate, poverty and crime.

Nor is significant change likely to come before the new elections, currently scheduled for January under the proposed agreement.

Another problem is that the PDP remains a reluctant participant in the government. "We were caught between pressure from outside and pressure from the painful knowledge that our people are suffering terribly under the army's actions," says one PDP official. "We made a decision [to join] that we may regret later, but that seemed the only course of action at the moment."

An even bigger stumbling block is that the new coalition excludes the rebel National Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian group that prompted the latest round of fighting by capturing a dozen northeastern villages near the city of Kumanovo on May 3.

The Macedonian government refuses to negotiate with a group it sees as terrorists and which NATO Secretary General George Robertson has called "murderous thugs out to destroy a democratic state."

The rebels, though, are refusing to back down. An official communique signed by their political leader, Ali Ahmeti, insists that a coalition government "does not help solve the situation."

Out in the field, NLA fighter Commander Sokoli delivers a blunter message. "There can be no solution without our presence and participation," he says from his base near Slupcane. "They must know that any government formed without our participation will only end in more bloodshed."

The exact extent of NLA support is hard to assess. The rebels claim to have more than 3,000 soldiers in the field and the ability to mobilize another 5,000; the Macedonian government says there are only about 500 fighters-up from their estimate of 50 just two weeks ago-in the mountains.

Whatever the true number, the NLA undoubtedly poses a threat to the stability of the Balkans. The group sprang into the public eye in March, when it seized control of villages near the city of Tetovo and demanded that ethnic Albanians be granted a constitutional guarantee of equal rights and an end to employment, education and language policies that favor Slavs.

After two weeks of fighting, the rebel group seemed to melt away, allowing Macedonian military officials to claim outright victory against them. This month, they came back.

"Our disappearance in March was a political decision, not a military one," says Sokoli. "The NLA appeared to put pressure on politicians to make the changes they only paid lip service [to] for 10 years. We do not want a war, but we do want change, so we withdrew to give them a chance."

While the wrangling continues, the specter of yet another humanitarian catastrophe is looming in the region. An estimated 8,000 refugees have fled the fighting in the last week to seek shelter in neighboring Kosovo. Their arrival has doubled the number of displaced people in the U.N.-administered province.

There are also thousands of civilians like the Osmanis, cowering in basements and hoping for the fighting to end. Their situation is deteriorating rapidly: when Red Cross workers reached some of them earlier today for the first time since last Sunday, they found food and medicine shortages, widespread diarrhea, food poisoning and, in at least one village, an outbreak of scabies.

The organization managed to evacuate 72 of the most frail from the area, but more than 15,000 people are still in NLA-controlled villages. "As time goes on people are more afraid of confronting Macedonian forces if they attempt to leave," says Amanda Williamson, a Red Cross spokesman in Skopje. "There is also a growing sense of solidarity amongst those who remain."

Aledin Osmani is one of those who plans to stay-at least for now. "We don't want to be refugees, we want normal lives," he says. "We pray, every time we hear a tank fire, that it will be the last." Given the murky political situation, that may not happen any time soon.