TV show helps Macedonia mend

A children's program about young friends from diverse ethnic groups starts its final season this month.

When teenager Boyan Velevski got to school last month, he found 1,000 of his schoolmates on strike out front.

The problem: Ethnic-Albanian students wanted to attend classes at his specialized computer-technology high school. But the ethnic-Macedonian students protested, voicing fear of the Albanians.

In this country, where interethnic violence almost sparked a civil war two years ago, school integration is a touchy subject.

"There is still a lot of fear and kids fighting each other in the street, and for what?" Boyan says. "The Albanians just want to learn about computers like us, but I couldn't stop what happened. I'm only one person."

Boyan may feel lonely given the problems his country faces, but he has already had an enormous impact on Macedonian society. Most of Macedonia knows him as "Ice," (pronounced "EE-tse") a character in this country's most popular children's television show about a group of kids from different ethnic groups and the magical apartment house where they live together. The series, called Nashe Maalo (meaning Our Neighborhood), is Macedonia's, and the Balkan region's, only multiethnic TV program. Ratings show that 95 percent of children in Macedonia have watched it.

Boyan couldn't stop the unrest last month that blocked Albanian students from entering several schools. But with a dozen other kids in the Nashe Maalo series, he is trying to change Macedonia's future.

"Our show is teaching kids to understand and accept other nationalities," he says. "Older people are already very frustrated and prejudiced, but I hope we can change the next generation so these terrible things won't happen again."

Playing Ice, a good-natured neighborhood hooligan on the show, Boyan has made fast friends with young people from other ethnic groups, including Albanians, Turks, Roma, and Serbs. He has become one of Macedonia's top young actors and also one of the country's most visible peacemakers. This fall he stars in an episode where he overcomes tensions between the Macedonian and Turkish communities to put on a puppet show in the Old Turkish Quarter of Skopje.

The series premiered five years ago and results are beginning to come in. Polls conducted by researchers at the University of Skopje show that after watching Nashe Maalo children are more accepting of other ethnic groups. For example, the ethnic-Macedonian children in the study were twice as likely to invite an ethnic-Albanian child home after watching the show, and many fans express interest in learning the languages of other ethnic groups.

The series, broadcast on both Macedonian and Albanian stations and translated into local languages, reaches even the most remote villages.

"The kids on Nashe Maalo are my heroes," says Fatlum Dimiri, an 11-year-old in Slupcane, an ethnic-Albanian mountain village that was almost totally leveled during the conflict two years ago. "The adults are still angry, but kids are tired of the fighting. I could play with Macedonian kids too, like in the show. If they can do it, so can we."

Nashe Maalo, which targets children between the ages of 8 and 12, begins its final season this month. Funding for the nonprofit production from foreign governments and organizations in Europe and the United States is drying up, but the producers, Refet Abazi, an ethnic-Albanian, and Robert Jazadziski, an ethnic-Macedonian, still hope to reincarnate it in a teen version next year.

"Nashe Maalo shows kids how to solve conflicts in better ways than our politicians have demonstrated," Mr. Abazi says. "Our society still needs this kind of medicine, and it is most effective with kids, because they are not yet poisoned with the frustrations and conflicts of older people. It is possible for them to go a different way."

Macedonia is the last shard of the splintered former Yugoslavia where substantial ethnic minorities remain without administrative barriers between their communities. Macedonia suffered six months of interethnic conflict in 2001, which forced the ethnic division of schools and claimed the lives of nearly 150 people. Before the conflict, ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians often studied in the same schools, but attended separate classes in their separate languages.

Now, analysts say even more people have been killed since the peace agreement was signed in Ohrid than during the conflict. Sporadic shootings, bombings and kidnappings continue to make the countryside treacherous and serve to sharply divide Macedonian society along ethnic lines.

As a result, Nashe Maalo is one of the few places in Macedonian society where people of different ethnic groups mingle freely. Boyan says he is often harassed by people in his neighborhood for appearing on a show with Albanians.

"They say I should beat up Beni, the Albanian kid," he says. "I try to tell them that Beni is my friend and a really cool guy, but they don't always listen."

But Beni, or Fisnik Zeqiri in real life, is in fact the most popular young actor in the country. At the height of the 2001 conflict, he continued to receive love letters from numerous ethnic-Macedonian girls, a sign that the program's message of ethnic tolerance is getting through. Interethnic dating is extremely rare in Macedonia.

There are signs that the Nashe Maalo message is catching on with kids, but adults still have a ways to go. A group of children play on a side street in one of Skopje's mixed neighborhoods. From a distance one cannot tell whether they are Albanian, Macedonian, or Turkish.

In fact, they are all three. In among a dozen ethnic-Albanians, two boys proudly proclaim that they are ethnic-Macedonians and one says he is Turkish. "We want to be like Nashe Maalo, I don't care if my friends are Albanian or Macedonian or whatever. We're friends and that's all that counts, and I don't care if our parents don't like it," says ethnic-Albanian 13-year-old, Besmir Ismaili. The younger children cheer.

He puts his arm around Vladko Milunovic, one of the Macedonian boys, and they grin defiantly. But 10 minutes later, a Macedonian woman appears, scolding Vladko and ordering him to get away from the Albanian children. He walks slowly out of the little group with his head down and heads home down the alley.

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