Hatred Strong Amid Macedonia Vote
%mlink(STRY:; PHOTO:XSI101-091502; AUDIO:%)
LJUBOTEN, Macedonia (AP) _ There are hopes Sunday’s elections will heal the scars of war in Macedonia. But in this ethnic Albanian village, which suffered some of the worst violence of last year’s clashes, reconciliation with rival Macedonians seems impossible.
In August 2001, after a mine explosion that killed eight Macedonian soldiers near Ljuboten on the hills overlooking Skopje, Macedonian forces took revenge on the ethnic Albanians here by shelling the village for three days, a report by U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said.
After the shelling, several hundred Macedonian police officers entered the village for a house-to-house search and allegedly killed 10 people, the report said. Macedonian Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski has been under investigation by the U.N. war crime tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, for allegedly personally commanding the action.
On Sunday, Ljuboten villagers lined up to vote in the first parliamentary elections in Macedonia since the six-month war between ethnic Albanian rebels and government forces ended with a Western-brokered peace plan. The accord gave the Albanian minority more rights in exchange for an end of the insurgency.
Osman Mehmeti, a 27-year-old from Ljuboten, said Sunday he voted for peace, but not for reconciliation.
``How can we trust the Macedonians after what they did to us?″ Mehmeti asked. ``We will never forget what happened here. We can live like neighbors, but not together or as friends.″
Ethnic Albanians in Ljuboten said they overwhelmingly voted for the newly formed party of Ali Ahmeti, a former rebel leader turned politician. The apparent shift toward Ahmeti from more moderate ethnic Albanian parties indicates that nationalist sentiments in Macedonia are still running high.
``Ahmeti was our leader during the war. Now he’ll lead us in peace ... and God forbid, in case of another war,″ said Nijaz Rexhepi, 52, after he cast his ballot in a drab local school, several yards from a sprawling new mosque under construction after the old one was damaged in government shelling.
A few houses away, Ahmeti’s activists sang wartime songs inside a local party headquarters covered with graffiti that read ``UCK,″ the Albanian acronym for the rebel National Liberation Army.
Dozens of ethnic Macedonians who lived in Ljuboten before last year’s clashes have fled the village, where a large Orthodox church stands empty and abandoned. The few who remain say they live in fear from ethnic Albanian nationalists _ so fearful, they say, they wouldn’t dare to vote.
``If police escort us to the school, we’ll vote,″ said an elderly Macedonian who identified himself only as Mitko.
``We are too old to move out of here. We live like in a prison, afraid to leave our homes, work on fields or take cattle out of barns,″ he said, his voice shaking. ``And they talk about ethnic reconciliation ... no way.″