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Cikle and Fatmir: living inter-ethnic cooperation in Macedonia
Like all his contemporaries, Cikle has seen many changes in his country in the ten years since it became independent from the former Yugoslavia. For once in their history, he says, Macedonians had an opportunity to manage their own affairs rather than be subject to a government in Belgrade or to the Ottomans before that. The era of brotherhood and unity of communist Yugoslavia had held many different ethnic groups together in a single multi-ethnic society. But when this ended, says Cikle, a much sharper sense of individual identity began to emerge. In the new Macedonia, people's ethnic self-awareness became stronger, whether they were Macedonians or Albanians or members of one of the other minorities, such as Vlach, Roma or Turk.
Cikle can recall only one Albanian in his class of 35 pupils, and had little contact with Albanians until he joined MCIC. He admits that his attitudes have changed: "My level of tolerance is much higher after five years at MCIC than before and for all the staff, it's been the same experience." In contrast, he has noticed that some of his contemporaries have attitudes and opinions they did not have before: signs of racial prejudice and xenophobia have come to the surface. Even more alarming, he feels, is the peer pressure felt by people of moderate views to adopt an intolerant attitude in the country's present crisis. According to Cikle, it has become a new orthodoxy to blame others for precipitating the crisis: the Macedonians blame the Albanians, who in turn blame the Macedonians. He feels that the space for dialogue and interaction between the country's ethnic groups has steadily eroded, especially since the outbreak of violence this year.
Over the past eight years, MCIC has worked on many occasions with Albanian communities, including projects to supply water to minority villages in the north and west of the country and other community development and income-generating initiatives. This experience was important when the decision was taken to work in Kosovo in 1999 after the end of the NATO bombing campaign. MCIC was keen for a Macedonian agency to be operational in Kosovo as a sign of the commitment of the neighbouring country to the needs of the people there. With a new office in Djakovica, MCIC began to build up trust with the local people by providing them with items they really needed, such as building materials and food. The organization learned that it had the capacity to grow to meet the demands of a major humanitarian programme, and that its staff were able to develop new roles.
Cikle was transferred to the new Kosovo programme, where he found himself working long hours in the office. "Cikle, you melt into the environment!", as one of his colleagues put it. This was not a task for the faint-hearted: in the early days of the operation, the office received threatening telephone calls following the lay-off of some members of staff and the mediation of the mayor was required. Cikle had to take precautions for his own safety: even though he was well-known and respected through all of Djakovica, he could not speak his own language in public for fear of being mistaken for a Serb, and was always accompanied by one of his local staff. "However, I did feel special as I was aware I was the only Macedonian working freely in Djakovica," he recalls.
Fatmir Bitiki came to MCIC along a quite different path. He grew up in a Skopje neighbourhood that was 90 percent Macedonian, but his family was on good terms with all its neighbours. He was an excellent student at the Zef Lush Marku Albanian-language high school in Skopje, but he always dreamed of going to the military academy of Yugoslavia. Normally his record would have merited a place at the academy, but strangely, this opportunity never came. When he completed school in 1993, he decided to study management at university. But when he applied to the University of Skopje, there were no places left. What could he do? There was still a chance of enrolling in a similar course at the Faculty of Economic Management at Tirana University, but he would not be eligible for any support from the Macedonian government if he went there. Fortunately, his older brother agreed to sponsor him for the next four years.
But Fatmir's heart was still set on the military career that other members of his family had followed before him. He thought his chance would come in 1997 when he was due to do his military service in the Macedonian armed forces. But the new Macedonia did not have a military academy; this remained in Serbia at the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, and Fatmir joined the ranks. This proved to be a learning experience for him: " I discovered how hard it is to be an Albanian and serve in the army. In my class, I was the only one who had studied, but this didn't help me to get promoted. Maybe I wasn't suited to the army after all." Again, his dream was unfulfilled.
By 1999, Fatmir was looking for a way to start his career. It was not a good time to be looking for a job in Macedonia, especially as his higher qualifications were not recognized by local employers. He admits he was not very optimistic. Yet it was at that point that his luck changed. A friend recommended him to apply to MCIC. "My interview was an eye-opener for what was going on in the NGO sector in this country. I found there were still good people working here," he says.
He was taken on with MCIC's NGO development programme as a training officer. Before long, he found himself on a "training of trainers" course in The Netherlands. But no sooner had this new career path opened up than the Kosovo crisis exploded. In October, Fatmir began to work on MCIC's programme in Kosovo, where he was particularly well qualified to work as a liaison between the organization and local partner NGOs. "It was a challenge for me. I knew the people and the culture, I thought it would be easy." But things had changed for the people who had been first displaced, then returned to their homes in Kosovo. A new, harsher and more intolerant attitude had surfaced: "It used to be normal to hear Macedonian or Serbian spoken there, but no longer."
The political situation in Macedonia this year has brought a special challenge to MCIC. It was sometimes painful for Fatmir when his colleagues discussed the inter-ethnic troubles and strong words were exchanged by people who normally had the best of working relationships. He had different views about what was going on but didn't initially wish to voice these publicly for fear of what his colleagues might say. The director, Saso Klekovski, feels that he and the staff had to take responsibility for keeping the peace inside the organization. "Peace is based on relations between people, not on political elites. I wanted to promote the idea that we can speak out, even when we are angry. People have to be aware how we are feeling, even if we express opposing views. That is the meaning of tolerance. Silence makes the gap between us larger." Thus they agreed to hold regular information meetings where staff are encouraged to discuss the current political issues openly. This has preserved the shared sense of belonging and mutual trust between the staff during these crucial times.
Colleagues have had to help each other in practical ways. Some Macedonian staff have been unwilling to travel to majority Albanian areas, for reasons of safety. For his part, Fatmir has not ventured to Bitola, where Albanian shops and properties were attacked and torched by an angry crowd at the end of April. On the other hand, he did visit Probistip, an ethnic Macedonian town in the east of the country, accompanied by a Macedonian colleague, for a monitoring visit to a local NGO. He is sure about the strength of his relationships with the people and organizations with which he works, whatever their ethnicity. But in the current situation, everyone is more wary than before. "You never know who might stop you on the road," he says.
In these troubled times when communities are being driven apart by destructive forces, any sign of cooperation and understanding needs to be cherished as a sign of hope. "It's not the same as before the war," says Cikle, "but with our experience in Macedonia and our ethnically mixed composition, we can set an example of cooperation between different people." Working for the benefit of the community in the service of peace, Cikle and Fatmir are doing what the international mediators and local politicians can only talk about: they are holding the centre in Macedonia.
Antony Mahony has been working as interim consultant for the South-East Europe Ecumenical Partnership (SEEEP) - a WCC programme established in 2000. The programme aims at promoting cooperation between churches, related organizations and other partners to foster peace, justice and economic development throughout the region. MCIC is the WCC's key partner in the Republic of Macedonia, and involves all religious and ethnic communities of the country in its work. The terms "Macedonia" and "Macedonian" refer to the state and people of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and do not imply any official position of the WCC.
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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 342, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.