A bridge over a Balkans ethnic divide
SKOPJE, MACEDONIA — After classes recently, two dozen students at the Zef Lush Marku High School came together for a lesson that is hard to learn from books. Sitting beneath a maple tree behind the school, they scribbled down things dear to them: sports, music, love, tolerance.
Then, one by one, they stood to share their thoughts.
The others responded with bursts of applause. Games followed, and the mood grew antic. Laughter filled the air.
The students were reaching across an ethnic divide that has grown dangerous in Macedonia as a result of the war next door in Yugoslavia. Some of them are ethnic Albanians, like the refugees who have poured into Macedonia from Kosovo. Others are ethnic Macedonians, Slavic and Orthodox Christian like their cousins, the Serbs.
Macedonia has long been troubled by conflict between the two groups. Ethnic Macedonians make up two-thirds of the population and dominate the government and culture. But at least a quarter of the population is ethnic Albanian.
Tension between the two groups has occasionally flared into violence. Most of the time it leaves a simmering atmosphere of distrust and hate.
Now, more than 226,000 Kosovar Albanians have been driven over the border, straining the ethnic tensions still further and raising fears about Macedonia's future. Even at the high school, relations between the students have grown chilly. "There is a little more suspicion and distrust," says Aleksandra Djadjovska, an ethnic Macedonian and one of the after-school activity's organizers.
Named after an ethnic Albanian hero, Zef Lush Marku is the only ethnically mixed high school in Skopje, Macedonia's capital and largest city. And yet it is mixed only barely.
The students attend separate classes in their own languages and hardly meet except when passing in the halls or using the bathrooms.
"We're scared of each other. I don't know why," says a student named Irena. "We don't go out to the same places. We don't communicate with each other."
The gathering after school was part of an experiment to bridge this gap. A multiethnic student group was started a year and a half ago by Search for Common Ground, a peace group based in Washington, D.C., and the Ethnic Conflict Resolution Project at the University of Skopje. Recently, on their own initiative, students from the group put on a fashion show and tried to organize a basketball game. They invited friends to the gathering behind the school in an attempt to spread their message more widely.
"There are a great number of people who want to try something different," says Rilind Kabashi, an ethnic Albanian. "They are bored with stereotypes. There are others who think that it's no good if Albanians socialize with Macedonians, that the other group is evil and not worth contacting."
The war in Yugoslavia has given a new urgency to this and other efforts to encourage a peaceful solution to Macedonia's ethnic problems. At the same time it threatens completely to overwhelm these efforts.
"A couple of weeks ago I was really depressed about how effective we were being," says Eran Fraenkel, director of Search for Common Ground's Skopje office. The organization has worked in Macedonia since 1994, starting projects in education, the news media, and other areas.
In response to the refugee crisis it put out a newspaper supplement jointly written by ethnic Macedonian and ethnic Albanian journalists. This report gave the organization's efforts "credibility" at a difficult moment, Mr. Fraenkel says.
The Center for Multicultural Understanding and Cooperation, also based in Skopje, has tried to address interethnic problems by sponsoring public discussions and organizing summer camps for children. The center's director, Kim Mehmeti, says the war in Yugoslavia set this work "back to zero."
"Our aim is to develop the consciousness of a civil society, where the individual is at the center of everything," says Mehmeti, an ethnic Albanian. "But now everyone is thrown back into his ethnic group. Our activities are very difficult now. In this kind of nervousness in ethnic relations, it's sometimes impossible."
The students gathered behind the Zef Lush Marku High School would disagree. They abound with an optimism that is scarce in Macedonia these days. They believe their example can inspire others.
"I was an ordinary Macedonian boy with ordinary prejudices and stereotypes," says Zarko Stanimirovic. Now, he declares, he has more Albanian friends than Macedonian.
"Everyone expects Macedonians and Albanians to kill each other. When they see a group like this together, they think it's strange. And they start to think about it."