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During the 1999 war in Kosovo it was aggravating as hell to watch as innocent civilians suffered, all the while knowing that a well-armed and well-equipped NATO military force was sitting across the border in Macedonia doing nothing to stop what was described as ethnic cleansing. The only fighting seen by NATO troops was from […]

Cease-fires and Terrorists

by James T. Phillips

During the 1999 war in Kosovo it was aggravating as hell to watch as innocent civilians suffered, all the while knowing that a well-armed and well-equipped NATO military force was sitting across the border in Macedonia doing nothing to stop what was described as ethnic cleansing. The only fighting seen by NATO troops was from the air, thousands of feet above the battleground.

In Macedonia during the year 2001 there was another war observed by NATO troops. Unlike Kosovo, NATO troops in Macedonia actually shared the same turf as the combatants. NATO, of course, was not involved in the fighting. Ethnic Albanians, citizens of the Republic of Macedonia, and their various allies were fighting the Macedonian military, ostensibly for increased rights within the existing government. However, it was very difficult, if not impossible, to find anyone who believed the war in Macedonia was anything other than another war of separation and eventual independence.

As was done in Kosovo, NATO troops established well protected bases in Macedonia and the modern weaponry of a super-powered military alliance was on display on the roads traveled by NATO vehicles. The military bases were secure and the NATO vehicles usually observed heading away from the fighting. And, just like Kosovo, NATO did nothing to stop the fighting except express words of peace as Albanian rebels did the killing and cleansing on the ground.

It was a tragedy for Macedonia.

The multi-ethnic republic, created after the break-up of Yugoslavia, did its best to avoid war. American troops have been allowed to maintain a base near the capital city Skopje, and they have been there since the beginning of the wars fought in Croatia and Bosnia. During the war in Kosovo the Macedonian government permitted NATO aircraft to use the airport at Petrovac; the skies above Macedonia were saturated with warplanes headed for Kosovo and Serbia. Tens of thousands of Albanian escaped the war in Kosovo by crossing into Macedonia. And, although there were a few initial difficulties, the hard-pressed Macedonian government did their best to provide relief to the refugees. A poor nation, Macedonia was further impoverished by offering aid to the victims of war.

It was farcical, I thought, for NATO to strut around Macedonia, acting out the role of peacekeeper as the country fell victim to a rebel force comprised, in part, of the same ethnic Albanians who once used Macedonia as a refuge, not a battlefield. And it was aggravating as hell to watch as well-armed and well-equipped NATO troops, riding in the most advanced military vehicles, got caught in traffic, stuck in between automobiles filled with civilians fleeing the fighting in Tetovo. They were all, civilians and soldiers, headed east away from the danger.

* * *

The highway from Skopje to Tetovo was littered with the skeletons of vehicles; hulking masses of burned metal and rubber that were once busses, trucks and automobiles. The debris was all that remained from a battle between the Macedonian military and ethnic Albanian rebels. The road was opened the next day, but most of the traffic headed east, away from the danger in Tetovo. Albanian rebels surrounded Tetovo, and all of the roads leading to the city were hazardous to travel. The rebels, who claimed they only wanted increased rights within the Macedonian society, were creating ‘facts on the ground’ which were at odds with their stated political goals.

The once bustling city of Tetovo was a ghost town. When the guns began firing, only a few people were willing to scamper from building to building. The crack of sniper bullets echoing through the emptiness, and the whistling sound of artillery shells passing overhead before impacting on Albanian rebel positions were a reminder that, although peace negotiations were taking place in Ohrid, war was a daily event in Tetovo.

South of Tetovo, on the edge of the village of Recica, Albanian rebels manned barricades, firing on Macedonian military checkpoints from a distance of 100 meters. The fighting by soldiers and rebels was closer than any peace agreement then being negotiated by diplomats and politicians in the resort town of Ohrid. During a five week long cease-fire, Macedonians had been trying to avoid confronting the rebels, adhering as best they could to the demands of NATO and the European Union. However, the killing of 10 government soldiers on the road to Tetovo incensed the citizens of Macedonia, and their political and military leaders responded with weapons instead of words.

"The Macedonians, they have no mercy," said 16 year old Argjira Fejzulai as she huddled with her family during an intense battle between Macedonian soldiers and Albanian rebels. "The children hide down in the cellar when the shooting starts. They are scared."

Argjira’s family lives in an Albanian neighborhood near the frontline separating Tetovo and Recica. They have not left their home. When the rebels began creeping ever closer to the city, the minority population of Macedonians civilians living in Tetovo believed that they were shown ‘no mercy’, and they had to hide or leave their homes when the rebel attacked. Thousands of Macedonians from Tetovo and the nearby villages were refugees in their own country, displaced people unable or unwilling to return to their homes. They did not ask for mercy, only an end to the fighting.

"We are a peaceful people," said the son of a Macedonian restaurant owner in Tetovo. "We do not want war, but the terrorists want our land."

He spoke softly, but wanted his government to wield a big stick.

"The terrorists will run away when our army attacks."

* * *

On 7 July, only two days after the cease-fire was announced in Macedonia, my driver/interpreter Mihailo and I entered the village of Leshok. We had to show our ‘documents’ to a burly Macedonian military policeman stationed at a checkpoint near the village before being allowed to travel up the one-lane asphalt road. We encountered a small group of men, all civilians. They were sitting outside, drinking soda and coffee. Jocko Dimitrijevski, a 30-year-old father of two children, was sitting with the group. The women and children of Leshok, including Jocko’s family, had already left the village. Albanian rebels were in the surrounding hills, and many of the villagers were not in the mood to discuss the situation with a journalist from the United States.

After a few tense moments, with the help of my intrepid driver/interpreter Mihailo, I was able to convince the villagers that I was in Leshok to report on their story. I told them I was not part of what they believed to be the support troops of the Albanian rebels: NATO and the Western press. Jocko and another resident agreed to take me on a tour of Leshok, a beautiful village of white stucco-sided homes with red-tiled roofs. After an hour of traipsing through the village, including a visit to the Leshok Monastery, an Orthodox Christian shrine situated above the village, Jocko invited Mihailo and me to his home for coffee and conversation. We sat at a table overlooking a small vegetable garden.

Jocko worked as a welder, but was currently unemployed. Until the Albanian rebels began their assaults on Leshok, he lived with his wife Gijana, his son Goran and daughter Kristina in a modest home surrounded by fruit trees and vegetable gardens. Jocko’s elderly parents also shared the family home. The Dimitrijevski family was ordinary; they lived a life similar to many other close-knit Macedonian families. There was very little money and employment was scarce in Macedonia’s faltering, war-torn economy. Yet, the family was content and together.

Then came the Albanian rebels, and life was altered forever.

During a long day’s journey through fear and confusion, Jocko and the other villagers of Leshok fought for their lives. The small force of Macedonian military policemen stationed at the checkpoint assisted them, but the villagers and cops were outgunned and outnumbered. The village was abandoned to the Albanian rebels and a few elderly Macedonians unable or unwilling to flee. The villagers of Leshok scattered. Some went to live with relatives and friends; others found temporary shelter in a compound of old block buildings in Skopje, constructed after the 1963 earthquake that destroyed the city.

* * *

On the evening of 24 July, the day when Leshok became a casualty of war, Skopje would again shake and rumble. Hundreds of former residents from the villages north of Tetovo, including many of those recently cleansed from Leshok, and thousands of other angry Macedonians gathered in front of the Parliament building in Skopje. They were protesting the inaction of their own government, accusing President Trajkovski of catering to the whims of NATO. The reporting by the international media also angered the protesters. The Parliament building, cordoned off by Macedonian military policemen, only suffered from slogans shouted by the protesters. A few journalists, however, suffered even more; their cameras were smashed and their bodies beaten.

Mihailo and I mingled with the crowd as it began to gather, drawing stares and sneers, but no blows from clenched fists. I was framing a photograph, looking through the lens of his camera, when I focused in on Jocko’s mother. The grandmother from Leshok smiled, and yelled out a friendly greeting. She was attending the protest with her elderly husband and her son, Jocko. She took me to where Jocko was observing the protest

It had been almost three weeks since I had talked with Jocko in Leshok. The young man looked haggard, exhausted from the trauma of fighting for, and then losing his home. Mihailo, Jocko and I strolled off to the nearby Blue Cafe for an interview. I listened as Jocko told his story about the attack on Leshok; Mihailo interpreted the words of sorrow and sadness. And fear.

"I was near the store when the shooting start," said Jocko. "The Albanians had a big force and attack Leshok."

"Everyone goes to the main road," said Jocko. "At that moment, I saw that my mother and father not there. My mother was in basement, hiding. My father was in barn, hiding."

Jocko’s parents managed to escape; he would find them later, after the defenders of Leshok decided to forfeit their village to the Albanian attackers. One villager had already been killed, and three injured, when someone shouted "let’s save our friends instead of shooting enemy". The remaining Macedonians left the village running.

"We helped the old people leave when the terrorists are shooting Leshok," said Jocko. "We hope that somebody come to help fight terrorists. But nobody comes to help, so we left Leshok."

"I am afraid for my family," said Jocko.

Although Jocko and his parents were able to escape to the safety of Skopje, his wife and children were still staying with relatives in the village of Kopanica. Kopanica is located about ten miles east of Leshok, across a wide valley filled with fields and woods. The Vardar River flows by the village, as do many Albanian rebels as they flood into isolated areas populated by Macedonians

"It is very dangerous for me to go to Kopanica," said Jocko as he sat sipping coffee. "It is a mixed village. Maybe someone recognize me because I fight against the Albanians in Leshok. I cannot go to Kopanica to get my family."

Tears welled up in Jocko’s eyes as he spoke of his children, his voice choking with emotion. Mihailo and I exchanged glances; both of them knew immediately what was going to happen.

"We gotta go get Jocko’s family, Mihailo," I said. "Where is Kopanica?"

Mihailo and I had reported on the war in Kosovo in 1999, working as a team, and had traveled together to many other dangerous locations. Kopanica would be another venture into the unknown. A telephone call was made to the home in Kopanica, telling the family to get ready to move quickly. Directions were obtained and we sped off down Partizanski Boulevard, heading west. The highway from Skopje to Tetovo also leads to Kopanica. Mihailo drove at breakneck speed, only slowing down when the exit came into view. The vehicle was stopped at a Macedonian checkpoint.

"We want to go to Kopanica," said Mihailo to one of the military policeman manning the post. "Are there any Albanians on the way? Do they make trouble? Is the road clear?"

"It is no problem. You can go there," responded the policeman. "There have been problems nearby, but not in Kopanica. You can go, but be careful."

The road was clear. Mihailo and I arrived in Kopanica in the early evening. The sun was setting, the sky growing ever darker. The home where Jocko’s family was staying was easy to locate. The car screeched to a halt in front of the house.

"We must hurry," said Mihailo as Jocko’s wife, children and sister-in-law climbed into the small automobile, cramming suitcases and bags into the empty spaces. Mihailo gunned the engine and the vehicle sputtered down the road.

Jocko’s family was petrified, Mihailo was nervous and I was wary as the fully loaded vehicle swayed from one side of the road to the other, avoiding potholes, people and potential attacks.

"I am scared," said Mihailo. "Mostly because of the kids. I am thinking about what will happen if the terrorists catch us."

The return trip to Skopje was uneventful. Less than an hour after leaving Skopje, the small automobile pulled up to the curb on a downtown street near the Parliament building where Jocko and his parents were waiting for the rest of their family. The four passengers, refugees in their own country, jumped out of the automobile and fell into the arms of their loved ones. Jocko grabbed his children and held them close. His family was together again.

I snapped a few photographs of the family, wished them well, and then turned to my courageous colleague.

"It’s time to go, Mihailo."

* * *

For more than three months, Mihailo and I traveled to most of the towns and villages in northwest Macedonia. We were constantly on the go, rarely taking more than a day or two off before a new incident would send us out on the road again.

In early September, Mihailo and his wife Sonja invited me on a day trip into the mountains south of Skopje. A real vacation, even if it would only last a day. We drove on back roads, sometimes even using dirt tracks as we made our way to a tiny village in the towering forested peaks of central Macedonia. We visited an old lady who lived in the village; she was the grandmother of Sonja’s best friend. Galena showed us the damage to her home, a nondescript cinderblock building with a red-tiled roof.

Even in the remote mountains, far away from the volatile areas in northwest Macedonia, innocent people were suffering. The front door of Galena’s home had been smashed in and the rooms ransacked. She didn’t have any proof as to the identity of the perpetrators but, nevertheless, Galena believed Albanians had caused the damage to her home.

"The terrorists attack my home," said Galena.

Mihailo and Sonja agreed with Mira. Although there was a cease-fire in effect, random attacks continued throughout Macedonia. They were, for the most part, minor infractions of the cease-fire. But when people were driven from their homes and villages, or killed, or kidnapped, many Macedonians considered themselves to be the victims of terrorism. Albanian terrorism.

Macedonians were also very frustrated with the international alphabet groups. They considered NATO to be allied with the NLA (National Liberation Army), didn’t trust the envoys of the EU, OSCE or the UN, and couldn’t understand why Americans living in the USA ignored their pleas.

Didn’t Americans understand, asked many Macedonians, how terrifying it could be when the threat of terrorism was a part of daily life?

Mihailo, Sonja and I enjoyed our visit to the mountains, but we were getting chilly. The weather was colder in the mountains and in a few days it would be autumn. It was late in the afternoon, 11 September 2001. It was time to return to Skopje. We said goodbye to Galena and began our journey home. We were about an hour away from the city when Mihailo’s mobile telephone beeped. A friend in Skopje was tuned into the Cable News Network; he told Mihailo that the Twin Towers in New York City had just collapsed into rubble.

I didn’t want to believe Mihailo, and I was in the middle of nowhere and couldn’t confirm the story. For the next hour, my Macedonian friends and I discussed what we had been told. I remember telling them that, if true, the attack on the United States will undoubtedly educate Americans to the horrors of terrorism. I remember thinking that the world was going to be in trouble if thousands of innocent Americans had been killed.

I turned on the television when I returned to my apartment in Skopje. Pictures of smoking ruins were being broadcast on all of the Macedonian television stations. I didn’t need to understand the language to realize that Mihailo’s caller was telling the truth.

The world was in trouble.

* * *

When the American media jumped on former President Bush’s bandwagon in 1990, the people of the world were able to watch as most journalists slavishly reported, as fact, every falsehood conjured up by the United States government and their obsequious allies. The lies and obfuscation during Bush War I should make most Americans wary of what their current government pronounces and their media report during Bush War II.

Truth is the first casualty of war, and lies are the bandages used by politicians, diplomats and military leaders to hide their failures and misdeeds and the subsequent true consequences of war. Media representatives who aid in covering up the unpleasant facts of life during war are propagandists who see, hear and speak jingo. In war-weary Macedonia, as in war-crazed America, there were a few journalists who, as patriotic citizens, believed they had to help kill the truth, casualties be damned.

A few weeks after the attacks in America and the advent of Bush War II, I was in the middle of a different conflict. It was late in the afternoon when I crossed back over the bridge near Siricino, Macedonia. Ahead, on the east bank of the Vardar River, a small group of people was gathered, watching as I approached. A tall young man had a video camera pointed in my direction.

"Hi, I’m a journalist," said a woman, as I walked through the group. "Have you been in Semsevo?"

"Yes," I replied. "I’m a freelance reporter."

The woman introduced herself, mentioning the name of a small independent Skopje television station. She asked me about what was happening in the Albanian village located only a kilometer away, on the other side of the river. The woman journalist was Macedonian and did not feel safe entering into Albanian-dominated areas.

Semsevo is located in a wide valley only a few kilometers east of the soaring Sar Mountains where the rebels of the National Liberation Army continue to occupy Macedonian territory. Semsevo is set amidst cornfields, small woods and other villages populated by Macedonians. Exchanges of gunfire between the villages occur frequently. The Macedonian police and military, based in the nearby Macedonian village of Ratae, have traded volleys from heavy weapons with the NLA rebels hiding in the mountains.

"Did you see any rebels in Semsevo," asked the Skopje television journalist.

"Yes," I said. "One, maybe."

There was one fellow sitting in Semsevo who was, or once was, a member of the NLA. I met him in Poroj about a month earlier. He was dressed in civilian clothes in Semsevo.

Journalists trade information all the time, a professional courtesy that can be helpful in areas at war. I was glad to assist the young Macedonian journalist, but wanted to get moving. I told her to be careful if she did decide to cross the bridge, but I didn’t tell her that I had a good story. There are a few things that reporters keep to themselves, and an exclusive story is one of them. My driver was waiting, and I needed to get someplace where I could develop the film I had shot earlier in the day.

An hour later, I was sitting in the office of a major wire service as two of my photographs, taken in the village of Ratae, were scanned and uploaded. I was the only international reporter to get into Ratae, and my photos would help tell the story of Macedonian villagers blockading roads leading out of their village. The Macedonian police and military decided to remain in the village when scores of men, women and children stood in front of their vehicles. I thanked the editor who bought my work, then headed back to my apartment to write a story about the courageous and determined villagers of Ratae.

The words of my story were still in my head when the telephone rang. It was the wire service editor.

"James, did you see the news tonight?"

"No," I replied. "I’m working."

The editor then told me that a local independent television station in Skopje had just broadcast a news story about the village of Semsevo, and I was the featured performer. He said that I was quoted, not by name, as saying that there were 400 Albanian rebels gathered in the village of Semsevo. Video footage of myself walking across the bridge near Siricino was shown during the brief broadcast, confirming my status as an eyewitness.

"You’re in big danger, James," said the editor. "You should not go back to that area."

His meaning was clear. If the Albanian rebels saw the same broadcast, and learned that the Macedonian media was telling lies, then I would be perceived as the bearer of those untruths. The young Macedonian journalist I had talked with in Siricino had just screwed me, and inflamed an already tense situation in Semsevo.

I was upset, but not surprised. Journalists working as propagandists are not uncommon during war. I telephoned a Macedonian friend, related the story to him, and then agreed to go to the television station to register a complaint. I had wanted to let the issue fade away, but my friend thought it necessary to confront the lie.

"We must tell the truth," he said.

Early the next morning, my Macedonian friend accompanied me to the television station. The building was located on the outskirts of Skopje. We entered through the front door and immediately saw the woman journalist who had manipulated my words and her pictures to tell a story filled with untruths. She was coming down the stairs when she noticed me; the color drained from her face.

"Hi," I said. "I’m a reporter and I want to talk with you."

To her credit, the journalist didn’t try to lie again. She quickly admitted that I never mentioned more than one NLA rebel, and agreed that it was also unethical and unprofessional to have used me as a source, and then use video footage of me in her story. I asked to see the news story that was broadcast. I saw myself as I crossed the bridge near Siricino the day before. In the eyes of anyone watching the program, I had also crossed over the line separating reporters of the facts from propagandists telling lies.

As we left the television station, I asked my friend if he would give me a ride to Siricino.

"No problem," he said, smiling. "You are going back?"

"Yes," I said. "I have to find out if this TV thing is going to cause trouble."

I crossed the bridge near Siricino, and began walking towards Semsevo. I knew there weren’t 400 pissed-off NLA rebels in the village waiting for me to show my face, but I did wonder about satellite televisions and attentive Albanian viewers. The day before, I had stopped and chatted with a few of the Albanians hanging out in the village center, but on the second visit to Semsevo, I walked right on through at a steady clip, not stopping until I arrived at the first Macedonian checkpoint blocking the road.

There were no groups of people waiting on the west side of Semsevo; no video cameras capturing my image on tape; no propagandists willing to invent fiction from facts; and, no other reporters heading to Ratae to continue covering the reality of war. I hitched a ride with a military policeman driving an old jeep and, as we talked, I learned that the Macedonian police might try again to leave the village Ratae.

I checked my cameras, making sure they were loaded with film, and hopped off the jeep when it stopped in the center of Ratae. Dozens of soldiers and policemen were standing by transport vehicles, duffel bags at their feet and automatic weapons slung over their shoulders. The villagers of Ratae milled about, talking quietly.

There was a new story to tell.

James T. Phillips is the author of the forthcoming book Are You Safe from the Bombs, Papa? . He can be reached at: james@unet.com.mk