Shell-shocked but school must go on;Kosovo

19th March 1999 at 00:00
It may have 10-inch holes in the walls, and classrooms blasted by shrapnel, but Kisna Reka school is still standing. Welcome to Kosovo, where teachers like Hysen Mulaky (left) are helping to restore some normality to the lives of children whose world has been blown apart. Words and pictures by Brendan O'Malley.

The 7th March School is a large oblong building set into a hillside in the village of Kisna Reka, overlooking a vast agricultural plain in central Kosovo. A UN official warns me about it before I set off. "It's just frightening standing in the classroom," she says. "You can see for miles around and you know it's a sitting target."

Getting there involves driving through a series of checkpoints. First, on the main road, those of the Serbian police, with their navy flak jackets and automatic weapons. Then, in the country lanes, you are stopped by small patrols of ethnic Albanian guerrillas from the Kosovo Liberation Army, in khaki combat gear and armed with rifles.

The lane winds through a once-idyllic village of two and three-storey houses with wide Alpine-style roofs, snow-crowned haystacks and people riding huddled on tractor-driven carts. But many of the buildings are roofless shells: scorch marks surround their frameless doorways and window holes. They have been torched by Serbian police.

First came the shelling. Then the Albanian inhabitants fled to the woods or nearby villages. Then came the looting and burning. It's a pattern that was set in Bosnia.

Kisna Reka's school was ransacked, its furniture smashed, its windows shattered and its books strewn over the floor. But now its Albanian pupils, aged seven to 15, are back. Many of them are living in the burnt-out wrecks of their former homes. And they attend school in classrooms with 10-inch shell holes in the walls. The shells burst through with such force that shrapnel peppered the rendering on the opposite wall.

Headteacher Hysen Mulaky, sitting in his spartan office, says: "Last year we had 580 children, now we have 520. The missing pupils are 'IDPs' - internally displaced people. In extreme cases their houses have been completely destroyed and they have no relatives here. We also have 25 children IDPs from other villages who have settled here, but it's awkward, because half of our own village has been destroyed."

As he speaks, a loud hollow thud reverberates in the ground outside. The Serbs are shelling again on the other side of the hill - as they do constantly, we are told, just to remind the Kosovo Albanians they are still there.

This is the reality of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the Serbian province that had its autonomy removed by President Slobodan Milosevic in 1989, and is now consumed in civil war. The ethnic Albanians - 87 per cent of the two million population - want their autonomy back at the very least, or independence. The KLA militia took up arms a year ago to fight for their cause. But the Serbian authorities want to prevent the break-up of their country or the larger confederation, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which they dominate. They have been fighting, using armed police units and the Serbian army to maintain their hold on the province, of which Serbians make up 7 per cent of the population.

As a result the population is constantly fluctuating, women and children pour into the hills or scramble into the next village at the first sound of attack, and in the middle of this chaos the schools, those still standing, are trying to keep their hopes of providing an education alive. But according to the United Nations Chidren's Fund (UNICEF), while a great deal of funding is going into emergency relief operations, little is going into schools.

Yukie Mokuo, UNICEF's project officer in Kosovo, says, "So many children have no schooling, yet the teachers want to bring them back to school. Education should be treated as part of the emergency operations."

At the last count, 213 pupils and 68 teachers had lost their lives. In February, the UN High Commission for Refugees reported 210,000 internally displaced people in Kosovo, 25,000 in neighbouring Montenegro and 30,000 to 50,000 in Serbia. Almost 500 villages have been affected by the conflict and, according to a UNICEF survey, almost one in five of the 900 schools in Kosovo has been destroyed or seriously damaged. Twenty per cent of schools have no water supply inside the building and 50 per cent have none at all.

Education has long been on the front line in the ethnic confrontation. When autonomy for Kosovo was abolished in 1990 and the Serbian Parliament introduced a uniform curriculum for all schools, the Albanian teachers refused to comply. As a result Albanian children were excluded from the state system, school instruction in Albanian was cut back and secondary places for Albanian speakers were severely restricted. In one day 6,000 secondary teachers were dismissed and on another 12,000 primary teachers, including Hysen Mulaky, lost their jobs.

The Albanians responded by setting up their own parallel education system, funded by voluntary taxes, with secondary classes in people's houses and at least one in five primary schools sharing buildings with Serbian state schools.

Certificates awarded to pupils in this system are not recognised by the Serbian authorities when it comes to getting a job in state services or continuing education elsewhere in the country.

The war, which started last March, hit the teachers and pupils of Kisna Reka on May 8. As fighting broke out nearby, Mr Mulaky closed the school and the villagers fled.

"The police started shelling at five in the morning," recalls 12-year-old pupil Chage Bejrakori, "and they started shooting at us. We went into the woods, but we were shelled there as well. So we found a gully."

They were joined in adjacent wooded valleys by up to 12,000 people from surrounding villages, many of whom stayed there in hiding for the next six months. They lived in makeshift shelters made of branches and plastic sheeting donated by aid agencies. The children slept in tractor trailers and the parents on the forest floor, until some mattresses were brought in. They had no sanitation and at first food supplies were short, as local flour stores had been burned. "At one stage," says Chage Bejrakori, "we had no water. We had to carry it in buckets up the hill." They were too frightened to go home. Some were even afraid to cook by day, fearing the smoke would give their positions away.

The teachers tried to keep some semblance of education going in the woods. "Parents and teachers improvised tents and made a classroom," says Mr Mulaky. "We concentrated on the young ones, giving basic knowledge so they didn't forget how to read and write. But it was not easy."

While they were in hiding, the village was sacked. "After they burned our houses, they left and we came back," says Chage, "but we did not dare to stay because police in plain clothes were patrolling - two old people were shot."

As far as the fabric of the building goes, 7th March school was relatively lucky. But not all damage in a civil war is immediately visible. Some of it is profoundly in the mind.

"We do have a problem. The children have suffered trauma," says Hysen Mulaky. "One has gone blind. Doctors say pressure on the eye, a direct result of the trauma he suffered, is the cause.

"Another child who came in the day before yesterday was crying out all day for his grandfather, who was lost in the conflict. Some of the children have repeated reactions, yelling and crying."

UNICEF assessors say other typical symptoms of trauma among children in areas that have been shelled are sleeplessness, nightmares and bed-wetting. The organisation is working with the Serbian state education system and Albanian schools outside it to offer courses that help children from both sides come to terms with their experiences of loss and fear.

The traumas of warfare are compounded by bitter political division. Dardania school in Pristina shows the scale of the problem. If teachers there wanted to integrate Serbian and ethnic Albanian children, they would have to break down a brick wall. It runs a third of the way through the school, giving two-thirds of the space to 400 Serb pupils in two shifts, and the remainder to 2,000 Albanian students operating in four shifts. Their last shift ends at 8.30pm, an hour after curfew begins and the streets are empty.

"They never interact, they never meet each other," says Flaka Surroi, UNICEF's education officer in Kosovo.

One source of comfort is the stability that regular attendance at school can provide. Since December, the 20 teachers and 9 administrative staff at Kisna Reka's school have been trying to piece together a normal sort of school life. They have not been paid their pound;35-pound;42 monthly salary since last March, when the system of self-imposed taxation among ethnic Albanians broke down because of the fighting. Like most people in the village, they survive on assistance provided by a local aid organisation.

Before the breakdown, two-thirds of funding for the school was raised among the local population, and 35 per cent came from the Albanians' parallel tax system, set up in defiance of the Serbian government.

"When the war started, there was no chance to collect money from people hiding in the woods, and since then no collection of any kind has taken place in the villages. That is why we are not being paid," says Hysen Mulaky.

Norwegian Church Aid paid for the replacement of 200 square metres of glass broken by the police and shelling. UNICEF has donated firewood for heating, and classroom supplies of chalk, glue, rulers and basketballs. The school is trying to make up for lost lesson time by working on Saturdays and extending the summer term by seven weeks.

But that could all come to nothing at a moment's notice. The peace established in October, when a deal brokered by the United States with President Milosevic led to the withdrawal of Serbian military units from Kosovo, has turned increasingly sour. After talks at Rambouillet in France stalled, KLA attacks and Serbian offensives put more villages to flight. Until a settlement is agreed and implemented, nobody can be sure where the next bullet or shell will be coming from.

Donations to UNICEF's work in Kosovo (cheques made payable to UNICEF) should be sent to The TES Kosovo appeal, UNICEF, Freepost, Chelmsford CMT 8BR

* A family's war

A short walk from 7th March school, past another KLA checkpoint, is the home of 14-year-old Saniye Zojagj, from 7th grade. She lives with four of her five brothers and sisters, aged six to 19, her father, Dalip, and her mother, Zarife. Saniye explains: "We barely made it to get out from the shells and not be hurt." They spent five months in the neighouring village of Nakovc but when the shelling started there they too left for the woods.

"When we came back we spent three months in a basement full of water until we fixed this place," says Saniye. "Our furniture has been completely burned."

Inside her home the walls are black and grey, burned down to plaster and brick. The family lives in one salvaged room with a donated woodstove. Three single mattresses lie on the floor with a makeshift carpet that has been donated by friends, but there is no other furniture except a trunk. The front wall of the house remains punctured with a shell hole. But an emergency roof has been fitted.

Like 65 of the 90 families in this part of Komoran, a settlement that neighbours Kisna Reka, the Zojagj family has no income. Dalip explains that the small portion of land they own usually provides enough food for two to three months, but this year there was no yield. "All the maize and wheat rotted because no one was here to harvest it," he says.

* The healers' war

In a house in Pristina, the provincial capital of Kosovo, 15 children sit around a large table writing. One by one they are asked to contribute to a list of rights they feel are not respected by parents, teachers or friends, and then point to them in order. Third on the list is: "To go out with friends whenever I want." Second is: "To go to sleep whenever I want." But top of the list is: "To discuss my right to return home."

Discussing their choices, nine-year-old Nita, whose house was shelled by tanks, and who is one of 13 in the group forced to leave their village, says: "My house is destroyed and my dad won't let me go back."

She presses her palms against her eyes to wipe them and looks down. "I wanted to go there to visit my uncle and cousin for the last time at the funeral, because they were killed."

Her tears start a chain reaction. The eyes of another girl, Vlora, begin to stream, and then a boy sitting nearby starts to cry.

The three adult facilitators have been trained not to intervene. After several minutes have passed, they lead the children in activities on a new topic in which they have to show signs of love and friendship to the child sitting next to them. A demonstration of how Inuit people greet each other by rubbing noses soon has them giggling and laughing.

These children are taking part in a psycho-social support programme called Smilekeepers, in which they are encouraged to express their feelings freely rather than bottle them up. The programme, established by UNICEF, started in Belgrade to help Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat children displaced by the Bosnian war. Now it has been adapted to Kosovo to help provide emotional support and prevent children on both sides from developing disorders associated with trauma.

The children are taken through a structured course of 17 to 21 sessions depending on their age - usually five to 10s and 11 to 14s. UNICEF is training a core group of facilitators to train more staff, aiming eventually to build a pool of 300 adults who can extend the programme to up to 20,000 children.

Facilitator Fitore Hajru Llahu explains her tactics: "When somebody says something touching I stay quiet for five or 10 minutes. I hear only what they want to tell me. Then I try to make them happy."

She says each course tends to follow a pattern. At first the children are quiet. After a few sessions they relax and feel less embarrassed. They play games and speak freely about their feelings of love, fear and happiness. Eventually, teachers report, this has a positive effect on their learning and behaviour at school.

Hikmete Xharra, programme assistant, says some children show symptoms of a deeper problem and need to be referred to a professional for help. Like, Chemil, for instance, a 14-year-old boy in this group who still rarely likes to open up. When he does it is always to say that he wants to go home.

"After six workshops most of them talk. But Chemil doesn't," says Ms Xharra. "About two in a hundred need more treatment." She says statistics from the Second World War show that children are more susceptible to disorders if they are separated from their mothers, brothers and sisters, but they may show no signs of their trauma until much later, when they are adults.

But that doesn't mean the other 98 per cent are unaffected by their experiences. At the end of this session, when the children are allowed to draw anything they like, they all pick one theme. One outlines two burning houses. Another draws himself in a Kosovo Liberation Army uniform. Nita has drawn burning houses, a Serbian tank, a coffin draped in a Kosovan flag and a NATO jet flying to the rescue.

* A Headteacher's war

A year ago 33-year-old Arta (not her real name)- was headteacher of a large primary school in Kosovo, writes Alex Durant. Now she is assistant commander in a battalion of 400 soldiers - and its only woman. "The local women didn't want to get involved," she says. "But the men obtained the guns and joined up."

When war broke out between the Kosovo Liberation Army and Serbian forces, she helped start a branch of the KLA in her village.

She comes from a politicised family. As a teenager she organised a demonstration against Serb rule and spent 20 days in jail, where she says she was tortured. Her brother - one of seven siblings who now live abroad - was a political prisoner.

While away for three months fighting in the summer, she and the other soldiers stayed with local people. Apart from that she "commutes" to the base, a house in the village where the men stay.

Her worst moment came when her village was attacked last summer. "The sound of the women and children shouting and screaming was terrible." She says she never had fear in battle, but, if the war ends and the KLA disbands, she hopes to go back to being a teacher. "I wouldn't miss the fighting, that's for sure," she says.

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