Lessons are hard in classrooms darkened by torture

Raymond Whitaker,Kosovo
Tuesday 14 December 1999 01:00

If a British eight-year-old visited Trstenik One primary school, in the Drenica valley of Kosovo, he or she might think it looked quite familiar at first.

If a British eight-year-old visited Trstenik One primary school, in the Drenica valley of Kosovo, he or she might think it looked quite familiar at first.

The building is perhaps a bit spartan, but its Seventies-style design would not seem out of place in a medium-sized town in the Home Counties. There is a playground, paid for by the charity War Child and installed by Canadian peace-keepers.

The thick mud covering the assembly area, tracked all over the school by its lively population of pupils aged from six to fourteen, is more of a problem: the director, Rexhep Bazaj, 51, says that it drives him to distraction.

"Serbian tanks cracked the water pipes when they came into the grounds," the director explained. "The ground is waterlogged all round the entrance, and it is impossible to keep the school clean. I wish we could get someone to fix the problem." This is the first clue that the air of normality at Trstenik is deceptive, but there are others.

Large white tents, provided by a French charity, dot a field next to the school. Until recently classes were held there, because the main building was unusable. During the Nato bombing and the Serbian reign of terror in Kosovo, one classroom was turned into a torture chamber.

Blood-encrusted wires, staves and clothing were found by the teachers when they returned. The evidence was taken away by war-crimes investigators, who also discovered human body parts in a well just outside the grounds.

Other classrooms were used as detention cells by Serbian forces. The inmates included two teachers from the school, who were taken to Serbia with President Slobodan Milosevic's departing troops. One of the manual workers, wounded when the Serbs fired on refugees, also ended up here.

"We don't know too much about what went on at the school during the bombing, because we were hiding in the hills," Mr Bazaj said. "All I know is that when we came back the school was burnt out. We had to replace every window and door, repaint every wall and clear wreckage and filth from every classroom. It took two months."

All the school's equipment was smashed; in an alcove stand two safes that have been forced open.

Zymer Halilaj, 52, teaching an Albanian-language class of pupils aged nine and ten, says that things are somewhat easier since the windows in his classroom were restored a week earlier, before which temperatures had fallen below freezing at times. Now his main problem is the destruction of all the school's books. "I have to write everything on the blackboard for them to copy down," he complained. "It is very time-consuming."

Trstenik One and Two, a companion school a mile away, are highly unusual. Built and run by the Albanian community of the Drenica region, with help from relatives abroad, they were outside the control of the Serbian authorities. Albanians in most other parts of Kosovo were educated in private homes after 1990, when Serbia began removing the province's autonomy. But Drenica was where Albanian passive resistance turned to guerrilla warfare early in 1998, and this year's ethnic cleansing campaign is not the first time the children's education has been disrupted.

"In March 1998, when the first Serbian massacre took place not far from here, we had to close the school for a month," Mr Bazaj said. "We reopened when the international observers came, then closed again when they withdrew, just before the Nato bombing began.

"Three of our teachers and 13 pupils were killed by the Serbs during the bombing, and all the children are still traumatised to some extent. Some of them went to Macedonia, but many others were in the hills, fleeing from place to place to escape the Serbs."

Trstenik now has 932 children coming to school in two shifts, some 10 per cent below its prewar enrolment. "The destruction in this region was the worst in Kosovo, and some families are simply unable to return, because they have no homes to go to," the director said. "The pull of the Drenica is strong, and many people have come back despite the terrible conditions. More than half our pupils are in sub-standard accommodation, and many lack proper shoes and warm clothing."

A little way south and up a muddy track just out of sight of the school, Hamide Hajdini, 35, lives in a tent supplied by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, next to the ruins of her home. She shares it with her husband, their nine children - two of whom attend Trstenik - and her father-in-law aged 70. "The house was shelled, then burnt by the paramilitaries," she said. "We had to go into the mountains and live in rain, snow and cold.

"I am glad my daughters are back at school, but it is very difficult for them to study at the moment. We have just finished repairing the stable, and will move in there for the winter. Maybe it will be better then, but I don't know when we will be able to rebuild our house."

The effect on Trstenik was described by Muzafere Nika, 29, whose responsibilities as the new school administrator include discipline. The previous administrator was killed in the Serbian pogrom. "The children cannot concentrate at all, and some have problems of aggression," she said. "The 45-minute periods seem far too long to them. Discipline is definitely at a lower level than it used to be, but it is not surprising when some of them are still living in tents. Everything they had was burnt and destroyed."

Primary schools in Britain are normally covered in drawings, paintings and cut-outs produced by the children, and Trstenik used to be the same. No longer, or at least not yet: with one exception, the walls are bare, partly because materials are lacking, partly because there has not been time for the pupils to produce anything.

The exception, however, is chilling. In one corner, unaccountably left hanging when the Serbs tore everything else down, there is a realistic and skilfully executed crayon drawing of a Kosovo Liberation Army attack on a bridge. Even to the youngest British primary school pupil, that would make clear things are far from normal in this school, and will not be for some time to come.

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