Peace will not end schools' plight;Briefing International

26th February 1999 at 00:00

Whatever the result of the political talks education in the war zone needs urgent attention, reports Brendan O'Malley

Whether or not both sides in the Kosovan conflict can agree on a political and military settlement a massive programme of reconstruction and resupply of schools is needed.

But if no settlement is reached and more fighting breaks out, continuing the education of the province's children will become harder still.

"We don't wish for NATO air attacks," said Hysen Mulaky, headteacher of the ethnic Albanian school in Kisna Reka, "we wish for a dialogue ."

Education has been on the frontline of the confrontation between Serbs and ethnic Albanians since Belgrade took over the previously autonomous province. The Serbian parliament then attempted to impose a curriculum on all schools and universities in 1990.

When the ethnic Albanians refused to comply, state funding for their schools was cut. But in defiance they set up their own parallel education system, part-funded by self-imposed taxes among Albanians, who comprise 87 per cent of the population compared with the Serbs' 7 per cent.

When fighting broke out last March, schools became a target of Serbian shelling and looting, as the Albanians fled their villages for the safety of neighbouring communities or woods, or were damaged in operations against the rebels.

According to the United Nations' Children Fund (UNICEF), which carried out a survey of schools in 13 municipalities between November and January, at least 163 schools have been destroyed or seriously damaged in the conflict. Other schools have been looted of furniture, heaters and electrical equipment and had all their windows broken.

"The task is huge," a UNICEF report said. "Of the schools surveyed, it is estimated, for example, that more than 12,000 desks and 23,000 chairs are needed."

The population of Kisna Reka was driven out by Serbian shelling last spring. Mr Mulaky and many of his pupils and their families fled to nearby woods, where they lived under makeshift shelters for up to seven months. When they returned, they found their homes had been torched and the school had been shelled and ransacked.

The security situation remains tense. The waterlogged lanes approaching the school are guarded by small Kosovan Liberation Army patrols, armed with rifles. However, the Serbian police, with automatic weapons, control the main roads and have commandeered a nearby ferrous-nickel factory as a base.

The fear is that unless there is an international military force in the area, ethnic clashes will continue, whatever deal is brokered. Schools on both sides will have to deal with fluctuating numbers of pupils, as families flee attacks in neighbouring villages, and operate under constant fear of a new offensive in their area. Many ethnic Albanians fear that punitive NATO air strikes would only lead to more reprisals against them.

Some agencies are trying to provide emergency aid to education, because they believe it provides some stability in an otherwise volatile situation. UNICEF and Children's Aid Direct, for instance, have started distributing 80,000 student kits to some of the 300,000 schoolchildren across Kosovo. Classroom kits and textbooks have also been made available. UNICEF is also launching a landmine awareness campaign through schools, radio and television.

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