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Model Macedonian school aims to bridge the ethnic divide August 23, 2010

Posted by Yilan in Macedonia.
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Macedonia’s only bilingual school stands in a bucolic mountainous area that still bears the scars of an ethnic conflict that threatened full-blown civil war nine years ago.

The clashes are the reason the Fridtjof Nansen elementary school was created: to teach Macedonian and Albanian children to understand each other and overcome the differences that drove their elders to fight.

“Maybe we are different sort of fishes, but in this school, we all swim together,” reads a bold motto in the hall of the pioneering school, which believes it is a model for Europe.

The Albanian insurgency against government forces gripped the area for less than a year in 2001, with only a few dozen people killed on each side, but there were fears it would erupt into the kind of wars that engulfed Kosovo and Bosnia.

Western intervention secured a ceasefire that saw Macedonian authorities agree to more recognition of the mostly Muslim Albanian minority, which makes up a quarter of the largely Christian 2.2 million population.

But language has been a stumbling block to entente, with few Macedonians or Albanians taking the trouble to learn each other’s language.

Not at this school, close to the border with Kosovo and about 45 kilometres (30 miles) west of the capital Skopje.

“I can say some things in Albanian now,” seven-year-old Macedonian Ace tells AFP proudly. “It is interesting, we are friends,” the boy says of his Albanian classmates.

When the school opened its doors in 2008, “not a single Albanian kid understood Macedonian, nor did the Macedonian children understand a word of Albanian,” says programme coordinator Veton Zekolli.

But now the 50 or so pupils, aged six to eight, have the basics of each other’s language.

Classes are run by two teachers who simultaneously translate everything into both languages.

“After having classes in their mother tongues, the children play together, draw, learn mathematics and crafts,” Zekolli says.

The aim is “dialogue and reconciliation”, he says.

In a craft class children in grey uniforms fold paper horses while repeating the word for the animal — “konj” in Macedonian and “kali” in Albanian.

In another class room first graders are having a language lesson. Laughter fills the air and when visitors enter the children shout out “good afternoon” in both languages — “Dobar den” in Macedonian and “Merdita” in Albanian.

“It’s nice here, we play and we learn,” says six-year-old Nisa in Albanian as she has not yet mastered Macedonian.

The children live in various Macedonian- or Albanian-majority villages around the school, which is in Preljubiste, an ethnically mixed village about 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the border with Kosovo.

Tensions still dog the sensitive area, which this month marked the ninth anniversary of the Ohrid agreement that ended the insurgency.

In the worst incident since the agreement, Macedonian police in May killed four people as they tried to stop a van suspected of transporting illegal arms. Days earlier they seized a large cache of weapons, ammunition and explosives.

The area is a notorious smuggling route and recently there have been fears that some insurgents may be re-arming.

The tensions spilled over into education in January when the government’s imposition of Macedonian language classes for Albanian first graders sparked boycotts in Albanian-dominated areas.

When the schools re-open in September the Albanian first graders will have to take obligatory Macedonian language classes although they will not be graded on their work. There is no requirement for Macedonian school children to learn Albanian as Albanian is only recognised as an official second language in several areas which have more than 20 percent strong Albanian minority.

The bilingual school in Preljubiste, named after Norwegian 1922 Nobel Peace Prize winner Fridtjof Nansen and supported in part by Norwegian funding, has not been spared controversy in an area where other schools offer only separate classes for Albanians and Macedonians.

Its entirely mixed curriculum — the first in Macedonia — faced stiff resistance that was only overcome after dialogue with local parents, Zekolli says.

“In order for the programme to be accepted, we work at the same time on three levels: with pupils, teachers and parents,” Zekolli says.

While some controversy lingers, the elementary school has proven such a success that its backers are planning a similar high school nearby.

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