Macedonia: Fury at School Name Change

Storm over renaming of school shows communal hatreds are still simmering a year after fighting stopped.

Macedonia: Fury at School Name Change

Storm over renaming of school shows communal hatreds are still simmering a year after fighting stopped.

Some 30,000 ethnic Macedonian children poured onto the streets of the capital this week in protest at the renaming of a village school after a revered ethnic Albanian teacher and the placing of his bust outside the building.

The children blocked the main Tetovo-Skopje highway and chanted slogans insulting the country's ethnic Albanian minority.

The ferocity of the protest, organised by an association of high school students, demonstrated that ethnic hatreds are still bubbling beneath the surface, a year after the war.

The school - in the ethnically mixed village of Semsevo, located in the Tetovo region, which saw some of the fiercest fighting during the war -

previously bore the name of Dame Gruev, a 19th century Macedonian hero.

Its 500 pupils include 200 Macedonian children who have been boycotting lessons since last month when the school was renamed after a renowned Albanian teacher, Jumni Jonuzi, and a statue of him placed outside the building.

The head of the OSCE Mission, Craig Jannes, said the changing of school names and the arbitrary erection of monuments breaches the spirit of the Ohrid Agreement that ended last year's fighting.

"We are concerned because an environment has been created in which the Macedonian students are not welcome," OSCE spokesperson Harold Schenker told a press conference on October 9. Calling on politicians and citizens to work on solving the problem, he said schools should be places of education, not of intolerance and nationalism

Selman Aliti, the school's principal, said he went ahead with the new name and bust after his request for permission from the education ministry was ignored.

Albanians in Semsevo, part of the Jugunovce municipality, said they made no fuss when the name of the school was previously changed from "Perparimi" (Progress, in Albanian).

Macedonian media blamed the episode on "Albanian extremists" - a label for former members of the National Liberation Army, NLA. Macedonians living in the village issued a press statement saying it was part of a campaign to force them out of their homes.

The Albanians denied this, saying their action was intended solely as a gesture of respect for the first schoolteacher to come from their village.

An Albanian advisor in Jugunovce, Xhelal Ademi, commented, "Jumni Jonuzi was only a respected teacher who loved education - this shouldn't upset anyone."

Macedonians claimed Jonuzi was a member of the Balists, an Albanian nationalist and anti-communist movement that fought on the side of the fascists in World War Two. Albanian war veterans claim he battled against the fascists on the Srem Front in Vojvodina, northern Serbia.

During the October 9 demonstrations, thousands of schoolchildren chanted anti-Albanian slogans.

"What was the point of all that?" asked Katerina Blazevska in her column for the daily newspaper Dnevnik. "If it was really a demonstration of support for (Macedonian) pupils from Dame Gruev School then why did they yell things like 'gas chambers for the Shiptars' (pejorative name for Albanians)?" The columnist said the children were motivated by a wish to "skip classes and become part of Macedonian history".

Trpko Kirkovski, president of the Council of Parents of the Macedonian Pupils from Semsevo, said blocking the motorway was only a first step towards isolating Semsevo village itself. "We will go all the way, " he said, adding that the interior ministry had approved continuation of the protests.

Albanians in Semsevo said Macedonians were using the name change and the bust as an excuse to relocate the school to another village.

Gorgi Ilievski, an education ministry official, visited the Jagunovce municipality with an OSCE official and discussed the problem with locals.

One Macedonian parent, Goran, insisted, "We will not allow our children back to that school until the name change is dropped and the statue removed."

An Albanian villager, Agim, told IWPR that to show respect for an eminent teacher was not a crime, nor a form of pressure. He accused the Macedonians of stirring up trouble for their own ends.

Salajdin Salihu is a journalist with the weekly magazine Lobi in Skopje

Macedonia, Serbia
Support our journalists