By Nikola Lazic
The introduction of a primer in Albanian in September could be an important step in ending the chaos in the education of young ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia.
It was a warm September day of 2010. when a tractor with a trailer appeared on the border line between Serbia and Kosovo, near the village of Medjare close to Presevo.
A police patrol monitoring one of the many illegal border crossings stopped the driver and searched the trailer finding almost 4,000 books – primers and other textbooks for the first grade of elementary school. Written on the accompanying delivery note, was the following “The Republic of Kosovo”.
The shipment, seized seven days after the beginning of the school year, is currently at a customs terminal in south Serbia, and the fate of these books lies in the hands of the judiciary because they were illegally transported.
However, even prior to the seizure it was no secret that, because of the lack of alternative textbooks, ethnic Albanian students were secretly studying from books illegally imported from Kosovo.
“Textbooks from Kosovo arrive via private channels – when returning from there, people hide a few books” – confesses a Bujanovac professor who insisted on anonymity.
Students study from these books at home, but they also often use them in school, he says.
“In schools these books are not generally used by everybody, simply because they are banned, and teachers don’t want to risk putting themselves and the students in an unpleasant situation.”
Nedzmedin Ahmedi, in charge of education in the Presevo government, says that some people have made quite a good business from importing textbooks from Kosovo.
“The Serbian authorities are not interested in solving the decades-long problem of textbooks in Albanian language. This is why students study using books from Kosovo,“ he claims.
“It would be ideal if ethnic Albanian students studied using books that are printed in Belgrade. However, this is not the case and, since books are necessary, people are forced to find a way to buy books from Kosovo,” Ahmeti explains, confessing that, at the beginning of the school year, he himself brought some 400 primers, 500 other elementary school textbooks and about 500 CDs containing material for music classes through one of the illegal border crossings.
“I only managed to get the primers to Presevo, the rest fell into the hands of the police, but no criminal charges were filed against me,” he says.
After years of fruitless discussions, the Serbian ministry of education, in association with the national council of Albanians, has agreed plans to produce a new primer which should go some way towards solving the problem of educating young ethnic Albanians’ in their native language.
Representatives of the council, which has broad authority in the field of culture, information, education and use of native language and symbols, say that an agreement with the government in Belgrade is the right way to solve the problems and that, initially, focus will be placed on the young – students in the first four grades of elementary school.
The municipalities of Bujanovac and Presevo, in south Serbia on the border with Kosovo, in which the majority of the population are ethnic Albanians, are still recovering from the armed clashes in the region between the Serbian security forces and ethnic Albanians of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, OVPBM.
These clashes started in November 2000 and ended some six months later following the intervention of NATO and international mediation.
As of next school year, ethnic Albanians students will have an approved primer in their native language, which will solve one of the problems dating back to the 1980s when schoolbooks were last printed in Albanian.
“Next school year ethnic Albanian elementary school students will get a primer in their mother tongue,” Zelimir Popov of the education ministry and a member of the working group for textbooks in Albanian, confirmed at the end of February.
“Next school year we will probably have two primers for teachers to choose between. One primer from Albania, and the other provided by the state institute for textbook publishing,” Popov explained.
An agreement was reached at a meeting of a working group which was set up at end of last year and which comprises representatives of the ministry, the national council and publishers, which should solve the problem of textbooks for the first four grades of elementary school by the beginning of next school year.
A solution for elementary and secondary school students will follow shortly thereafter.
Fatmir Asani, the principal of the Naim Fraseri elementary school in the village of Veliki Trnovac near Bujanovac, says that only first and second grade elementary school students have textbooks in Albanian and for just four subjects and that these are textbooks from Albania that have been reprinted in Belgrade.
He explains that all other students are forced to take notes in class from which they then study.
“Books in Albanian were not printed for over two decades, and a great deal has changed in the curricula from that time to the present day. The authorities in Belgrade have good intentions about solving this problem, but it takes time to make up for all that has been lost,” says Asani adding that there are some 13,000 ethnic Albanians attending elementary and secondary schools in Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja.
National council of Albanians chairman and working group member, Galip Beciri, says that he is very satisfied with the progress made so far:
“Ethnic Albanian students are studying from the notes that they take in class, but I think that we are now heading in the right direction to find a solution,” Beciri told Balkan Insight.
Nenad Djurdjevic, from the Serbian government’s co-ordination body which was set up at the end of 2000, and which is tasked with alleviating the consequences of the clashes and acting as a link between the local and central authorities, says that improvements in the education of all ethnic communities is one of the priorities of this institution:
“An agreement was reached at the last working group meeting in Bujanovac to draw up a proposal for the final resolution of the problem of textbooks in Albanian for the first four grades of elementary school, and also for those books whose translation or import from Albania has already been agreed, in order to make them available by the beginning of the next school year,” Djurdjevic told Balkan Insight.
He adds that a primer in Albanian is already being drafted in Belgrade and that professors of the Belgrade Faculty of Philology’s Albanology Department are involved in its preparation.
“ The final licence from the education ministry is being issued for the import of primers from Albania,” adds Djurdjevic who conceeded that the issue of textbooks in Albanian had been neglected for many years.
He also announced that an outpost of the faculty of economics of one of the universities in Serbia will be opened in Bujanovac in autumn where courses and exams will be held in both Albanian and Serbian,adding to the one bilingual course that already exists in Medvedja run by the Nis faculty of law and economy, which started work in October 2009.
Nikola Lazic is a journalist from Bujanovac. This article was published with the support of the British Embassy in Belgrade as part of BIRN’s Training and Reporting Project.