‘Code Amber’ turned into the black ribbon: North Macedonia mourns 14-year-old abducted girl found dead

Screenshot of the removed Interpol page about Vanja Gjorchevska. Fair use.

This article is based on coverage by Meta.mk. An edited version is republished here under a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation.

The profiles of citizens of North Macedonia increasingly show a black ribbon on their profile pictures on social networks, after on December 3 the Ministry of Interior (MoI) pronounced dead the 14-year-old Vanja Gjorchevska. The ministry confirmed that the girl, who disappeared in the capital Skopje on November 27, was found dead in a nearby village.

Social network users expressed sorrow and anguish over the death of the young girl who went to school and suddenly disappeared. Vanja’s mother called the police right after she was alerted by Vanja’s teacher that the girl didn’t come to classes in the primary school. After few hours she publicly asked for assistance in finding her daughter via a viral Facebook post.

Seven days later, Vanja’s body was found in the vicinity of an express road leading from the capital to the north of the country.

An international missing person warrant was issued for Vanja after it became clear that the girl could not be contacted. The country trembled at every newsflash, hoping that the girl was still alive. However, the MoI and the prosecution confirmed that the girl was actually killed just a couple of hours after she was abducted from the entrance of her apartment building.

Three of the accused men are in custody, one is abroad, considered a fugitive, and the fifth one is Vanja’s father, who has been interrogated and detained by the police. He is estranged from Vanja and her mother and little sister.

The authorities also informed that Vanja’s murder is connected with the murder of a 74-year-old hair stylist Panche Zhezhovski from Veles, a city 50 km from Skopje. His stolen car was used by the same group of perpetrators in the girl's kidnapping, after they abducted and murdered him four days earlier.  

Social networks were flooded with reactions of mourning, demands for the implementation of Amber Alert, and discussions, including rumor and speculation, that increased the widespread stress. During the week, right-wing actors proliferated disinformation aimed at fomenting inter-ethnic and religious hate and violence, attempting  to blame ethnic Albanians or ethnic Roma, or citizens of Kosovo.

The tension grew to such a degree that MoI inserted the following unusual assertion in the official announcement:

„Воедно, наспроти шпекулациите и дезинформациите според кои овој случај има етничка заднина, информираме дека сите осомничени се од македонска етничка припадност.“

“At the same time, contrary to the speculations and disinformation claiming ethnic background to this case, we inform that all suspects are of Macedonian ethnicity.”

After the announcement of girl's death, many citizens of North Macedonia stayed up till very late at night, plagued with anxiety, wondering how this could happen, and reiterating many questions about the scarce information given in the police bulletin.

The devastated staff of the Municipal Elementary School Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi from Skopje opened a Book of Condolences in honor of the murdered pupil, and announced the organization of psychological support for the students, parents and teachers. At the school entrance, citizens keep bringing flowers, waiting patiently in line with bowed heads to sign the book.

Municipal Elementary School Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi from Skopje opened a Book of Condolences in honor of murdered pupil Vanja Gjorchevska. Photo by Meta.mk, used with permission.

The Minister of Interior Oliver Spasovski and the head of the Public Prosecutor’s Office – Skopje Gavril Bubevski provided more details about the case at a press conference in Skopje on the morning of December 4. They stressed that the kidnapping was not random, but “targeted with lucrative motives.” By this they meant that she was kidnapped to get a ransom from her mother, who allegedly has recently come into some money.

They also cautioned that the material evidence is still being processed, and that they still don't have the results of the autopsy. They explained that the girl was forcibly taken from the hallway of her apartment building as she left for school, put into a sleeping bag with arms and legs tied, and driven to the crime scene.

The MoI and public prosecution pointed to Ljupcho Palevski, nicknamed Palcho, a well-known political figure with a long police record, as the organizer of the abduction and the murderer. He is also the main suspect in the murder of a 74-year-old hairstylist from Veles, whose car was used in the abduction of the girl.

Screenshot of the Facebook page of the political party Desna (“Right”), featuring it's logo with the neo-Nazi Black Sun with the Vergina Sun and their slogan “Pure, modern Macedonian nationalism.” Fair use.

While over the years he used his connections to centers of power across the political spectrum, in recent years Palevski has been given publicity by right-wing media as frequent guest on talk shows and interviews, expounding extreme right-wing nationalist agenda. He leads the pro-Kremlin and pro-clerical political party Desna (“Right”) that uses a combination of the neo-Nazi symbol the Black Sun and the Vergina Sun, and a slogan “Pure, modern Macedonian nationalism.” He was one of the promotors the boycott aimed at obstructing the 2018 referendum, and an advocate of boycott of anti-COVID-19 government measures.  

In 2019, while fleeing an arrest warrant from debt in Croatia, Palevski was extradited from Serbia while tying to escape to Russia. In May 2023 he was arrested for carrying a gun without permit. 

Palevski is currently at large. At Monday's joint press conference, the Minister of Interior Spasovski said that allegedly Palevski, accompanied by his lawyer, first went to Belgrade, the capital of neighboring Serbia and the next day went to Bulgaria. An international arrest warrant for Palevski will be issued, Spasovski said.

“I will do everything possible to bring this monster to justice as soon as he comes on the territory of North Macedonia,” Spasovski said at the press conference. He also noted that the three detained suspects gave precise information on what happened in the last two weeks, and two of them witnessed each of the two murders.

They also claimed that Aleksandar Gjorchevski, the father of the 14-year-old Vanja, gave information about how and when his daughter goes to school and that on November 27 she would go to school alone, without her little sister. The father denied any involvement.

The kidnappers used two cars for the abduction: the one stolen from the second murder victim that was set on fire after the murdering the girl, and another that was previously donated to the pro-Russian political party Desna. Authorities indicated that security camera footage was used to trace the cars, the party and then the perpetrators.

The child was murdered just two and a half hours after the kidnapping. She was shot with a handgun and buried near Brazda village, in the vicinity of Skopje. According to police, the kidnappers panicked when they found out about the search. It is unclear how they found out. The senior victim was also killed shortly after his disappearance and buried in the vicinity of his hometown Veles just hours after his abduction.

The motive for both murders is material gains, i.e. the murderers wanted to get ransom from the mother of the slain girl, while the hairstylist had some debt problems with one of the suspects.

North Macedonia is in unofficial mourning, with pupils, teachers, parents, neighbors and other citizens, as well as officials, including the president and the first lady, continuing to bring flowers in memory of the slain 14-year-old girl and signing the book of condolence at her school.

Rest in Peace, Vanja! Condolences to the family, friends, classmates, comrades.

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