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For Yugoslav Students, Summer Was No Vacation
Across Nation, Schools Reopen to Tales of War

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 7, 1999; Page A13

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia—When schools opened in Serbia and Kosovo last week, the sounds of excited students were subdued on both sides of the border by moments of silence for the dead.

The inevitable first-day question--"What did you do this summer?"--echoed in the halls, and the answers were poignant and bitter, as befitting people traumatized by more than a year of violent conflict.

Here in Pristina, the Kosovo capital, ethnic Albanian students recounted tales of destruction, death and forced expulsions into neighboring Macedonia and Albania at the hands of marauding Serbian forces. But these painful reports were tempered by the elation over the NATO victory in their behalf, and the belief that Kosovo will never again be under Yugoslav control.

In Belgrade, there were recollections of life during last spring's NATO bombing onslaught and subsequent occupation of Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia's dominant republic, Serbia. Rather than seeking relief, the students looked for someone to blame. Reading, writing and resentment are part of this year's curriculum.

The students in Serbia and Kosovo wore the same symbols of youthful globalization--Nike sweat shirts, neon tennis shoes, faded jeans. Yet, their political points of view were strictly parochial. And the divide between young ethnic Albanians and Serbs was as wide as the gap between their elders.

Students at Pristina's Sami Frasheri High School gathered solemnly at a burned-out three-story house to say goodbye. For nine years, the house was part of a separatist school system set up by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority to protest the loss of the province's educational and political autonomy under Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Serbian police torched the building early in the war.

The 1,200 students sang a mournful song, posed for pictures as if at graduation and then marched to their new school--which until this year largely served Serbian students, with a smattering of Turks and other minorities. Before the reopening, NATO peacekeepers scoured it for mines and booby traps and found none.

"I never thought I would be able to study here," said Diana Berisha, a 19-year-old senior who spent the war hiding in Pristina. "We can walk in the street without worrying about the police. We are free."

In Berisha's class, Lumyan Tolaj, 18, recalled how his father resisted eviction from his house, then was taken to the street and shot dead by Serbian police.

"We never had a good experience with the Serbs. We will never be part of the same country with them again. Never. We are independent," he said to murmured assent from his classmates.

The provisional government set up by the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army is funding the ethnic Albanian schools. Over the years, the separate ethnic Albanian school system was supported by taxes collected by local politicians. For principal Abdul Gashi, leaving behind the struggle was cause for some nostalgia.

"I was upset to see the parallel schoolhouse burned. The years we spent there were emotional times," he said.

The gutted building will be preserved as a monument, Gashi said.

Serbs stayed away from Pristina schools. Thousands of Serbian families, fearing retribution, have fled Pristina and most of Kosovo.

Since the bombing ended in June, scores of Serbs have been murdered and kidnapped, and not a day goes by without an attack on a Serbian home. The few Serbian youths who remain stayed home on the first day of school.

"We can't even walk out of our homes without fear," said Vojislav Stevanovic, 18, who was awaiting word from his aunt about a spot in a technical school outside Kosovo. "If we speak Serbian, people will not sell us even bread."

In parts of Kosovo where Serbs still predominate, some schools opened on time while municipal officials scrambled to find buildings for high school students who normally would have attended specialized premedical or engineering schools in Pristina.

The Serbian Education Ministry issued guidelines to teachers about how to discuss the war. Among the edicts: Refer to the war only as "NATO aggression." Schools should have opened with the playing of the national anthem, but the lack of sound systems in most places made it impossible.

For all the effort the Belgrade government made to infuse the openings with nationalist symbolism, Serbian refugees from Kosovo were treated as unfortunate distractions. The government, which is trying to prod Kosovo Serbs to stay near the province's border, forbade enrollment of refugee students in Belgrade schools.

At the Mathematics High School downtown, students held a moment of silence for a classmate, Sanja Milenkovic, 15, who was killed on a bridge in the southern town of Varvarin when it was hit by NATO bombs on May 30. A black sash draped her photograph, which was displayed in her homeroom.

In Nicola Tesla Technical High, teachers began an electronic communications class by asking whether anyone had lost relatives in the war. No one had. The boys in the mostly male class shuffled their feet and joked about the NATO "fireworks," but laughter soon gave way to questioning. Why does no one care about Serbian refugees? Why is Kosovo being taken from Serbs who have always lived there?

"The Serbs were only taking revenge on Albanian rebels who killed police, that's why they were ethnically cleansed," said Marko Lazic, 18.

During the first-period break, a wiry boy with a wide-eyed look stood silently and then let on that he had read independent accounts of the war on the Internet. Sidling up to an adult visitor, he asked with sad earnestness, "Are we evil?"


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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