FYR Macedonia: At the crossroads

Published: 29 March 2001 0:00 CET

John Sparrow in Gostivar

Yesterday was much like any other day in the town of Gostivar , a town of 50,000 people nestled below western mountains in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). From early morning, the fear of fighting brought those in need to the Red Cross. It has been that way for the best part of a decade.

By mid-afternoon 1,200 people displaced by clashes between government forces and ethnic Albanian fighters to the north, had explained their problems and been registered. Thirty one more families would be helped by the food, hygiene parcels, baby kits, mattresses and blankets the Macedonian Red Cross has been distributing. With stocks running low, a truck arrived from Skopje to replenish them.

The demand had grown rapidly since heavy weekend clashes around troubled Tetovo, the country's second largest city 22 kilometres up the road. Almost 1,100 people had now sought assistance here since fighting began earlier this month, part of 20,000 registered nationwide in a relief operation led by the International Committee of the Red Cross in close cooperation with the National Society and the International Federation.

Sabedin Redzepi, 24, was the latest. He had fled Tetovo on Sunday with a family of seven and was staying with relatives. Like many displaced by the recent fighting, he said the pressure on the hosts was telling. He needed food and milk, and baby supplies for a one-year-old son.

Macedonian Red Cross branch secretary, Elena Naumcheska, has known greater pressure. Ever since the first Bosnian refugees arrived in 1992, Gostivar has found itself on the crossroads of moving populations. Several thousand Bosnians found shelter in this district, as did over 100,000 refugees from Kosovo. At the height of the Kosovo crisis, the Red Cross had 37 relief distribution points covering every village and camp where refugees were located. One camp alone housed 50,000 of them. Said Naumcheska yesterday, "Now it is the turn of our own people. I only hope this is the last of the troubles the former Yugoslavia will go through."

Fighting itself has not touched the municipality, which in the town and 86 surrounding villages has a total population of 120,000. But while others have sought refuge in Gostivar, a considerable number of local people are said to have departed for fear that problems might come. But, says Elena Naumcheska, some people have already begun to return, relieving tension. "Seeing women and children coming back is reassuring."

Without the burdens of conflict or division, Gostivar has problems enough of its own. There is a high level of unemployment and the Red Cross has run large social welfare programmes in the district.