A lifetime's work put to the sword

3rd April 1998 at 01:00

David Loyn reports on the plight of ethnic Albanian teachers and their pupils in the strife-torn province of Kosovo.

Mehmet Gjevori, 86, is a man watching his life's work being dismantled in front of his eyes. He came to Kosovo from Albania when the Germans were defeated in 1945, with all the zeal of a pioneer.

He and 300 other teachers founded the educational system for Albanian speakers. Although a majority in the Yugoslavian province, their needs had not been catered for by the Serbo-Croat majority who governed from Belgrade.

Mr Gjevori's teachers camped in mountain villages, turning round an illiteracy rate which once topped 90 per cent. He wrote the first Albanian children's textbook in Kosovo, drawing on a collection of 2,000 books he had brought with him across the mountains.

He does not know what became of the books, since Albanian-speaking teachers were excluded from all government premises, including the library, after direct rule was imposed by the Serb government in 1990. The following year they were all sacked.

The Serb minority, 10 per cent of the Kosovo population, now use all of the university buildings and secondary schools, while the majority educate themselves in a parallel world of private houses and other borrowed premises.

Many Albanian secondary schools remain empty, guarded by the police. While others have been turned into refugee camps for Serbs fleeing from Croatia and Bosnia.

Primary children, aged up to 14, are still allowed to share buildings with Serb children, but they are taught separately. The Serbs get the best facilities, leaving the Albanians to come to school in a shift system, cramped into the worst classrooms.

Albanian students in the Kosovian capital, Pristina, have been a focal point for opposition to Serb authority. Their discipline in organising huge non-violent protests has been a key factor in pushing the system towards change, but although the Serbian government agreed two years ago to hand school and university buildings back, the deal has not yet been signed. They came to the negotiating table last week, but backed off from implementing the deal at the last minute.

President Milosevic is increasingly mobilising the anger of Serb students, and they are now taking to the streets as well, making a confrontation inevitable, despite the desire of the majority for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

Morale among teachers is very low. They cannot make private money, unlike doctors who were sacked at the same time. Teachers are paid about pound;20 a month, a token amount raised by a levy of 3 per cent on the Albanian community.

Some funds are raised abroad, mostly by Albanians in Germany. But in these conditions, all teachers have to take other work to make ends meet. The energy which they brought to life underground has gone after seven years in these conditions, and many told me that they are now at the end of the road. The cannot go on like this.

Inevitably, teacher-training has suffered. It is hard to attract people into the hand-to-mouth existence, and there is now almost no extra training, beyond a first degree for secondary teachers. The Institute of Education for primary teachers has survived, in a private house, but no one can claim that the standard of teachers who are now qualifying is good enough.

"I am deeply angry by what they are doing to us," says Mehmet. "They are stopping the basic human right to education."

But his old eyes shine when he looks to the future. He says it can all be put back together quickly, once they are allowed to operate again. His granddaughter Yeta Xharrq is not so sure. In her spare time as a student, she has been working for a non-governmental organisation which operates among women in the mainly Muslim, deeply conservative, patriarchal villages.

She says that much of the effort in persuading families to educate girls has unravelled. The age at which girls marry has dropped dramatically from 25 to 18, as the economic crisis forces families to marry their daughters early.

Even if the Serbs relent and allow Albanian schools and universities to function again, much of the good work done by her grandfather and his teaching trailblazers half-a-century ago has been undone.

David Loyn is a BBC foreign correspondent

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