Kosovo: No Playground Politics

no playground politicsPEC, Kosovo | The children of Brestovik, of both Serbian and Albanian ethnicity, spent most of their summer days playing together in the village schoolyard, even if they would be returning to separate schools come fall.  In September, Albanian children continued to attend the local village school, while Serbian children returned to their classes in a predominantly Serbian village nearby.

The school was built four years ago, but no children of the town’s Serbian community have set foot inside it. Every day, the Serbian schoolchildren travel about 20 kilometers to a school in the Serbian village of Gorazhdevac.  There, students receive instruction in Serbian and work with a Serbian curriculum instead of the one set by the government of Kosovo.

This state of affairs is not due to the formal structure of the education system in Kosovo, but rather, to the complicated political situation of the fledgling state, which declared unilateral independence from Serbia in the spring of 2008.  Local Serbs are torn between appeals for coexistence coming from new multiethnic institutions in Kosovo, and voices from Belgrade rejecting any kind of cooperation with Kosovar authorities.

As a result, the efforts of regional officials to bring these children together in the same school have fallen flat.

“Everything is politics,” says village leader Miodrag Dashiq, an ethnic Serb.  He laments the current state of affairs but says that, for the time being, “Serbs cannot escape from politics, even on issues that have nothing to do with politics.”  According to him, they will only let their children attend a multiethnic school when they receive clear instructions from Belgrade, even if they would like to cooperate more with ethnic Albanians. “I think that we, local Serbs, are not guilty for that. We should blame Belgrade and Pristina for not being able to reach an agreement,” says Dashiq.

Nine years after the end of interethnic conflict in Kosovo, Kosovar institutions are still incapable of making Serbs and Albanians attend the same schools. Serbs continue to attend their own schools and Albanians theirs, thus continuing the segregation which began back in the 1990s when the Milosevic regime expelled all Albanian students and teachers from public schools in Kosovo.

Between 1991 and 1999, Albanians organized lessons in private houses for Albanian students, but the diplomas they awarded were not recognized by the Serbian authorities.  After the 1998-1999 war, which expelled the Serbian regime from Kosovo and allowed for the establishment of Kosovar institutions supervised by a United Nations mission (known as UNMIK), Albanians returned to public schools but Serbian schoolchildren continued to attend segregated schools in Serbian enclaves. Despite the fact that Kosovar authorities and the UNMIK made efforts to facilitate the return of Serb schoolchildren, they refused to attend the same schools as their Albanians peers.

The village school in Brestovik has the capacity to accommodate about 200 pupils, but ended up having only 23 Albanian, Roma and Egyptian schoolchildren in 2007. The same thing happened in September this year. “Even the efforts that we made this year showed no results, Serb schoolchildren again failed to come,” said Mon Berisha, Municipal Education Officer. He says that municipality is committed to providing everything that Serbian children of the village would need in the event that they would come.

Seven months after the declaration of independence and despite the fact that it independence was recognized by most western countries, Serbs in Kosovo continue to oppose Kosovar institutions and remain loyal to Belgrade, which seeks to prevent further recognition of Kosovar independence.

Serbs left Brestovik during the war and returned in 2003 after the Italian government and the European Agency for Reconstruction, as well as the Kosovar government, rebuilt around 90 Serbian homes that were destroyed during the war. Village inhabitants have integrated into the new society, they have freedom of movement, and they have a relatively good relationship with their Albanian neighbours.

Local residents say there have been no ethnically-motivated incidents in this area in the period since. The village is regularly visited by municipal authorities and ministers of parliament, and all three Prime Ministers of Kosovo have visited the village and met with local Serbs. But the issue of ethnically integrated schooling continues to be a sticking point.

Halil Veseli, secretary of the primary school “7 shtatori”, the parent school for the one in Brestovik, believes that one of the reasons for not holding Serbian classes there is that Serbian teachers do not want to work there. “If (Serbian) teachers work there they will receive salaries only from the government of Kosovo. Teachers in Gorazhdevac receive salaries from both the Kosovar Government and Serbian Government. Due to this, Serbian schoolchildren have to travel every day,” argues Veseli.

Village Serbs, themselves, do not say what their ideal solution would be. “We would like to see an agreement reached between Belgrade and Pristina,” says Dashiq.  However, given the current communication breakdown, an agreement is not likely to be reached anytime soon, meaning that students will continue to learn separately for at least another academic year.

Mirjana, Jovana and Milan are three children who travel every day from Brestovik to Gorazhdevac. The municipality provides an official vehicle that transports them every day from their homes to the school and back. When asked where would they like to go to school, Jovana’s eyes meet those of her father, who is standing nearby.  For the time being, the school is a playground for the village’s Serbian children, and nothing more.

This article was produced as an assignment for the “Improving Coverage of Education Issues” online distance learning course organized by TOL and developed in cooperation with the Guardian Foundation and the BBC World Trust, enabled by the generous support of the Open Society Institute Education Support Program.


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