Macedonia Learns the Slow Way

Ethnic tensions in Macedonia are spilling over into the classroom.

Macedonia Learns the Slow Way

Ethnic tensions in Macedonia are spilling over into the classroom.

Thursday, 27 September, 2001

In a beautiful house near the market in Gostivar, Vjollca, an ethnic Albanian, spent the past week crying. For the whole of her last year at primary school she had fought with her parents to be allowed to go on to high school in this western Macedonian town.

Her father, a man of conservative views, said she should stay at home and help her mother. Neighbours intervened, and a teacher was persuaded to come and speak to her father. But he wouldn't relent - declaring last week that it was unsafe for her to travel to a mixed school.

Being in Macedonia, the issue is not mixed-sex but mixed-community schooling. Vjollca's attitude is simple and voices the frustration of many students. "I want to learn. I don't care with whom. I want a better future, a career, I want to be able to make choices," she said.

Pupils throughout Macedonia continue to be affected by the ongoing frictions between Macedonia's two main communities. Though armed clashes have stopped, political disputes are spilling over into the classrooms. The tensions have been such that the new school year began a week late.

Ethnic Albanian parents in Tetovo and Gostivar, in the mainly ethnic Albanian western part of the republic, said they would refuse to allow their children to attend classes until heavy police road blocks were lifted.

Ethnic Macedonian parents countered by saying they would not permit their children to return to mixed schools as they feared for their safety. Similar scenes occurred in the northern town of Kumanovo.

After the various local authorities reached fragile compromises, schools across the country re-opened on September 10.

When schoolchildren in Tetovo went back to class, it was clear that pupils from both communities in mountain villages, such as Jazhince and Vratnica, which had been affected by fighting, were absent.

Despite an OSCE-escorted bus service, many parents were clearly fearful of sending their kids down into the town below. On the first day of school, only a quarter of the pupils had turned up.

One of those left behind was Afrim, an ethnic Albanian, who watched the bus leave Jazhince and said through gritted teeth, "I am in my second year at high school. My parents say I must stay because even if the police let the bus through [the roadblocks], they may not let it back."

Down in the valley, the Medical High School in the centre of the town, the only such school in the north-west, is also experiencing problems. Before the summer, ethnic Albanians and Macedonians attended classes in the same buildings, each taught in their mother tongue. Now, the ethnic Macedonian children and teachers stick to one of the three buildings that the school owns, across the road from the main premises.

Vesna, a fourth-year ethnic Macedonian student, who has studied in the mixed school for three years said, "It's better like this. We don't know what will happen with the peace agreement." Her colleagues mentioned some ethnic Albanian students they believe fought for the NLA, and remarked how unsafe this made them feel.

Across the road, sentiments were very different. Many ethnic Albanian students feel their counterparts' reaction is unnecessary, as the school has never experienced any ethnic conflict in the past.

Even mixed schools which have maintained their unity also reflect the suspicious atmosphere. The Economics High School reported a turn out of just 45 per cent on the first day of the new term, although by the end of the week three quarters of the pupils were back.

On the way out of Tetovo, the road passes the South East European University, negotiated as an alternative to the unrecognised Albanian-language university in the town. The Ohrid Agreement of August 13 allowed for the possibility of higher education in any language at state institutions - an improvement on current legislation which only permits Albanian language higher education in private institutions.

But the new university venture is under question as the peace process drags on. Registration has been extended until October 1, the anticipated opening date, and it seems likely that classes will not start before November.

The Macedonian peace agreement may, eventually, bring more equality in the Macedonian education system. But in the short term, many like Vjollca will be held back.

Eleanor Pritchard is a freelance journalist based in London.

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