by Natasha Dokovska
– Macedonia –
19-year old Natasha Kmetovska and 10-year old Heroldina Iljazi both died last year after being hit by stray bullets; their killers have yet to be found. Natasha was killed at the New Year’s celebration held in downtown Skopje, Macedonia’s capital. Little Heroldina was struck and killed in her own yard by a stray bullet fired during a wedding celebration in her neighborhood. In both cases the police say they are continuing their search for the perpetrators, but they persist in classifying the deaths as accidental rather than criminal.
But while the police investigate these incidents, throughout Macedonia, more victims are continually added to the already long list of those injured or killed by stray bullets. Within a ten-day period this summer, more than 20 people were the victims of stray bullets, and yet in none of the cases were any suspects identified or arrested. Tragically, all of the victims were children between the ages of three to 14.
An 11-year old girl was recently injured in the Albanian-dominated Gazi Baba settlement in Skopje, where firing guns at family celebrations is steeped in tradition; there isn’t a single celebration without gunfire. The girl was playing on the balcony of her home when she was hit in the back by a stray bullet. She was immediately rushed to Red City Hospital where doctors began treating her injuries. She is still fighting for her life.
Only one day later, three-year-old Jana was walking with her mother through the yard of her daycare center when she was shot in the foot by a stray bullet. She too was sent to the hospital, but despite her doctors’ best efforts, the injury will leave her disabled for life.
And while the Macedonian public was still reeling from news of these cases, yet another child made headlines. As he got off a bus, a 14-year old boy dropped to the ground. Passers-by merely thought the boy was sick and took him to Red City Hospital. It was there that a doctor realized that he had been struck in the neck by a stray bullet! Doctors fought for his life for several days. He is finally in stable condition and is now waiting to be released to home care.
These cases are not unique to the capital. In Macedonia, stray bullets fall like rain.
Seven year old Angela Cvetkovska from Kumanovo (a town 25km north of Skopje) was yet another victim of a stray bullet. Her father, Boban Cvetanovski, explains that Angela was hit while his neighbors had a party. “In this town, at every moment of the day or night you can hear shooting. I work as a taxi driver and I see the young boys shooting in the air from their cars as a sign of some celebration or another. They don’t care if somebody gets hurt. I ask myself, Where are the police?” Fortunately, the bullet only grazed Angela, causing minor injury. But as her father says, “It’s not safe here anymore. Our child can’t even play in our own yard!”
Unfortunately this is the reality of everyday life in Macedonia. What disturbs citizens most is that the police haven’t arrested any suspects in any of these cases! This is a season when many guest workers from other countries are back on the job in Macedonia, and citizens working abroad have come home to Macedonia to get married. To the shock of many, even the Ministry of Internal Affairs seems to view these dangers calmly: they say that these incidents are simply the result of accidental stray bullets shot at weddings, and so are something that should be “expected” during the wedding season.
“We cannot go to the weddings and arrest the guests or take them to the police station to investigate who was shooting a gun. We can only do what is in our jurisdiction and the results will be seen,” said police public officer, Mr. Ivo Kotevski, at a recent press conference. What then does Mr. Kotevski think would fall under police jurisdiction?
While police continue to “investigate” for suspects, NGO activists are passionately campaigning for citizens to voluntarily disarm and to respect gun use laws. JCWE (the Association of Journalists for Children and Women’s Rights and Protection of the Environment), is an NGO that has campaigned year after year against small and medium armed weapons. The statistics they have compiled documenting the staggering number of injuries or deaths from stray bullets are a definitive proof that gun laws are not being respected here.
As Filip Spirovski, President of JCWE and national coordinator for the country’s ‘Control Arms Campaign’ declares, “A wedding is no excuse for what’s been happening. These are stray bullets, and that’s why these victims are innocent. Besides, the victims are children! It is obvious that the Government of the Republic of Macedonia does not have an adequate strategy to combat the illegal use of firearms in the country.”
Spirovski points out that it is critical to arrest perpetrators of this kind of criminal act. He says they must be punished as stipulated by the laws governing the ownership and use of arms. JCWE has found that owners of illegal arms are mainly Albanians who traditionally use their weapons to solve property disputes, rights grievances and personal problems. Rarely do they use their arms in ethnic conflicts.
According to the organization, Civil, problems stemming from the illegal use of arms should be solved through joint actions of police, citizens, tribunal and local authorities.
“In 80% of these cases, gunfire at weddings and other celebrations results in an accident,” says Mr. Alain Lapon, UNDP Representative in Skopje. In conjunction with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, for the past four years the UNDP has implemented a campaign against the use of illegal firearms. This year the campaign started in mid-August, but both NGO activists and citizens alike say that is too late in the year, since the country’s majority of weddings and other celebrations occur in the good weather of summer and early fall.
“Firing guns at ceremonies like weddings or other holidays is not only inappropriate, but dangerous to society,” asserts Mr. Lapon.
The results from this year’s campaign are terrible at best. We continue to have celebratory shootings every day; the number of innocent victims injured by stray bullets is growing. Even worse, armed violence is up by 10%.
According to official data released by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, 127 persons have been identified as having used illegal arms; 128 criminal citations have been issued – yet not one person has been arrested for violating the gun use laws.
Just this week, on the first day of school, it began again: in the Butel settlement of Skopje, two children, ages 12 and 13, were struck in the leg by stray bullets while playing in the schoolyard. Though their injuries are not life threatening, many parents are now afraid to send their children to school. So while some citizens refuse to abandon this dangerous tradition disguised as part of a celebration, children continue to pay the price.
About the Author
Natasha Dokovska has been a journalist for 23 years, covering social issues and human rights in Macedonia. She has been an editor for international policy, an advocate for human rights as a NGO activist and publisher, and has edited books related to peace journalism and other topics. She currently is the editor for the first internet alternative radio in Macedonia and is also the Executive Director of JCWE,Journalists for Children and Women’s Rights and Protection of the Environment in Macedonia.