GIANT WOODPECKERS AND TWITCHERS' TET OFFENSIVE

Trip Start ??? 06, 2001
1
2
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Trip End ??? 07, 2001


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Where I stayed
hotel macedonia,Tetovo

Flag of Macedonia  ,
Monday, March 5, 2001

When you have waited all your life to see action,you don't let a few
hundred miles,forgotten luggage,risk of danger or the lack of
accreditation put you off.

BOOOOM.....
CHAKACHAKACHAKACHAKA....
BOOOOM...
CHAKACHAKA...BOOM...BOOOM....CHAKACHAKACHAKACHAKACHAKA...... BOOOOOOOM ...

The rattle of  heavy machine gun
fire,and the answering call of the mortars,is what will stay with
me....the sounds of  civil war in
this moderate Macedonian town turned out to be more
dramatic than their visual effects.Not that there was nothing to see.

Isolated houses burned on the hillside called the Kale,and smoke drifted for
miles along the range of mountains that divided western Macedonia from
the border with Kosovo.Red pulses of light flashed
across the wasteground adjacent to the local football ground,on
the northern edge of town,from the tracer fire put out by three
government police and army tanks that had held this position
for the last 6 days,since rebel Albanians of the UCK first appeared on
the hills above the town in an armed protest for their rights,the
previous Thursday.It was now Tuesday,and the "home" team were currently
waging their optimal demonstration of Shock and Awe,to an audience
of a couple of dozen members of the world's media,most of whom had
spent the last few days cowering behind walls and making tactical
zigzag runs across the road to different filming positions,in their
flak jackets and in some cases tin helmets,in an effort to stay
safe witnessing this,the latest Balkan frontline.On the hills the
"away" team could only huddle in their trenches,as the tracer
rounds ricocheted in all directions,and wait for the storm to abate.

The
onslaught fizzled out after about two hours.Ben Brown and his BBC
television crew walked out into the middle of the road and immediately
began to broadcast their stand-up back to the UK (if
not to the UCK),in a beautifully stage managed piece of
theatre.We have to presume that the rebels were either
casualties,retreated or temporarily bowed into submission,because all
previous journalistic precautions instantly evaporated and the entire
press corps wandered casually over to the Macedonian firing
positions,and consulted with the gunners while their weapons were still
hot,treading on hundreds of empty cartridge cases and
collecting spent ammunition as souvenirs along the way.The evening was
drawing in,.. the afternoon sunshine had given way to rapidly
descending darkness during the bombardment,and stressed soldiers still
squatted behind piles of white sandbags,or used the cover of their
armoured vehicles as they drew breath following their late afternoon
exertions.Smashed windows of a small group of shops behind their
positions testified to the return incoming rebel fire that had
almost found it's target,right here where we stood chewing the cud with
fighting men,their machine guns still balanced over their protective
surround,ready to go again should the need arise. 

I
had set out from Britain 2 1/2 weeks earlier,flying into Ancona,in
Italy on a cheap flight,and catching the overnight ferry to Split.From
there I toured part of Croatia by bus,including a round trip to
Knin and Sibenik,via Drnis,and then on to Benkovac,a divided Croat/Serb
town until 1991,where rival politics had fermented in the build-up
to their war of independence,and which now consisted of ruined
buildings,opposing cemeteries,and one of a new
national chain of "OLD TIME" cafe bars,just in case anyone was
feeling nostalgic

.The trees blossomed in this Balkan spring,and old women in all black
clothing scuttled about in timeless villages,overshadowed by hilltop
castles and churches,beneath skies of pastel shades.


I then travelled through the rest of the
Krajina region,held by the Serbs until 1995.I visited Croatia that year
too.Travelling by bus for two days along a mostly deserted coast
road,with only a number of HV soldiers,returning from leave in
Zagreb to the front,for company.On the approach to Zadar,we passed
within one kilometre of the Serb frontline when crossing the Maslenica
bridge.A pontoon bridge had replaced the original war
damaged construction,and was now guarded by Marlborough smoking
troops,straight out of all the best black and white war movies.
The
Croats had driven the Serbs from the Western Slavonia region only weeks
earlier,and I had been one of the first to travel on the newly
re-opened train line from Zagreb to Slavonski Brod,after four years of
being cut by the rival factions,as it passed through land
bordering Bosnia that had been dominated by the Serbs for
generations.Weeks after this trip,in the final act of the Croatia
war,80,000 Serbs were driven from the Krajina,capital Knin,never to
return.Croatia,and it's public transport,was united,but at the
expense of a large ethnic minority who had no wish to be governed by
Croats since World War Two's fascist oppression,and had held
out for autonomy from the beginning of this conflict,only to be
deserted by Belgrade and left isolated and vulnerable.

In 2001.I
caught a bus from Zadar,via Novi Grad,Udbina and Grude,through this
rural,conquered Krajina region,before reaching Plitvice national park.A
truly unique region of hills,woods and multiple spectacular
waterfalls,with family friendly boardwalks,made for an exceptional
visit to a site that had also been caught up in 1991's conflict,when a
group of Italian tourists found themselves in the wrong place at the
wrong time.
Near here,I connected with a bus to Bihac in
Bosnia,a besieged enclave for much of 1992-1995,which I had also
visited in 1995.The sun had gone down,and the hilly,twisting road
across the border descended through the amber-glowing dim
wattage from scattered dwellings on the slopes either side of
the valley,a truly romantic scene.
Bihac has a wonderful wide
river flowing through it,with many rapids and water of the deepest
hue.The new national flag of Bosnia Hercegovina,in blue and yellow,was
hung prominently in the town.Accomodation was difficult to find,but I
was eventually directed through the dark by a kind local,to a guest
house that had all the trappings of an English Bed and
Breakfast.and tourist brochures about fishing,canoeing and walking to
boot!
Clearly,recovery was taking shape from it's own bloody conflict.
Next
stop was Velika Kladusa,where a Canadian NATO army base on the
outskirts of town provided one of the last remaining war sights in the
country,with tanks regularly rolling up the country lanes.The hilly
parts of the city had preserved their sandbagged trench positions and
heavy artillery pieces.As I stood on such a hilltop,I tried to
visualise the story I had read in Antony Lloyd's book,of how the
town,held at the time by Fikret Abdic's renegade Muslims had
capitulated to the Bosnian Government faction from
Bihac.I couldn't figure out exactly where this may have taken
place but guessed at least that the police station,visible
below,probably figured large in it.

I continued my journey over
the next few days via Bosanska Krupa,Prijedor,Banja Luka,Sanski
Most,Jajce,Novi Travnik and Turbe-the wartime crossing point
between Serb and Muslim/Croat territory.Here prisoners were
exchanged,and ethnically cleansed civilians were sent to their own side
of the lines,often deeply traumatised by the brutal treatment meted out
to them before this escape.Burned out cars and destroyed houses still
demarcated the former frontier.I had been to some of these places
before in 1996 and 1999,but chose new routes between the towns.I
returned to Sarajevo for the third time,and later travelled out to the
eastern enclave of Foca,now renamed Srbinje,where many atrocities took
place during the Bosnia war.Notwithstanding that a NATO tank was
positioned with listening equipment,and a tall antenna,adjacent to the
bridge over the Drina river throughout my visit,and that military
helicopters regularly overflew,I found it a very pleasant place.A
Serb lady shopkeeper objected when I attempted to
photograph her merchandise including framed photographs of wanted
war criminals of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic,but I jollied her
along by telling her to display her pictures,it didn't bother me,why
shouldn't she be entitled to her beliefs,and not to worry about me
being any kind of NATO agent.I found a reasonably priced hotel
with a view of the river,and settled in until the next morning.The only
return bus to Sarajevo would have left me just one hour in town,and I
wanted to potter around two war damaged districts of town where the
Muslims used to live.The pride in the locals at what they had done in
the war was obvious,as they made three
fingered Serbian greeting gestures in front of my camera,as I
photographed the burned out shell of the local mosque.

I
realised I was taking too long on this part of my trip,and headed for
Belgrade by bus,crossing the Drina at Zvornik.It was a long ride but
enlivened by some of my fellow passengers on the back seat,who in
typical Serb fashion,were always keen to talk politics.To be in a
country where politics and everyday life co-exist in such relevant
harmony is always an inspiring intellectual experience,and it readied
me for taking my first look at the damage that NATO's bombers had
caused in Belgrade two years earlier,during the Kosovo crisis.I was
also curious to see the posters from OTPOR,the student movement that
had played a major part in removing Slobodan Milosevic as President in
October 2000,still plastered all over the city,along with those
demonising Slobo himself.During the uprising,the demonstrators had sung
a song that translates as "Hang yourself and save Serbia",before
storming the Parliament building in memorably broadcast scenes.
It
was near here,one spring Saturday,that I bought a local newspaper,which
even with my limited knowledge of  the Serbian language,told me
exciting news.War had broken out in Tetovo in Macedonia,and
pictures of tin helmeted policemen firing at the enemy,were splashed in
colour on the front page.I had my picture taken with this gazette,by a
female local passer-by,stood on the steps of the very parliament
building that had figured in Serbia's revolution,months before,and
formulated plans in my mind to get to Macedonia and see this
action before it was too late.Pessimistically perhaps,I was concerned
it might be over as quickly as it began,before I could get there.
After
checking my facts in an internet cafe,I rushed to the bus station,and
bought a ticket for the overnight service to Skopje.I had little time
to lose and boarded almost immediately,flushed with excitement.I felt
like the British soldiers,stuck in barracks in Germany for years during
the 1980's with little real warfare to participate in since the
Falklands conflict of 1982.
Despite travelling extensively around
the Balkans since 1995,I had still not seen a gun fired in
anger.Finding some real action had become my Holy Grail,and
I wasn't going to let some jumped up Chetnik or the like,turn me
away at a checkpoint and deny me my opportunity."Push through
Private" I imagined a Commanding Officer instructing his men during the
Bosnia conflict, "Push through!"
I was a little late to see any real
action in that conflict,but now I had another chance,and in a very
similar Balkan war.My tail was up,and my mission clear.
Suddenly a
thought came to me,just as the bus was pulling out of the station. "Oh
Shit,I've forgotten my kit!" In all the rush and excitement,I'd
completely forgotten that my khaki green holdall that I travelled
with,surplus stock from the Yugoslav army that had been available in
British Army and Navy stores in the mid 1990's,was still in the
left luggage store,and this bus wasn't going to wait for me to fetch it.
I
waded down the corridor of a bus that was filled to capacity with
travellers settling in for the night,made my excuses and
dismounted,hoping that nobody had noticed the Englishman who was
so keen to go to war that he had forgotten his baggage! Did this
mean that I wouldn't be able to mock the French NATO forces(who
had used salvaged furniture in Vucitrn,Kosovo 1999 as roadblocks
and gun stands,having clearly come without their "props") ,ever again.
Thankfully,I
was refunded my bus ticket money,and headed off to a cheap room near
the station,before making another try for my war zone the next
morning.Let's hope this delay doesn't cause me to miss the
action altogether now,I thought.

Fat chance of that!
What
followed was a pleasant journey down on the Sunday,with glimpses
of the mosques of the muslim Presevo valley on our right
hand side to the west,battled for by the UCPMB,and the sight of
some refugees,laden with baggage,fleeing from Macedonia into Serbia,as
we crossed the border in the opposite direction,war bound.
Back to
the Ferali Youth hostel,feeling more lonely now without my American
colleagues of 1999.The media presence on the whole was also far less
for Macedonia's own conflict than had been based here to witness
neighbouring Kosovo's conflict of '99.I took my washing to the dry
cleaner's,and settled in for an early night,intending to hit Tetovo
first thing on Monday morning.

8 AM Skopje railway station...."One way ticket to Tetovo,please".
Not
that I was pessimistic about returning,but probably not today,and
of course only British Rail could complicate life enough to charge more
for 2 singles than a return.It seemed somewhat surreal,though,catching
a train to a war.
On the train I shared a compartment with a gypsy
family who had fled Tetovo a few days before,but were returning to
their home on the east side of the city,now that it had become clear
that the conflict was not likely to significantly affect their part of
town.We meandered along via Radusa,where we had stopped off to visit a
refugee camp 2 years earlier,and had listened,over teas in
a town centre cafe,to local Albanian men predicting that the
Kosovo war would spread across the border."It will happen here next..."
Now I was hurrying to witness the result of their correct prediction.
I
remembered the NATO twin rotored chinook helicopters,flying over us
dangling cargo,the last time I caught this train,in 1999,on their
supply flights to Kosovo.This Macedonian war was too young for
peacekeepers to have got involved,but many troops of the KFOR
mission were still based in this country.The hills got bigger as we
approached Macedonia's second city,and we started to scan the horizon
in a vain attempt to spot rebel soldiers at a ridiculous distance.
The
man of the gypsy family agreed to escort me into the town
and direct me to the Koltuk district,when we arrived.We
walked up the long straight road into town,on a pleasant
sunny day,passing some military figures in a doorway,who grinned at
us knowingly,but without a hint of malice.Koltuk was,according to
the internet,the main battle ground,and I didn't even bother to find a
hotel first.I just wanted to see the action,and  headed
straight there.
In the centre of town,we stumbled upon a young
local photographer,with a small compact camera.I don't know if he was a
pro,and although he pointed me in the right direction,he
seemed reluctant to accompany me.I parted from them both and
headed up a deserted street,in a relatively old part of
town.Houses and shops on either side appeared empty and probably
abandoned.Ahead was a police checkpoint.The solitary Macedonian gunner
manning the position would prevent anybody continuing further to a
government firing position behind.So,I stood and chatted to some
Slav locals,in their(and perhaps my) rudimentary english.We were
stood right underneath the Kale hill on which some of the Albanian
rebels were situated,in the last street that runs at the foot of
this hill on the western edge of the city.This street was traditionally
Slav,and therefore most at risk of receiving incoming fire.
A sudden
boom like blast sent the crowd scattering for cover behind a house wall
to our right.The government soldier returned fire instantly up the
hillside with his AK-47 machine gun.I just stood rooted to the
spot,wondering whether the initial sound had been incoming or
outgoing.In hindsight,it was probably an incoming RPG,judging by
the other's reaction.
They soon rejoined me,however,no doubt impressed by my stoical unflustered "bravado",and the soldier settled down again.
For
the remainder of the morning I walked the length of this street in
Koltuk,beneath the Kale.It was mostly devoid of life,but at
intervals were groups of natives,huddled together taking cover in
the gateways of houses that backed onto the hills.
"Who goes
there.Friend or foe?" It would have been an idiot who responded
"Foe"...Once they had established that I was an English
photographer,they went through the ritual of traditional
hospitality,the tea set came out,and I was plied with the story of how
they were being frightened by the "terrorists" on the hill.And so
this scene was repeated along the length of the street.All the
while,mortars crashed against the slopes high above us,fired over our
heads from government positions to the east of the city centre,seeking
out rebel targets;with what accuracy,it was impossible to tell.
Nearby,I
met a local hero with a story to tell.He had been up in the hills when
the whole thing had started the previous thursday,and had been trapped
in a small house under fire,and had to be rescued.He posed for me with
his newspaper cutting from the local paper,enjoying his new found
celebrity status.
My walking tour continued until I reached the
football stadium,on the northern edge of the city.I had cut two blocks
in from the Kale now,but ran across road junctions,in case of sniper
fire.One Macedonian man was stood on his rooftop,scanning the
hills through binoculars,trying to spot rebels for the
government,his position partly concealed by the ivy
branches growing around him.At the end of the street,a line of
journalists was filming the action with TV cameras,while others
stood behind cover.Beyond them,were the tanks-one from the
Macedonian armed police unit,and one from the regular army.Each had a
large gun mounted on top,and took turns to swivel it round and
fire for a few minutes at the
hills.         

To
be continued        &am p;am p;am p;am p;am
p;am p;am p;am p;am p;am p;am p;am p;am p;nb sp;  
Slideshow Report as Spam

Comments

wanderingstar
wanderingstar on

DONATE THEN,YOU MISERS!
Tongue in cheek as this heading is,I do feel quite strongly that I'd have more chance of donations if I sat on the pavement begging than if I set up a nice blog site.And the general public appear to prefer to give people money to buy drink or drugs,rather than to replace £830 worth of smashed up cameras,or £640 worth of losses over a stolen passport.Added to the compensation I am still waiting for from everyone in Birmingham for making a misery of 22 years of my life,coupled with my unemployed homeless situation in a state determined to force people to bankrupt themselves just to be homeless,setting the impossible task of living on £57 per week,I feel that I deserve generous donations at least as much as anyone who is haranguing you as you pass by their prone figure on the pavement,a daily occurrence anywhere in Britain nowadays,as we increasingly becomne the New Third World.And yet every day I see people giving money to beggars.Which is more than they have to me.See you on the pavement,if this keeps up!

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