Teach? We'd love to. But we haven't even been able to wash for a month;Kosovo crisis

14th May 1999 at 01:00
Kevin Weaver, above, gave up war photography and reporting to train as a teacher in 1998. He first went to the Balkans during the Bosnian War in 1992 and within two weeks was caught by sniper fire in Sarajevo. It was two months before he could walk again. But he went back - 10 times - to chronicle the chilling story of ethnic cleansing. He married a Bosnian Muslim and drove her 4,000 miles back to England. He also went to Rwanda to tell the story of victims of genocide there. But the horrors of war eventually proved too traumatic and he decided to switch careers. He began a PGCE in English and media studies at the Central School of Speech and Drama and was assigned to Holland Park School in west London, which has its own share of Yugoslavian refugees. Then one day he was in the staffroom looking at 'The TES' when he read a feature about Kosovo. He was hooked again. In the Easter break he picked up his camera and flew to Albania, where he hopped between refugee camps, hitching rides on military helicopters. There he met fellow teachers who had been driven from their homes and jobs at gunpoint. This is what five of them told him.


Nazmuje Gashi has been sleeping on a chair in Tirana's sports hall for 10 days. There are 5,000 refugees crammed into this camp. The smell is stifling. Sleep is rare and food scarce.

Nazmuje, 49, was a professor of Albanian language and literature at the Luciano Matroiu high school in Prizren, Kosovo. She and her husband, Hibrim, a professor at the same school, left their home on April 13: "Serb police began burning Albanian homes and shops. They had been looking for young Albanian men and I feared for my two sons because they were targeting intellectuals, and especially teachers. One of my sons worked for the OSCE - the European peace monitors - and the other had a degree place in computer engineering at university in Vienna."

The family decided to leave immediately. "We left at 1pm and didn't arrive in the Albanian town of Kukes, 20km across the border, until noon the next day. We were held up in a 15km column of cars at the Morina border crossing after a car drove over a mine, killing five people. We saw the Serbs take the bodies away. There was blood everywhere. At the border the Serbs took our documents and car registration plate.

"We stayed just one hour in Kukes, which was crowded with more than 100,000 refugees, many living under plastic sheeting draped over their tractor trailers. On the hazardous mountain road to Tirana our car broke down and we were left alone. A group of Albanian gangsters threatened to kill us unless we gave them money. Luckily another car of Kosovans stopped, and they ran away. We paid some Albanians 100 deutschmarks to tow us to Tirana. All the way my 13-year-old daughter was crying; she was scared of another gangster attack. We finally arrived at the sports hall in Tirana at 10am the next day, after a perilous 19-hour journey across the mountains."

Nazmuje is "desperate to teach again", but says: "I'm sleeping in a chair, with no water to wash with, and a teacher must have standards."

I take her to the Greek-run swimming pool complex camp near my hotel, to try to get her a place and to meet other teachers who have set up a school. We are told the camp is full.


Zelfije Jaha, 21, was a primary teacher at the Azem Bejla school in the village of Grabanica. "I was first made homeless in May 1998 when Serb police burnt my home. We were forced to move to Klina. I lost all my identity documents when my home was burned. On March 25 this year police came to Klina with tanks and parked in our gardens. The Serbs wouldn't tell us anything, and they were all drunk. Then police came and said 'Albania is your home, so go there with your Nato. Kosovo is Serb land.' "I recognised a Serb neighbour, who did nothing. One man went to take his tractor but the police beat him, so we all left on foot. There were five in my family and we left with 2,000 others. While we were all walking to Dakovica my mother and sister became sick so we had to sit down. Then we became separated from the group. Many of the men are still missing, and my mother's sister hasn't seen her 15-year-old son since.

"We covered 20km, and a tractor picked us up. We went to the village of Bec, where we stayed for three days. Then we joined another 2,000 refugees and went to Dakovica. From there we set off at 8am to walk 45km to Kukes and arrived at 7pm. It was terrifying. We saw many army tanks and police. I thought I would be killed.

"At the border we were told to walk straight ahead and if anyone looked to the side we would be shot. We had to walk between mines. On the other side we were met by Albanian police and I began crying; my mother collapsed. Our feet were all swollen and bloody."

After two weeks in Bajram Curri, Albanian buses took them to the sports hall camp in Tirana. Zelfije says: "Teachers are the fuel of the future, but in this situation nobody organises anything. Kids are traumatised, and I wish schooling could begin in this camp. But we are demoralised. We have enough food, but it's only bread, salami, marmalade, cheese and macaroni, with milk for the children. I feel terrible. I only want to be with my brother in Austria. I'm not ready to teach. I want to find the rest of my family first."


Shelif Peci, 53, taught in Mitrovica, a big town near the Serb border. For 31 years he was a teacher at Migjeni primary school, and headteacher for the past 13. "I felt like committing suicide. I felt it would be better to die than go through this. But I kept going for the sake of my children," says Shelif.

Serb police drove him out of Mitrovica on April 15. "There were 21 of us on my neighbour's tractor and it took us three days to travel the 150km to relative safety in Kukes. We were stopped twice and robbed of all our money and jewellery in Decani, where we waited for nine hours, and in Peja. I gave the Serbs everything to save my 21-year-old son. They put a gun in my face and beat up the tractor driver. We gave them DM700.

"At the border we had to wait for one day and our documents were taken away. Twenty-one of us, living in one tent, stayed in Kukes for two miserable days with only bread and macaroni. It was raining all the time. The water was up to our knees.

"I was staying in the Italian camp and I had no trouble from the Kosovo Liberation Army. They did not try to recruit us and make us go back. There was no teaching going on in the camps there. It's too muddy and people are shattered mentally and physically.

"I have spent three days in the sports hall, and it is very difficult - there are more than 200 of us sleeping on the floor. It is cold at night and we have no blankets. For one month nobody has washed, and my wife and child have developed bronchitis. We are all taking antibiotics and the doctor has warned me that a stomach epidemic is developing.

"If someone calls me for teaching, I will volunteer. There is no organisation in this camp. I feel useless. It is very important for the children to continue their schooling to minimise their trauma. We have more than 5,000 refugees here living in squalor.

"Since 1989 we have worked in Kosovo as teachers without any money, just to help the kids. Humanitarian organisations helped us, and in 1996 the Albanian Kosovan government gave us DM120 every six months, though it was in bits and pieces."


Prahman Sertolli, 46, was a primary teacher for 15 years at the Ismail Qemali school in Belanica near Malisevo, northern Kosovo. "I'm too traumatised to teach right now, although I am on the waiting list to teach at the swimming pool complex camp. My wife is also a primary teacher and she is on the list too. Both of us don't really have the mind for education, as our bodies are here but our minds are still in Kosovo.

"I hope to start again soon. I miss my pupils and want to be with them like before. I will work without pay - in Kosovo we have been working without wages for the past 10 years, getting maybe pound;3 a month - enough for a packet of cigarettes. We want to organise the children to play so they forget what has happened, and give medical help to those who are traumatised. But I haven't washed for two weeks, we have no shampoo or water to flush the toilets. My wife and our four children sleep together in one hut, three metres by five "Our village, Belanica, was tiny - it had only 2,500 people and 220 homes. But this grew to 50,000 at the beginning of April when lots of refugees arrived. On April 2 the Serbs began shelling the village, with the KLA fighting on the outskirts to avoid hurting the refugees in the centre. Half the village was destroyed. The Serb police wouldn't let me take my car, which I had filled with clothes. They told me to leave with 23 other people, all on one relative's tractor, in a column of vehicles.

"When we arrived in Tirana we stayed at the sports hall for a week. Then we came to this swimming pool camp, run by the Greeks. I'm an optimist and believe in my people. We will be together again and be free. The KLA and Nato will destroy the Serb fascists, but we need ground troops quickly to beat Milosevic. I will fight for the KLA if asked."


Ismet Krasniqi, 27, worked for six years as an elementary school teacher at Mic Sokoli in the village of Lybeceve. "The Serb police ordered us to leave our village on April 3 by tractor. Paramilitaries with machine guns in civilian cars followed us, telling us 'move fast'.

"Near the border they blocked the road and asked us for money, but when the Serb police came they ran away. The police followed us, also with machine guns, to make sure we left Kosovo, and they took our documents and registration plates.

"In my tractor-trailer were 24 people from five families, mainly women and children. My brother stayed behind to fight for the KLA.

"Just before the border, where we were ordered to pay to leave Kosovo, our tractor broke down. We had to get a taxi to Kukes across the Albanian border where we slept one night in the mosque.

"The next day we paid a taxi-minibus DM300 to take us to Tirana; we left at 4pm and didn't arrive at the sports hall camp until 6.30am.

"After three awful days there without sleep or food the authorities took us to the swimming pool camp. There are 14 of us sleeping in one hut. That's better than a wet draughty floor. But we still have no detergents and no laundry, hot water or electricity.

"We have organised schools here ourselves - with help from the Albanian Centre for Human Rights. We have enough teachers from Kosovo and the ACHR. The Greeks have given us some large tents to hold the school in - so now we don't have to postpone the lessons when it rains.

"We want to return to Kosovo, hopefully in a couple of months when it is safe. We have opened a school here, but I want to go back to my village and rebuild our school that was burned down by the Serbs twice.


Ragip Sopaj, 45, has worked for 19 years as a primary school teacher in the village of Belanica. "On April 1 there were more than 130,000 refugees in the town. At 1pm the Serb police began to beat and curse us. Three times I thought I was going to die as the police pointed a gun at me and threatened to kill me because I had no money. I was one of 36 men on a truck. The police took DM 1,200 from us and broke the truck window with a hammer.

"At 5.30pm the police told us to go, and a column 25km long, mainly tractors, left for the Albanian border. They split us up, with 60,000 leaving one day and the others the next. All the time the police were asking for money or they would kill us - they took my wife's gold necklace and rings. At the border they took our documents.

At Kukes we were all split up and I arrived in Tirana after 11 members of my family had paid DM200 to an Albanian taxi driver. My two brothers, their wives and children were taken to Durres on the Albanian coast and I haven't heard from them.

"I arrived in Tirana on April 2. I spent one night in the sports hall and was taken to the swimming pool camp. I now live in a two-room hut with 22 people. I work as a humanitarian worker in this camp without pay. The Albanian government has promised that all Kosovan children will go to schools in Albania when the Albanians break up for their summer holidays.

"Our desire is that all Kosovans in Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro go back to Kosovo even if everything is destroyed. We don't want to be sent abroad as it will be more difficult to return. I think 80 per cent of Kosovans want to go home immediately. Four of my brothers are in the KLA in Kosovo and I have heard nothing from them. I am very worried and can't sleep at night."

If you would like to help the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)'s education and humanitarian work in the refugee camps, send donations (cheques payable to UNICEF) to the TESKosovo appeal, UNICEF, Room TES, Freepost, Chelmsford CMT 8BR

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