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Macedonia echoes in Punjab

May 09, 2004

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THE gaudy mansions of those who've "made it" sit out of place in a sea of poverty, surrounded by dull, red-brick huts, wallowing buffalo and the stench of open sewers.

Fatima Bibi is a sweeper in one of these houses, working not for money, but for a bowl of rice or some flour.

Her employers in this small Punjabi village had been poor too, just like her, and now they live in relative luxury, with a satellite dish and a new fridge because their son went "to New York to drive taxis".

But Fatima's son wasn't so lucky.

When 20-year-old Ijaz set off for Europe early in 2002, he carried the hopes of his family. Ijaz was the second youngest of the widow's nine children. He ended up as "collateral damage" in the "war on terror", gunned down by Macedonian police, who claimed he and six others were terrorists.

Last week the Macedonians admitted that this was a lie, and that the shooting was a "staged murder", part of a clumsy plot to try to impress the Americans. "My son, my beautiful son," wailed Fatima, while clutching a photograph of Ijaz. "He was a good boy who just wanted to make things better for his family. How could they shoot him down, like a dog? He was a good Muslim, but he had no time for politics."

This week in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, warrants were issued for the arrest of the former interior minister, Ljube Boskovski, in relation to the shooting of Ijaz and the six others.

Several senior police have been charged with murder. Following a lengthy investigation, the Macedonian authorities have admitted that the six Pakistanis and one Indian were simply illegal immigrants, trying to get to Greece to find work on the Olympic sites, or anywhere else.

"This was the act of a sick mind," said Mirjana Konteska, a Macedonian official. "They lost their lives in a staged murder (so the police and officials) could present themselves as participants in the war against terror."

The seven were picked up as they entered Macedonia, through Bulgaria, and held in custody for several days before being driven to a spot en-route to the American embassy. Then they were gunned down.

Boskovski, who was then the interior minister, claimed his forces had foiled a major terrorist attack on the embassy and that bags of guns and uniforms were found on the "Mujahideen fighters".

There were inconsistencies in the story from the start. Thepolice originally stated they had been ambushed, but could not explain why seven heavily armed terrorists were killed, while the police received no injuries.

They then changed their version of events to say they'd ambushed the terrorists to prevent them attacking the American embassy. But the inquiry found otherwise. The men were shot dead in cold blood.

To cover their tracks, the police placed bags filled with guns and uniforms next to the dead bodies. "I told him not to go," Fatima said, as she recalled the last words she said to her son.

"But he was determined and we'd sold our house to pay the smuggling agent." As she kissed her son goodbye she slipped two plastic copies of Quranic verses into the pocket of his shalwar kameez. Some of the other mothers had done the same, and the Macedonian police would later claim, when they found the verses, that this was "terrorist literature".

The deal with the smuggler was that Rs125,000 (about 1,250 pounds) would be paid when Ijaz made it to Turkey, and the remaining 2500 pounds when he arrived in Greece. Ijaz, along with the other young men, had valid documents for Iran, but fakes for the trip from there through Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia and onto Greece. Ijaz's family was already heavily in debt because he had made the journey the year before, only to be deported not long after making it to Greece.

But they thought he would be safe, and, at worst, deported again.

The family rattled off names of boys from the village who had made it. Ansar has a good job in a Milanfactory, they said. Mudassar is cleaning fish in Canada, while Mehmood is a house painter in Paris and is very good to his mother. Almost every family in the district has, or has attempted, to send someone to the West. "We are very poor," Fatima said. "The education our children get is not good enough to get a job. The only way is to leave. Life is good for the ones who have children in Europe and America. They have big houses and cars. They have money to marry their daughters, and then weddings like emperors, with feasts that you can't finish."

We were talking about Ijaz when Fatima started to weep. "My husband died not long after my last child was born (her ninth)," she said. "My life has been very hard. Ijaz was so happy to be going to Europe. He would tell me how much money he was going to send home. He would say that I would not have to sweep floors again."

Human rights lawyer Ansar Burney raised money which allowed the six families to pay off their debts, and he fought a long battle with Macedonian authorities to have the bodies returned to Pakistan. He has now lodged a claim with the International Court of Justice in The Hague for $2 million compensation for each of the six families. He said he will also act for the family of the one Indian killed in the attack, but so far no one has come forward to claim the body. It is likely they don't know he's dead.

"Who knows what others atrocities have been committed in the name of the 'war on terror'," Burney told The Guardian. "This whole affair has just been so incredibly evil - it is hard to comprehend." A spokesman from his office said the Pakistan government had been "unhelpful" when they first tried to get the bodies back from Macedonia. "Once they heard the word "terrorist" they ran a mile," the spokesman said. "They didn't want to do anything that would possibly upset the Americans."

In another village, not far from Fatima's, there are still more grieving families. "I have four daughters and only one of them is married," cried Rizia Bibi. Her son, Umar Farooq, 20, was also killed. "My husband is a donkey-cart driver and Umar was to get a good job so his sisters could marry. Now I have one dead son and little hope of marrying my daughters," she said. The family lives in a tiny, two-room house. Umar's father, Sabir, cried when he told me about his son's plans to send money home. "He told me that donkey driving was beneath me and that one day I'd be driving a car."

Rizwan Nawed, the brother of 22-year-old Sabtain Nawed, who was also killed, said he had a cousin who made it to Greece more than 10 years ago and is now a shop keeper. "His family has bought more land and a tractor and they can afford to send their children to schools that will get them to university," Rizwan said. "One person can change the life of all the people. It only takes one to get out, and the future is paved with gold." -Dawn/The Guardian News Service.