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Opinions Archive 1999
Union in exile

Interview by International Workers Aid (Mick Woods) from Macedonia with Agim Hyseni (president of the Kosovar Teacher's Union)

(Part one)

Agim Hyseni is the President of the Kosovar Teachers Union SBASHK, which is busily organising itself in exile. Mick Woods of StÝt Tuzla's Skoler/International Solidarity with Kosova interviewed him and Sheena Hanley (Deputy General Secretary of Education International) in Skopje on June 3rd.

MW. Firstly, would you tell us a little about yourself and the union.

AH. SBASHK is the union of Teachers of all grades from Elementary level to University, we also helped organise scientific researchers and cultural workers, for example those working in Television. We established ourselves after the coup and represented those members working in the parallel education structures, and also the unofficial media.

Prior to the coup I was a sociology lecturer at Pristina University. In 1990 we established SBASHK, the first independent trade union in former Jugoslavia. This was a unique kind of union since we were not charged with the job of negotiating with an employer, but of re-organising education for 90% of the pupils in Kosova. We did this for 9 years until the Serbs started systematically murdering and expelling our people in March. I 'left' Kosova in February, that is, I was in Barcelona for a period working for the union and my family left Kosova because of the deteriorating situation.

MW. Was there a broader Trade Union federation?

AH. Yes there was the BSPK- the Unity of Independent Trade Unions in Kosova, this had about 130,000 members including the health workers and other groups working in the 'shadow society', the alternative structures we established after we were excluded from the official structures by Milosevic's coup in 1989.

MW. Did this include the miners?

AH. Yes, but the miners were nearly all sacked after their sit-in strike. The federation mostly represented the groups working in the alternative structures, under the Rugova government. We maintained the closest links with the miners and did our best to assist them, through NGO's and sharing our resources with them. We all respected their brave resistance to the coup.

MW. What is the present situation of the union?

AH. We are re-organising. We have been slow to set up offices because we have been focussing on getting education going again. This is really our next step- we plan to establish an office in Tetova to be the HQ for our 'Union in exile'. I have been travelling around a lot. I was based at Brussels for some time and have been travelling around a lot. At present I am in Skopje, but I plan to move to Tetovo as soon as possible. I am unable to visit our members in Montenegro at present because of visa problems and on the grounds of personal safety, but my colleagues from EI such as Sheena have.

We have 10,000 members in Albania now, 2,000+ in Macedonia, and a little less than a thousand in Montenegro. We are also represented amongst the Kosovar diaspora- we have groups in most of the countries that have taken refugees- Bosnia, Turkey, Germany, the Netherlands, France and Britain. Our level of organisation is of course patchy at this time- we are probably best organised in Albania, in Macedonia we started later and, in fact individual members started to get things going before they contacted the centre- Selami Sokoli in Tetovo for example. Likewise our members in the camps, such as Osman Mejinolli and Shaban Rexhapi in Neproshten, started work organising education as best they could. They received help from UNICEF and in some cases NATO forces, who provided the tents and basic school materials.

MW. What are your main priorities in the short-term?

AH. To re-establish education for the refugees. This means working on a whole number of levels- one is actually undertaking the teaching and co-ordinating it, establishing working relationships with NGOs and governmental organisations. We have reached agreement with the Albanian government regularising our educational imput. This allows us also to establish a relationship with International NGOs and other unions in our international federation- EDUCATION INTERNATIONAL- to enable us, for example to pay a solidarity wage to our members who are working- both in camps and schools. We are also close to such an agreement in Macedonia, although this has been somewhat slower for various reasons.

MW. This is a small minority of your members, isn't it?

AH. Not at all! We have approximately 6,000 members working in Albania, educating 120,000 pupils. In Macedonia there have been a number of initiatives as well. I guess in all we have 7-8000 of our members working in one way or another. There has been the establishment of Elementary education in Neproshten for example, where we have a stable team of 30 working with approximately 560 pupils from 7 to 15 years old, but you know very well what's going on there. At Stankovic 2, a transit camp, we have a secondary school, which is named after Fehmi Agani (leader of the Kosovar negotiation team before Rambouillet, murdered by Serb Police) this has about 100 pupils. Since it is a transit camp the numbers fluctuate. Our members are also actively taking part in education in many of the schools in Western Macedonia which are now filling up with refugees, as yet unpaid. We are, as teachers, aware that most of the refugees have lost, along with everything else, two months or more of their education. We are therefore planning, along with our union federation and international NGOs a summer school for this year. The Dutch NGO, NOVIB, has played a big role in this initiative. We plan to use vacant space in the state schools in both Albania and Macedonia. The summer holidays are very long- about 3 months and we can use this spare capacity. We are renovating school buildings near Cegrane in partnership with NOVIB for this purpose. In Albania we have a full programme for both Elementary and Secondary levels, in Macedonia we have a full Secondary programme and a more limited Elementary programme.

MW. What has your relationship to the Macedonian Teachers Union been like?

AH. Actually good, not that they have a lot of resources to give us, but they have been very helpful to us in our negotiations with the Macedonian authorities.

MW. That actually quite a surprise to me, I've been told by just about everybody that the trade unions here are, at best, pretty indifferent to the plight of the refugees.

AH. That's probably generally true, we pride ourselves in EI that we work as a really international federation, that we support each other and uphold basic principles of internationalism and multi-culturalism. As teachers we have a duty to express our identity in a non-exclusive way, we have to give an example to people that the interests of our countries are not confined to any small national group.

MW: What about the situation in Montenegro?

S.H. Again our member union in Montenegro is doing it's best for the refugees and the support SBASHK and EI policy. They themselves are under real pressure from the Federal Authorities though. As I'm sure you know, the Federation is calling up all reservists to join the Jugoslav National Army, but virtually nobody is going. There are four government ministers avoiding the draft, many of our members and leaders are also under threat.

MW. What has EI's role been in supporting SBASHK?

SH. Well, we've been here since 1991supporting our members and the parallel structures they work in. We have been giving moral and political support as well as helping finance our members.

AH. EI's work with us has been an example to other union federations and also to the various intergovernmental organisations. For example we have had Sheena Hanley and other colleagues here The General Secretary Fred van Leuween was also here for a visit recently.

MW. What would you say to the various organisations wishing to support SBASHK and education for refugees.

AH. In a word, I would say to unions and NGO's such as your own is co-ordinate all imput through EI. They have our total confidence and are SBASHK's representatives at an international level. It is vitally important that we co-ordinate our work so we can avoid duplication of effort and waste. We are very grateful to all the unions and NGO's who are supporting our work, for example the recent collection by DLF, recent visits by French colleagues and many more.

MW. Would you say a few words about your treatment in Macedonia, especially of your members who are living with local families?

AH. The reception of refugees by the people in Macedonia has been magnificent. The people here have responded with a big heart to our plight. As well as taking us into their homes they have responded to attempts to forcibly remove us to other countries by sitting down in front of the busses in Gostivar and Struga, telling their government that while there is space for us here we shouldn't be moved further.

MW. This is entirely members of the Albanian minority, isn't it? I've not heard of one case of a Macedonian Slav family taking in refugees, have you?

AH. Unfortunately neither have I.

MW. The people here have not only responded with heart, but also with brain. I believe the distribution system of aid for refugees is very well organised, for example, in comparison to Bosnia.

AH. The level of organisation is very high and well co-ordinated between NGOs and the local and regional emergency committees, but this starts from the heart! It is first an act of will, to help.

MW. Finally, peace is in the air. I know that its very early to speak of plans for re-establishing yourselves in Kosova, but can you tell us any plans you have in that direction?

(We await an answer- Interview part 2)

AH. At present our first priority is to finish the school year for the refugee pupils....

MW. The summer schools you mean?

AH. Yes, we also have organised various initiatives for the students at the University level. Obviously we are also planning to return as soon as it is safe and restart education there.

MW. What will you be returning to? Kosova will be a military protectorate for a good while and everything will be a mess there.I think you will have a very new role and new problems.

AH: For sure, the situation is very unclear but we will attempt to build up a new civil society and work with elected authorities.

MW. Elections could be years into the future.

AH. We will of course work with the various bodies of the UN and other democratic forces to build a civil society, it won't happen overnight .

MW. Finally a word about the Serb minority- I believe that many will flee to Serbia, but what about those who don't?

AH. We will uphold the principle that all citizens are equal before the law, irrespective of ethnic background. But also all citizens are liable to the legal process. Those found guilty of war crimes should be punished.

Source: Yugo.antiwar (newsgroup)

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