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Yugoslavia: Kosovo Principal Refused To Abandon Blind Pupils

Many schools are due to reopen across Kosovo today, more than five months after Yugoslav authorities launched a massive campaign of expulsions of the province's Albanian majority. Many schools were destroyed in the Kosovo conflict, and some of those that are still standing are being used to house troops from the NATO-led international peacekeeping force (KFOR). Our correspondent in Kosovo, Jolyon Naegele, reports from Pec on one school and its principal, who survived against considerable odds.

Pec, Kosovo; 1 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The principal of Kosovo's only school for the blind is lucky to be alive.

Mazllum Avdyli is the director of the Special School for the Blind in Pec. He is one of just 150 Albanians who chose to remain in this city of 100,000 during the NATO air strikes.

Most of the pupils had gone home for the Muslim Bayram holidays when NATO air strikes began on March 24. But 10 pupils remained at the bilingual (Serb and Albanian) school because their homes were too far away for a holiday visit. The four boys and six girls -- the youngest of whom was 10 years old -- were looked after for the next three months by Avdyli, as well as by an Albanian teacher, two Albanian guards, and a cook who belonged to the Goran minority.

Avdyli, who is 55, has been director of the school since its establishment 18 years ago. He says he could have never returned to his school if he had fled and abandoned his pupils.

"We slept, we cared for them and cleaned after them, and I played the role of barber, cutting their hair for three months. During this time, and it was not a short time, we fed them regularly. They lacked nothing. But imagine this under conditions of war, and we were alone here. It wasn't easy. God helped us."

Four days after the air strikes began, the telephones went dead and Avdyli began sleeping at the school. NATO subsequently bombed a barracks opposite his apartment house, and his flat was looted. As a result, he is still sleeping at the school, more than 11 weeks after the arrival of KFOR.

Every day during the air strikes, Avdyli says Serb militia parked three armored personnel carriers under the pine trees in the schoolyard in an effort to hide them from NATO war planes. Cisterns full of gasoline were placed in an alley just across the street and covered with carpets to avoid detection.

Avdyli says the Serb forces did not directly mistreat the pupils or staff, but they did make threats, particularly toward him.

"The police had no contact with the children, but with me they did. They visited me and threatened me several times, saying, 'We will cut off your head.' But I was determined since the day my family fled to Montenegro that I will stay here for the good of the pupils, no matter what will happen, even if I lose my life. Quite frankly, it was all the same as far as I was concerned. I knew why I was risking my life for 10 pupils and my colleagues."

At one point during the air strikes, Avdyli says he risked his life to drive 80 kms to Pristina with two tasks -- to return two pupils to their parents and to try to find his son and daughter, both students. He had heard nothing from them since the war began.

He found his children hidden in the tenth floor apartment of a Serb. He persuaded them not to risk fleeing to Macedonia since they might have to spend five or six days outside waiting near the border.

Avdyli says the beginning and end of the war were the worst. In the beginning, he says, there was chaos, as thousands of people -- including children, the elderly and the disabled -- struggled, screaming, trying to flee the city before it was too late.

The end of the war, he says, was the same, except this time instead of the Albanians fleeing, it was the Serbs. In his words, "Nothing had any value and human life had no more worth than that of a fly."

Finally, in mid-June, Italian KFOR troops arrived in Pec. But what should have been a joyous occasion caused Avdyli and the other staffers at the school to experience what he calls "the worst trauma of the whole war." Avdyli:

"We were drinking coffee in the office when suddenly we saw Italian troops passing in front of us and my colleagues opened the window and shouted, 'NATO! Long live Italy!' We did not notice that just a few meters away some 50 Serbian paramilitary soldiers were standing at a filling station. As soon as the Italians had passed through, the Serbs came over and broke all our windows with stones and rifle butts. Luckily, the main gate locked, and at two p.m., the Serbs got the order to withdraw. Had they stayed that night, certainly none of us would have survived."

The school, pupils and staff survived the war virtually unscathed. But funding for the school -- which has operated with no financing since March -- has not yet materialized.

Still, Pec's Special School for the Blind is scheduled to resume classes normally starting today.