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Yugoslavia: Kosovo Schools Rebuilding In Preparation For September

Pristina, 10 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Just as in many other places around the world, primary and secondary schools are due to open in Kosovo next month. But before that can happen, a major reconstruction job must be completed. International organizations estimate that more than half of the some 1,000 schools in the province were damaged or destroyed by Serbian forces before they left the province in June.

The United Nations Children's Education Fund (UNICEF) is playing the leading role in reopening schools. Flaka Surroi, a native of Kosovo working for UNICEF, spoke in Pristina with RFE/RL.

"We hope that we are going to have the majority of schools that have moderate damage and severe damage ready by September. The schools that are completely destroyed will be replaced by tents, or an alternative solution, which would be a house that would be adapted into a provisional school building until the school building is built. We hope that we will be able to cover the maximum possible number of children."

Surroi says it is difficult to know how many school-age children are in Kosovo. She notes that no formal census has been conducted since 1981. But she says available statistics indicate that some 310,000 children attended primary schools last year and some 60,000 attended secondary schools.

Surroi notes that many children are among internally displaced persons who are not yet able to return to their home villages. She says these children will initially have to attend school in the towns where they are living temporarily. She says this will mean schools in towns not extensively damaged will have to accommodate a larger number of students in the short term. Some will have to operate as many as four shifts, running from 7 am until 8 pm.

Another part of getting schools up and running will be locating enough qualified teachers. Surroi says that some 80 percent of the teaching staff are back in Kosovo and should be available for work. She also says that there is a pressing need for new textbooks. Some 4.5 million must to be printed in the three languages of instruction -- Albanian, Serbian, and Turkish.

Surroi says that these are just some of the significant short-term challenges facing the rebuilding of an education system in Kosovo.

"This is still an emergency situation, it is not a normal condition in which we have come back to live. So it is a transition phase, some gaps will be allowed, it is flexible, we have to be flexible, and see that the general picture is nevertheless more or less complete."

Some observers say that the damage to education in Kosovo dates back to the beginning of this decade. In 1990, Belgrade imposed severe restrictions on Albanian language education in the province. As a result, a parallel system emerged, with Albanian children being taught, often in private homes, without state support.

Economist Halim Gjergjizi is associated with the Pristina-based economic research institute Riinvest. Speaking with RFE/RL in Pristina, he said that the quality of education provided by this parallel system was often inadequate.

"Unfortunately, we have a generation that does not have the necessary foundation of education and this will [reflect on] the future. But we must do everything possible to complete the education [of these students] so that we can compensate for all the damage that was done [since 1990]."

Others are more optimistic about the quality of education that ethnic Albanian students were able to receive in the parallel system. Rexhep Osmani is a member of the Democratic League of Kosovo who has been active in education efforts in Kosovo throughout the 1990s. He tells RFE/RL that some students and teachers in ethnic Albanian schools excelled in the parallel schools because they felt an intense motivation to defeat the obstacles they faced. He also argues that Albanian language textbooks developed in the parallel system were an improvement over the old books approved by Belgrade.

Both Osmani and UNICEF's Surroi say the biggest concern regarding the qualifications of ethnic Albanian students educated during the last ten years applies to those who received professional degrees from parallel university faculties. They say this in particular applies to doctors.

Looking to the future, Surroi says international officials will insist that in multi-ethnic communities, there will not be separate school buildings for students of different ethnic groups. While they will go to separate classrooms for instruction in different languages, she says all students of an age group will share the same building during the same shift. She says this is as things were when she attended school prior to 1990.

"We would all come to the school yard in the morning and all of us would go back to our classrooms. But [at recess,] we would go down and play together. Maybe there will not be too much playing now between the two sides. But being in the same space together, I think, is a start. But we don't pretend that with this we are going to solve the problem. No. We need to work on it, on developing tolerance among all the people living here."

Surroi was asked how important the reopening of schools is to the larger effort to rebuild Kosovo. She answers emphatically that it is the most important one.

"In a completely destroyed village the first question they ask is 'are you going to come and fix our school'. They know the importance of the school because they have a sense of ownership over that school and they know that this is the center of the world for them. And they know that everything that is going to come in the future is going to come from there."

Surroi says that a working school system will also make it easier for parents to focus energies on other things, such as reconstructing their homes and finding work. She says that an additional benefit will be that in attending school, students will be able to come together to heal the recent traumas they have faced.