Kosovo's struggle

Facing arrest, torture, shortages and secrecy, teachers began an underground school network. Adam Coulter reports

"WE have a problem with the teachers in our universities. Many of them were killed in battle," says Shpetim Bylykbashi, a Kosovan student who has come to Britain with his teacher, Nexhmi Rudari, to highlight the latest Balkan crisis.

Those who remain fear arrest or torture by the Serbs. Kosovo's essentially Albanian cultural and linguistic identity has been slowly removed; it is an ethnic cleansing less visible than rape and murder, but as effective.

Villages across the country have been razed, and hundreds of thousands of displaced children are making their way to the towns and cities, swelling schools by 500 or 600 refugee pupils.

In 1990 the Serbs effectively destroyed the Kosovan education system by closing libraries, schools and universities and pulping all Kosovan books.

In response, the 20,000 Albanian teachers set up an underground education system, putting makeshift classrooms in garages, basements and living rooms for the 400,000 excluded children.

Mr Rudari, 36, helped set up the new system, organised by the Education, Science and Cultural Union of Kosovo.

He says: "Before we had school buildings we could use and now only the Serb students can use them. Some of the bigger schools in Pristina, the capital, have two exits: one of which is reserved for the 10 per cent of Serbs and the other for the 90 per cent of Kosovans."

Mr Bylykbashi was 16 when the Serb crackdown began. "We didn't even have elementary conditions in which to learn. There would be 40 of us in a small room, it was very cramped and the teacher had no blackboard and three or four of us would have to share one book."

At university, conditions were equally restricted; with no books available for students, lecturers were forced to dictate classes.

Student life was conducted covertly: "The structures in place did not allow us to express ourselves," says Mr Bylykbashi.

The resistance culminated in last October's student demonstration, quickly quashed by Serbian police who rounded up, detained and beat up protesters.

The fighting since March has exacerbated the situation and forced the visit to Britain, at great personal risk to both men. Serbian customs were extremely suspicious of their purpose, which they still believe is to see relations.

Mr Rudari admits that the education system is now close to collapse. "The West must be informed, not only the governments, but the ordinary people. They must force their governments to act.

"For eight years we have showed the world we are for a peaceful solution, but it didn't have any effect on the Serbian regime.

"We will keep on with the struggle, we will keep teaching. The Serbians want us to lose our national identity and they have done a lot of damage but they haven't succeeded. We are still strong."

Anyone able to help with supplies or money should contact Bob Myers on 0161 226 0404

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