Classrooms rise out of rubble;International

24th December 1999 at 00:00
Around 70 aid agencies are helping to send Kosovan children back to school. Sue Jameson reports on progress.

THE SNOW has been falling all night in Carraluke, west Kosovo, but it hasn't done much to disguise the burned and jagged walls of the school library.

Half of the Mustafa Bakija school has been restored, the children crammed into the working classrooms, but this shattered building looks a hopeless case. Until, that is, you travel down into the valley just a couple of miles away, to the school's annexe - a clean, red-roofed, two-storey affair which, four months ago, was also just a collection of smashed walls and rubble.

It's one of the schools funded by the British Red Cross. The agency will have restored 35 schools by the end of this year with the pound;1.5 million donated by the British public. The local community undertook the building themselves, with materials, labour and expertise supplied by the charity.

Seventy per cent of homes in this area have been damaged or destroyed, but the rebuilding of the schools was the community's priority. So many children leave their classrooms to return to the shelled or burned remains of houses in which one room has been "winterised", with timbers, cladding and a stove, to be shared by nine or 10 people.

There are around 70 agencies and charities involved in the race to send Kosovo's quarter of a million seven to 14-year-olds back to school. But, with widespread destruction throughout the province and winter temperatures often plunging to -10, there is no chance of normal school life yet. Most families are just trying to survive.

UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, is co-ordinating the re-building programme and estimates that 275 schools have been restored, 300 are being repaired but another 300 may need to be demolished.

Ninety per cent of the region's pupils are receiving some education, with working schools operating three shifts a day in many cases.

However, there is scarcely a class operating with the same school roll as before the war. Many families are staying with relatives or friends in less damaged areas and are unlikely to return to their own villages and towns before next summer.

Rehabilitation work is also badly affected by the chaos on the Macedonian border where convoys are held up for a week at a time. The Macedonian authorities are demanding a tax on each vehicle in order to recoup losses they believe they suffered with the massive influx of refugees from Kosovo during the war.

A delay in receiving four tonnes of school supplies last week has dented Red Cross efforts to co-ordinate equipment for schools with building work so that classrooms can begin to operate as soon as the paint dries on the walls.

The other problem, as winter sets in, is a severe shortage of fuel for the wood-burning stoves. Even in these newly-restored schools, the children wear outdoor clothes inside as the faintly-glowing classroom stoves can do little more than take the chill off the freezing air.

In the Jeta e Re (New Life) school in Trenave, north Kosovo, two military tents stand almost unused because the desks, benches and heaters haven't turned up.

In the main building, there are only a couple of usable classrooms with pock-marked walls and crumbling ceilings. This was a Serbian defensive position during the war.

The children's desks were used to reinforce the trenches dug by paramilitaries and there were two cows in one room - food for the troops.

Headteacher Osman Zeqiri is resigned to many more months of shift work. "You can see the working conditions here." And he shrugs.

With so many schools still to rebuild, it may all take some time.

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