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Macedonia: Albanian Students in Poisoning Scare

Parents vow to keep their children away from two Kumanovo schools after hundreds of pupils inexplicably fall ill.
By IWPR Balkans

There are fears a mysterious poisoning scare in a north-eastern Macedonian town could undermine country's delicate inter-ethnic balance.


More than 200 ethnic Albanian high school students - the majority of whom are female - claim they have been poisoned in their Kumanovo schools. But a number of medical examinations have so far failed to pinpoint the cause.


For the past fortnight, hundreds of Albanian youngsters have been kept at home by concerned parents, who are refusing to allow their children to return to school until the matter is resolved.


Meanwhile, the Macedonian media has accused the students of pretending to be ill to score political points.


The case has implications for Macedonia's sensitive ethnic balance, and has prompted comment from members of the international community.


At a press conference held in Skopje on December 11, European Union spokesperson Irena Guzelova and NATO's Mark Laity described the case as "full of speculation".


On the same day, Wolfgang Greven, a spokesperson for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said this was a "typical example of manipulation to raise tensions and to destroy the agreement for (the) stabilisation of inter-ethnic relations in Macedonia".


The scare began on November 30, when 84 students from the Bajram Sabani school were sent to Kumanovo hospital showing symptoms of poisoning. While the majority were later sent home, 24 were admitted to the Skopje state hospital's toxicology department for further treatment.


At first, it was believed that the students were suffering from food poisoning contracted from a fast food stall. But fours days later, a number of pupils from the nearby Naim Frasheri high school also started to complain that they'd been poisoned.


"In the classroom, we noticed a pleasant smell like a rose perfume," Ilire Islami, one of the affected students, told IWPR. She said that she began to feel weak and dizzy, and passed out shortly after, "I remember that I was breathing heavier than normal."


Medical staff told IWPR that the students had mostly complained about headaches, dizziness and painful stomach cramps as well as vision impairment and psychological instability.


However, the medical examinations carried out on the youngsters showed no evidence of poisoning. "The students have had blood and urine analyses as well as brain scans. Poisoning could not be proved in any of the cases," said Dr Jordan Dzimrevski, director of the infectious diseases department at Skopje medical faculty.


The last 15 Kumanovo students were released from the city hospital's toxicology department after their condition was deemed to have improved.


But local parents are still looking for answers. Lulzim Ahmeti told IWPR that he will not allow his children Sadie and Adile to return to school until the type of poison allegedly used - and the people responsible - are discovered.


Parents are also demanding a meeting with representatives of the education, health and interior ministries, claiming that no government official visited their school during the scare.


"What has happened in Kumanovo is very mysterious," said health minister Rexhep Selmani of the Albanian Democratic Union of Integration party. He told the media that a group of experts from the World Health Organisation was expected to visit Macedonia this week and would investigate the alleged poisoning incidents.


"While there have been no positive results from any of the tests carried out on the students so far, it is not always possible to detect every kind of chemical agent in Macedonia," Selmani added, referring to the country's old-fashioned laboratory equipment.


This is not the first poisoning scare to affect the Albanian community.


In 1995 and 1996, 100 students from schools in Tetovo complained of similar poisoning symptoms. At the time, medical examinations failed to establish the cause of their illness.


In Kosovo in the late Eighties, when tensions between Serbs and Albanians were rising, thousands of Albanian schoolchildren suffered health problems and alleged that they had been poisoned. Again, medical examination failed to support their claim.


To this day, the Albanians continue to insist that the pupils' symptoms were genuine and that the Serbs were responsible, while the Serbs believe the episode was invented by the Albanians for propaganda purposes.


Laura Papraniku is a journalist at the Albanian language newspaper Fakti in Skopje


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