AT five minutes to 8 every morning, Nenad Prodovic waves goodbye to his baby brother, collects his smart new school bag from his mother, and runs the hundred yards to the school gate. His first lesson is language and literature. The teacher begins with a favorite song: ``Who is saying, who is lying, Serbia is small?''
Luljete Shala has to wait until 3 in the afternoon for her lessons. She shares her classroom with 60 other students, and there are, at most, 15 textbooks among them. Luljete's teacher has to shout above the wind howling through broken windows; the pupils sit in coats and gloves. They take turns to check if the police are coming.
This is Kosovo - a so-called autonomous province within Serbia. Although Nenad and Luljete are at school in the same country, that's where the similarity ends. Nenad Prodovic is Serb; Luljete Shala is Albanian. The gulf between them is huge.
None of the regions in the former Yugoslavia is more divided than Kosovo. It may be the next to erupt into civil war. Although Serbia has vowed never to negotiate the status of the province, Kosovo is more than 90 percent Albanian. For decades, Serbs and Albanians have vied for control in Kosovo: The Albanians have called for an independent state, while the Serbs have resisted.
From 1945, education for Albanians was in their mother tongue. That right was reinforced by Tito, who granted the Albanians a degree of autonomy in 1974. Albanian schools and the mainly Albanian University of Pristina flourished. But not for long.
After a decade of increasing pressure, 1991 brought a radical move by the Serbs: a law that withdrew the right to education in their mother tongue for any Albanians after primary school and imposed a Serbian curriculum. In February 1991, the Serbs withdrew all money for teaching aids and books in Albanian; in April, they suspended the salaries of all Albanian teachers; and in September that year, the police occupied hundreds of primary and all secondary schools. In all, 975 primary schools, 115 secondary schools, and 20 university faculties or colleges of higher education were closed, depriving some 430,000 young Albanians of education and more than 18,000 teachers of their jobs.
As a result, Albanian education has gone underground. All over Kosovo, Albanian secondary pupils and university students risk arrest in order to attend illegal classes in private houses, basements, and office blocks. The Albanian teachers work for token contributions or for nothing. As one professor from Pristina, the province capital, said: ``I've always seen teaching as a kind of vocation. You don't lose the call, just because you're not getting paid any more.''
What's striking about these illegal schools is the level of the students' commitment: When you have to struggle this much to get an education, you value it. Luljete's classes begin at 3 because two other shifts of pupils use the building before she does.
Luljete used to go to mixed Serbian-Albanian schools in her hometown of Suva Reka, southwest of Pristina. She remembers having Serbian friends in primary school. ``But after 1981, everything changed,'' she says. ``All our lessons were separate, and only the Serbian children had access to laboratories, the gymnasium, and the new books. And at break time, they just jeered at us.'' Her present schoolhouse is a disused and run-down annex of one of the Serbian state schools.
Some schools like this are kept running by contributions from the Albanian diaspora: Many of the 300,000 Albanians who have left Kosovo since 1989 send back money, not just for their own families but also for communal commitments like schools. A political activist who was detained by the Suva Reka police says the main topic of his questioning was how money was collected for underground schools.
A Serbian official in Kosovo says that places are available in state schools for any Albanian pupil who will accept the Serbian curriculum. Luljete voices the reply of many: ``We would rather die than study Serbian literature, Serbian history, Serbian geography, in the Serbian language. We would rather study in houses with broken windows or in the fields than accept that.'' For Albanians, mother-tongue schooling isn't just a matter of cultural identity, it's also about truth: How can they trust a syllabus produced by a country that banned Albanian television, radio, and newspapers? The Albanians maintain that the Serbian curriculum is thinly disguised nationalistic propaganda.
Education and information were responsible for the increased political awareness of Albanians after World War II. Serbia's thinking seems to be: Ban education and the press; the intellectual elite will drain away; and the Kosovo problem is solved. Already some 22,000 pupils and more than 1,100 teachers have left Kosovo, perhaps for good. But the Serbs didn't expect the Albanians to organize such an effective underground school system.
Restoring the right to mother-tongue education for Kosovo's Albanians not only is the right thing, it might also be the first step toward a negotiated settlement in Kosovo.