Students help Kosovar peers

August 6, 1999

PRISTINA

When Albanian students from Kosovo assembled last month in the University of Pristina's official buildings for the first time since 1991, they observed a minute of silence for absent friends, students who had lost their lives during the conflict and those now being held in Serb prisons.

In 1991, the official university ceased to exist for Kosovar Albanians. Expelled from official university buildings, staff and students were forced underground by the Serb government, attending lectures in private homes. Many hundreds of Albanian students have since graduated, despite a lack of libraries, books and desks.

When Kosovar Albanians, invited by the National Union of Students in Europe (ESIB) to take part in a three-day "Looking to the future" project, entered the official buildings they were elated. The students were able to drink and socialise together beyond the usual 7pm curfew, free of the fear of identification and beatings by Serb police as they walked to and from classes. Now they must try to rebuild a free and democratic higher education system.

ESIB is the first step in the construction of an education system accessible to all in Kosovo. In a series of workshops and seminars, students from ESIB worked with Kosovar students, looking at the problems they faced, and exploring practical solutions.

The project grew from three individuals within ESIB, who then recruited five other student facilitators from around Europe to spend a week working and living with the Kosovar students. The seven students from Denmark, Finland, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden and the UK first stayed with Kosovar students in the University of Skopje, in Macedonia, and then moved to Kosovo to work with students in Pristina.

Kosovar students were asked to give a short history of higher education in the University of Pristina. The stories were depressingly familiar. Walking up to ten kilometres to classes every day, students risked Serb checkpoints, and police aggression. In their early years, seminars were subject to frequent and violent interruptions by Serb police, who would beat up the lecturer and expel students. Students unable to pay could not study - a common problem in big Albanian families.

However, Kosovar Albanian students now face a brighter future. Due to reopen for the next academic year, Pristina will be teaching in Albanian for the first time since the Serb government made it illegal in 1991. The University of Pristina Students' Union will hold open elections in the autumn with assistance from ESIB, which will oversee the process.

In the final session of last month's project, students drew up their own proposals, including plans for a student information centre. ESIB presented these proposals at last week's talks between the Association of European Universities southeast European Academic Task Force, Council of Europe, the European Commission, European ministries of education and the World University Service. The bodies discussed the future of the university and the extent to which outside bodies will be involved as well as possible funding plans.

But reintegration of Serb and Albanian students looks much less likely to be resolved in the near future. It is unrealistic to ask Albanian students to study under Serb professors, and the few Serb students left in Kosovo will be too scared to consider re-enrolling in the university in autumn, despite the fact that they are unable to transfer to Serbian universities.

However keen the students are to rebuild democracy and tolerance, the legacy of nationalism hinders the development of a truly multi-ethnic university. Students taking part in the ESIB project were humbling in their optimism. Their commitment to peace and understanding was all the more unbelievable given the sadness of the tales they told.

Many of the group had known the death of a friend or relative, most of the male students had been Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers, and all students had experience of Serb aggression.

Their ability to rise above their experiences and still talk of a tolerant and peaceful future was astounding. As one law student said: "I want to see Kosovo with flowers, not with blood." Amy Iggulden is a second-year at

Trinity College, Dublin, helping with the student ESIB project.

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