Macedonia: Inside A Rebel Camp

Our instructions were clear. Follow the white VW Golf from the shopping center outside Kumanovo, Macedonia’s third-largest city. Do not ask questions about exactly where you’re going; do not tell police who stop you where you think you may be going.

Some six miles later we were there. We still don’t know the name of the village, but we do know it’s a training ground for the guerrilla fighters of the shadowy National Liberation Army—the group that many believe had been eliminated.

The NLA, which says it is fighting for the rights of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, burst into the public eye in February when its fighters seized control of several villages and triggered fierce battles with the Macedonian army. By the end of March, after several days of tank-led heavy fighting near the city of Tetovo, the rebels had abandoned their positions, leaving weapons and uniforms scattered in bunkers and empty houses.

Macedonian officials proclaimed victory, arguing that the “terrorists” had retreated into the neighboring province of Kosovo in defeat. Members of the NLA—whose Albanian name Ushtria Clirimtare e Kombtare has the same acronym, UCK, as the better-known Kosovo Liberation Army (Ushtria Clirimtare e Kosoves)—countered that their forces were still inside Macedonia.

Observers were skeptical of this claim—and this may have been why the group took the rare step of letting us visit their camp. We saw uniformed men marching, running, and ducking as they practiced maneuvers up and down the village’s dusty roads. They carried handheld weapons like rifles and grenade launchers; they wore a mix of camouflage cobbled together from gear from Germany, the United States, Britain, France and Yugoslavia, among others. Small children ran up behind one group of 20 or so young recruits screaming encouragement while their parents looked on with smiles.

Inside the command center, a 33-year-old man using the nom de guerre Commander Sokoli, which means Hawk, ushered us into an office filled with computer equipment and satellite phones. “You can ask me anything you want,” Sokoli told us. “I am ready.” Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What are the NLA plans at the moment?

Commander Sokoli: Right now we are continuing to respect the ceasefire we unilaterally called at the end of March, using the time to reorganize our structures and train the large number of new volunteers. We are waiting to see if the politicians will make any serious strides towards meeting our demands. If they don’t, we will not simply put down our guns and walk away.

What exactly are those demands?

In general, we want Albanians to be considered as equals to the Macedonians. We would like to see Albanian recognized as an official language, [have] the right to higher education in our native tongue, [see] changes to the Constitution that would guarantee equal status and treatment and a new census observed by international institutions to guarantee the legitimacy of the numbers.

Our position now is worse even than it was under the old Yugoslav constitution of 1974. We are shut out of equality in every aspect of life. The only time we are equal, or actually above the Macedonians, is when it comes to paying taxes. Other than that we are treated as second-class citizens.

How do you see the pace and progress of negotiations currently underway between Macedonian and Albanian politicians?

What they are talking about now, like delaying the conducting of a census and a third national television station, are merely the tip of our demands. [They are] less than 5 percent of the issues that need to be dealt with and most certainly not the most serious of them. And on the television station, for example, they shouldn’t be talking about making a third channel all in Albanian. They should be talking about having the first channel in Macedonian, the second in Albanian, and the new one, the third, in the languages of other minorities in the country like the Serbs and the Turks.

The real problem is that what we’re seeing now is a show put on by the Macedonians for the international community. The parliament says there can be no changes to the Constitution, that they will not even discuss it, and what that means, in effect, is that they refuse to see themselves as equals to Albanians.

What does that mean for the country?

If the Macedonians stick to this position, it equals unavoidable war.

So the NLA will attack the Macedonians?

We would like to see a political solution, but if there is no movement we will have to act once again.

Won’t that reinforce the Macedonian position that the NLA is a terrorist organization bent on destroying the country?

Unfortunately they will probably see it that way, but this is because they refuse to see the truth of what we are doing.

When we left our positions outside Tetovo it was a political decision, not a military one. The NLA made its presence known to force politicians into addressing problems that have existed for a decade. And we wanted to let them and the international community know that we are not for war, but for a solution, a “real” solution, and so we give the politicians another chance.

But the NLA has picked up guns, started fighting ...

Look, if we were in Switzerland, England or America, picking up guns to fight for your rights would be illogical, ridiculous even. But this is the Balkans, and in the Balkans to not pick up guns to fight for your rights is illogical.

Macedonia is called a democracy, and it is a multiethnic society, but that means it has to act in line with these principles. It is unjust to have 700,000 Macedonians ruling over 1.3 million people of other ethnic groups as though they are inferior.

How do you see the role of the international community in this?

The international community is vital in this situation, but they have to be willing to really look hard at the situation and act accordingly. If they think it is easier to close their eyes to the real problems, this is a catastrophe for Macedonia, for the Balkans and for Europe. Everyone in Macedonia agrees on orienting the country toward the European Union and Western standards, but you can’t build on a shaky base. And right now, the base is falling apart.

Our appearance was [meant] to bring up these issues and put pressure on the politicians, and so far, we have succeeded.

Macedonian officials, and many Albanians, doubt your continued existence as a viable force.

The Macedonians are lying to themselves, lying to their people, that they have chased the NLA away. They know we are here. We have just under 3,000 fighters currently in uniform and the ability to mobilize thousands more. In the last few days we have begun trying to communicate more with the outside, sending our demands to the United Nations and America so that they know and our people know that we are most definitely still here.

Shortly, we hope to finish the organization of three brigades, consisting of 6,000 soldiers each, to operate in different parts of the country when necessary. The lists are all there and if we had to call an immediate mobilization, all three brigades could be operational within 24 hours.

How long is the NLA prepared to wait for political progress?

Up to now, we have not seen any serious signs that would convince us of sincerity on the part of the Macedonians. In fact, they are organizing their own paramilitary groupings and purchasing more weapons, while the “talking” goes on. All parties have pledged to do something concrete by June, so that is how long we’ll wait. But I honestly don’t think they’ll make it.

How do you think the NLA would stand up against Macedonian forces?

Let me say this. In Kosovo the Serbs used to use 300 tanks in one battle. The Macedonians have less than that in their whole arsenal. Many of our soldiers fought in Kosovo and learned from those experiences while many of the Macedonians have never actually fought. How do you think we’d do?