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Kosovo conflict spreads to classrooms

Published on June 26, 2009

Rubovce -- The diplomatic battle for Kosovo may have slowed as the world court considers the case, but it rumbles on inside the breakaway Serbian province -- notably in its classrooms.

A year after Kosovo’s independence declaration, ethnic Albanian students are taught they reside in an independent country while Serb students learn they still live in a part of Serbia.

This is the case at schools across the disputed Balkan territory even though some Albanian and Serb students are under the same roof, as in Rubovce, an ethnically mixed central village with some 2,000 residents.

Serbs reject the independence that was unilaterally declared by the ethnic Albanian-majority’s parliament in February 2008 — and since recognised by at least 60 countries, including the United States and most of the European Union.

Although each side gets instruction in a different language, standard subjects like science and mathematics are generally in accordance with worldwide curricula. But substantial differences arise for history, language and literature.

"We follow Serbia’s educational programme exclusively," said Jugoslav Crvenkovic, principle of the Serb part of the school which has 26 pupils.

Crvenkovic, appointed to the post by the government in Belgrade, insists his teachers would never lecture "our children any other history except our own, which clearly states Kosovo is a part of Serbia."

But Rubovce’s 172 ethnic Albanian pupils got an extra chapter on Kosovo’s first anniversary of independence — which is also opposed by Serbia’s powerful ally Russia and is now under examination at The Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN’s main judicial organ.

Ethnic-Albanian history teacher Bardhul Rudari makes no secret of his pride in the new lesson. "It is a unique pleasure to teach pupils that they now have their own state," said the 30-year-old.

His Serb colleague, 28-year-old Srdjan Stankovic whose classroom is just a few metres (yards) away, said he ignored directives by Kosovo’s education ministry to mark independence.

"We firmly refused," he said.

In Rubovce, not only are classrooms for ethnic Albanian and Serb pupils separated by a wall but the two groups each have their own entrance into the building.

"We don’t keep in touch very much with the other side. We meet only occasionally when international officials visit the school and gather us," said Beqir Murati, the Albanian headmaster.

The two communities even use different names for the same school, the Serbs calling it after Serbian World War II heroes and the Albanians naming it "Drita," or light in Albanian.

The pupils share one yard, but school officials are careful to avoid any interaction between them during recreation periods.

"Our children go on breaks when the Albanian pupils are in class," Stojkovic said. "They cannot meet each other during the breaks, so we minimised the possibility of conflicts between them."

Since the end of the 1998-1999 conflict, Serbs who have remained in Kosovo have strongly relied on education, healthcare and administrative structures founded and financed by Belgrade.

Prominent Kosovo analyst Belul Beqaj says the Serbs are "obviously isolating themselves from the Albanian majority," with Belgrade’s firm backing.

He called on ethnic Albanians to make the first move and "create conditions for the multi-cultural integration of minorities, if they want to become a part of Europe."

Sociologist Ismajl Hasani agreed: "the next step in creating confidence would be to devise a new educational programme that will embrace all of Kosovo’s entities, and not focus on one national identity."

Without this, he warned, gaps between the two ethnic communities will only widen.

Ramush Lekaj of Kosovo’s education ministry said the government has tried, through UN mediation, to integrate Serb educational experts into efforts aimed at creating a joint curriculum and joint school books.

"Our goal was not to impose our curriculum for sensitive subjects such as history or literature. This was left to Serb experts," Lekaj said.

The ministry wanted to apply "modern educational standards" but he said Serb representatives refused to cooperate, allegedly due to pressure from Belgrade.

The government in Belgrade was unreachable for comment, but believes it has the right to use Serbia’s curriculum and textbooks in Kosovo as it still views the southern territory as a just another part of the country.

Last October, the UN General Assembly voted to ask the ICJ to rule on whether Kosovo’s unilateral secession from Serbia was "in accordance with international law," though UN diplomats have said this could take up to two years.

In the meantime, the people of Kosovo continue to live in parallel worlds.

"When we meet each other accidentally going to and from work, the Serb teachers just say ‘zdravo’ (‘hello’ in Serbian) and we reply ‘tung’ (‘hello’ in Albanian)," Murati said.

Ismet Hajdari/AFP/Expatica