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Kosovo Albanians Return to Classes

September 1, 1999

NEGROVCE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ The blackboard stands in a puddle and the desks are piles of lumber, barely sheltered by a roof of blue plastic sheeting.

But the first day of school Wednesday was a happy occasion for Shaban Morina and his pupils at Jusuf Gervalla school _ it’s the first time in nearly a decade that they are attending classes in a Kosovo not ruled by Serbs.

``The one good thing is that the police won’t come into the classrooms,″ Morina said, looking out at the drizzly landscape through the open walls. ``Every first day of classes for the past seven years, the Serb police have come to the school to terrorize the children.″

The only disruption during Morina’s first class Wednesday was the snapping of the plastic roof tacked above the skeletal walls of the unfinished building, which sits next to the schoolhouse that Serbs burned to the ground a year ago.

The absence of Serbs meant that ethnic Albanian pupils could return to schoolrooms they had not used since 1989, when Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic revoked Kosovo’s autonomy and introduced Serbia’s curriculum in its schools.

Rather than send their children to classes held in Serbian, parents took their schools underground, holding classes in private homes. Other ethnic Albanian pupils stayed in their schools, but used only half the building. On the other side _ often separated by walls _ the Serb students had their own schooling.

Serb security forces inhabited the Hasan Pristina elementary school in Kosovo’s capital during the 78-day NATO bombing campaign aimed at forcing President Slobodan Milosevic to end his repression of ethnic Albanians. After international peacekeepers arrived on June 12, British troops lived there for a month.

Still, by Wednesday, the concrete, yellow-painted building was clean and the barrier that had separated the Serbs from the ethnic Albanians had been removed. Excited 11-year olds raced up the stairs, marveling about the absence of the metal grill that previously kept them out.

``I never thought I’d be having classes up here,″ said sixth-grader Denis Rexhepi, waiting for his teacher in a former Serb classroom on the third floor.

``Today we are fully free school and an entirely different school from the one inhabited by Serbs,″ said Ali Gashi, the school principal.

U.N. officials were uncertain how many students _ ethnic Albanians and Serbs _ would show up for the first day of class. Most Serb children and their parents have fled Kosovo for other parts of Serbia, leaving only a fraction of their original number of more than 200,000.

School also resumed across the rest of Serbia on Wednesday, and pupils were lectured about NATO’s ``monstrous aggression″ against the nation. Students were told that the alliance’s bombing campaign against Yugoslavia was ``incomparable in its bestiality, monstrosity and ignorance of international law with any other event in history.″

Lessons about suffering were being taught in Kosovo schools as well.

At the Jusuf Gervalla school _ located in the Drenica region, where some of the most bitter fighting during the Serb crackdown on ethnic Albanian rebels occurred _ children recited a poem about the poverty and suffering of the Albanian people earlier this century.

``So you see we have similar conditions,″ explained teacher Sefer Krasniqi, motioning to the broken walls and makeshift roof. ``But we are not under occupation any longer, so we are able to speak freely and speak our opinions.″

The United Nations estimates that nearly half of Kosovo’s schools were seriously damaged or destroyed in the 18 months of ethnic warfare.

In communities where the schools were destroyed, UNICEF planned to supply tents as makeshift classrooms until permanent buildings can be built, said U.N. official Ramachandran Kadayaprath.

Schoolchildren will spend the next two months making up classes missed during the last two months of the previous school year, before schools closed down after NATO’s bombing campaign began in March. By the time the 1999-2000 school year officially begins in early November, aid agencies hope to distribute notebooks and other supplies.

``Before the bombing the United Nations brought us pencils, books, everything. The Serbs burned all that,″ said 15-year-old Albulana Shala.

``All we have left are just pupils and teachers,″ said Krasniqi, her teacher. ``But we are free.″

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