Feature 10 Jun 16

Serbia’s Young Albanians Suffer in Schoolbook Dispute

A long-running political dispute over Albanian-language textbooks for ethnic minority pupils in Serbia has meant that many of them cannot have proper lessons in their mother tongue.

Natalia Zaba BIRN Belgrade, Presevo, Bujanovac
Ibrahim Kelmendi school in Presevo. Photo: BIRN/Natalia Zaba.

The Ibrahim Kelmendi primary school in Presevo is the biggest school in Pcinj County and one of the biggest in Serbia. The school has 1,600 pupils, and at first glance, it is no different from other similar schools. A large building, slightly dilapidated but obviously recently renovated, it stands out from a line of similar buildings along the main street in Presevo.

The classrooms look ordinary - a board for the teacher to write on, desks, chairs and cupboards. Only the lessons seem a bit different, because they all consist of the teacher dictating while the children take notes.

The lessons are held this way because there are no Albanian-language textbooks for ethnic Albanian pupils in Serbia - the result of a years-long dispute about whether such textbooks should exist, and if so, what should be in them, particularly the books for teaching history, geography and other subjects that would touch on Albanian issues, which are highly sensitive in Serbia.

The Serbian authorities fear that the textbooks might promote politically unacceptable ideas such as the independence of Kosovo.

“You want textbooks from Kosovo or Albania to be used in Serbia, and you want [pupils in Serbia] to be taught that Kosovo is independent… That will not be possible,” Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said in December.

But Zejni Fejzulah, the principal of the Sezai Suroi secondary school in Bujanovac, said that Albanian-speaking children were being discriminated against in Serbia.

“Serbian pupils living in Kosovo have the Serbian curriculums and they have no problem in obtaining textbooks from Serbia. Why should we be prohibited [from obtaining Albanian-language books?]” Fejzulah asked.

Protests in southern Serbia

Pupils at the Ibrahim Kelmendi primary school. Photo: BIRN/Natalia Zaba.

In order to solve the problem of the non-existent Albanian-language textbooks as quickly as possible, the National Council of the Albanian National Minority - the state-recognised representative of Serbia’s Albanians - appealed to Kosovo’s education ministry last year for help. It asked for a donation of textbooks in Albanian for pupils in the south of Serbia.

The Kosovo education ministry sent a truck carrying a total of 103,222 textbooks, but when it reached the Serbian customs office in Presevo, it was held there for the next six months.

The president of the National Council, Jonuz Musliu, appealed to the Serbian education ministry on several occasions, as well as to the prime minister, but they said that the disputed textbooks could not be allowed in.

In March, the truck was sent back to Kosovo, and Musliu organised protests in the southern towns of Bujenovac and Presevo, saying that Serbia was violating the rights of its Albanian minority by preventing children from learning in their first language.

But Besa Sahiti, principal of the Ibrahim Kelmendi primary school in Presevo, said that the claim that ethnic Albanian children in Serbia have no textbooks in their first language is not true.

“We have books, but there is a question of what is missing from those books. Children should learn the history of their own country, their own people, they should sing Albanian songs, but our children do not have that option right now,” Sahiti told BIRN.

From 2010 to 2014, the Serbian education ministry, in cooperation with the National Council and the Coordination Body for Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, a state body that coordinates communication between ethnic Albanian representatives and Serbian officials, provided a series of 88 textbooks in Albanian for pupils in primary and secondary schools.

Books for grades one to four were provided from Albania, said Sahiti. For contentious subjects, teachers prepare notes from textbooks in Serbian which they translate to Albanian and then dictate to the pupils during lessons.

Subjects like geography, history, arts and music are contentious because they are areas in which the Serbian and Albanian narratives clash. In the Albanian teaching of geography, Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja are part of ‘Albanian soil’ - a description that is unacceptable to the Serbian authorities.

A historical problem

Zejni Fejrullahu, headmaster of the secondary school in Bujanovac. Photo: BIRN/Natalia Zaba.

The former mayor of the Presevo municipality, Ragmi Mustafa, said that the problem with the textbooks has existed for decades.

“It started in Milosevic’s time, but no government has dared to give back the right to [have their own] textbooks to the Albanians,” Mustafa said.

He admitted however that it was not completely correct that ethnic Albanian pupils have no textbooks in their native language.

Textbooks for teaching Albanian language and literature have been imported from Albania, other textbooks have been translated from Serbian into Albanian, and a few have also been written by authors from Presevo.

On top of that, four more textbooks on Albanian language and literature for secondary schools and two for pre-school have been secured, but a total of 140 textbooks for secondary schools are still missing.

Bujanovac school principal Zejni Fejzulah, who is also the president of the education committee at the National Council of the Albanian National Community, said that about 10,000 pupils attending lessons in Albanian in the municipalities of Bujanovac, Presevo and Medvedja are suffering because of the absence of textbooks.

He said the best solution would be to import the textbooks from Kosovo, because the Albanian curriculum and structure of education is different from the Serbian in many ways.

But the head of the Coordination Body, Zoran Stankovic, insisted that the source should be Albania rather than Kosovo.

“We are advocating having as many textbooks from Albania which pass the procedure established under the law and which do not have disputable content such as history and geography,” Stankovic said.

But although the National Council has the right to propose textbooks to be accredited by the Serbian education ministry of Education, it has not proposed any from Albania because it wants the books to come from Kosovo.

The view from Belgrade

Serbia’s Office for Human and Minority Rights says that the claims that ethnic Albanian children cannot be educated in their mother tongue are too harsh.

It argued that hundreds of children have been educated in Albanian over the past school year, and said there were also scholarships for deprived pupils.

Pupils attending lessons in Albanian in Serbia can, after they finish secondary school, continue their education both in Serbian and Albanian, at faculties set up by the University of Novi Sad in Medvedja and Bujanovac.

The Coordination Body also gives scholarships to those who want to continue their studies in Novi Sad itself, and since 2011, scholarships have been awarded to 27 Albanians from Presevo and Bujanovac.

One of the scholarship students was Dafina Aliji, who studied tourism and management in Novi Sad.

“I consider the decision to studying in Novi Sad as one of the best in my life. The professors, the colleauges and others in Novi Sad have made a maximal effort to make my stay comfortable and pleasant,” Aliji told BIRN.

After completing her studies, she returned to her hometown of Ranjice and is currently working as an assistant for refugees at an international organisation in Presevo.

But she said that many of her classmates did not apply for scholarships in Novi Sad because of their poor knowledge of Serbian.

Due to insufficient knowledge of Serbian and the desire to study in their mother tongue, Albanian pupils from the south of Serbia mostly choose to study in Kosovo, Tetovo in Macedonia or in Albania.

Rights guaranteed by law

A study about the possibilities of improving the teaching of Serbian as a second language in the Bujanovac, Presevo and Medvedja municipalities, carried out at the request of the Coordination Body, showed that by the time they leave school, the vast majority of Albanians’ knowledge of Serbian as a second language is at such a low level that even basic communication is not possible.

With the help of the Coordination Body, the OSCE and the British embassy in Serbia, the education ministry initiated a programme to teach Serbian, which it said had made significant improvement in pupils’ knowledge.

The Serbian constitution guarantees ethnic minorities not only individual but also collective rights, meaning they have the right to decide on certain issues related to their culture and education and the official use of their language.

“In this way, for a long time now, minority politics based on the preservation of the national and cultural identity of national minorities, along with their integration into society and public-sector jobs, has been ongoing in our country. The same rules apply to the Albanian national minority,” the Office for Human and Minority Rights said.

Deputy Ombudsman Robert Sepi argued meanwhile that compared to other minorities in Serbia, Albanians are relatively integrated, although any problems tend to become politicised.

“About the integration of the Albanian national minority, the Ombudsman can speak only from the point of [people who have addressed the Ombudsman’s office], and the results achieved in the protection and promotion of their rights. Seen in this way, the Albanian national minority, with certain exceptions that get media attention, is integrated,” Sepi told BIRN.

“Are there obstacles and resistance to this integration? Yes, on both sides, very persistent and strong, which gets media attention,” he added.

Jonuz Musliu and Presevo former mayor Ragmi Mustafa both insist that Serbia discriminates strongly against Albanians, and have both spoken publicly on several occasions about Kosovo being their country, not Serbia.

However Skender Saqipi, the editor-in-chief of Titulli.com, a bilingual Albanian/Serbian news website in Bujanovac, told BIRN that although Belgrade was at fault for the textbook problem, politicians in Albanian-majority areas of the country were also using the issue for political purposes.

The Serbian government primarily responsible and culpable for this situation, because it didn’t have enough will to solve this problem, but on the other side, the truth is that Albanian politicians are also part of the problem as they have no clear plan for solving the problem of textbooks,” Saqipi told BIRN.

A solution on the horizon?

Jeff Bieley, an OSCE coordinator in Bujanovac, said Serbia’s Albanians had the right to education in their first language, but the government and the National Council of the Albanian National Minority must first come to an agreement on what to do about the textbooks.

“The textbook issue is a top priority thing to be solved, but everything needs to be done in cooperation with the NCA [National Council of the Albanian National Minority] and the relevant authorities,” said Bieley.

In March this year, Serbian education minister Srdjan Verbic signed an agreement with representatives of the country’s ethnic minorities to commission the necessary textbooks, and a total of 134 million dinars, just over a million euros, was assigned to cover the costs.

But representatives of the National Council of the Albanian National Minority, despite being invited, did not sign the agreement.

Milovan Suvakov, the education minister’s assistant for development and higher education, told BIRN that despite this, the ministry will go ahead with the project on its own.

“We do not have a partner for that task,” Suvakov said.

The Council did not respond to BIRN’s requests for an explanation of its reasons, but it seems clear that as another school year comes closer to its end, the politically-charged textbook problem is not going to be resolved immediately.

This article was written as part of the project ‘Digital Magnifying Glass: Online Media Cooperation in the Search for Political Responsibility’, which is supported by the British embassy in Belgrade. Its content does not reflect the position of the British embassy.

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