STUDENICANI, North Macedonia, Nov 24 (Reuters) – A village school in North Macedonia closed early on Wednesday after news emerged that 14-year-old pupil Anisa Iseni and her mother were among the 45 dead in a bus crash in neighbouring Bulgaria.
Anisa, a 9th grader, and her mother, Fikrija, 37, were on the bus carrying tourists from a weekend trip to Istanbul back to the Macedonian capital, Skopje, when it struck a highway barrier before daybreak on Tuesday. Only seven people aboard survived.
“When they heard the news the kids started crying and they could not concentrate,” said Semira Idrizi, a dermatologist in the Naim Frasheri school in the village of Studenicani, 23 km (14 miles) southeast of Skopje.
Pointing to the desk where Anisa sat, Idrizi said: “She was a very smart girl. All her grades were fantastic.”
Her mother, Fikrija, was a Macedonian language teacher at the mainly ethnic Albanian school.
Anisa’s cousin Fati Iseni said the teenager had sent a lot of photos from Istanbul on Monday. “She was like a daughter to me. We lived in the same house,” he said tearfully. “Her father is broken, he cannot speak.”
A list of passengers on the 800-km (500-mile) trip list released by Skopje media suggested most of the victims, who included 12 schoolchildren, were from North Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian minority.
The government in Skopje declared three days of mourning and ordered flags flown at half-staff – 20 years after a brief ethnic Albanian uprising that prompted a reconciliation process and full rights for the minority community.
Governments in Bulgaria and majority-ethnic Albanian Kosovo also declared Wednesday a day of mourning.
Some 250 pupils from Skopje’s Ismail Qemali school laid flowers at a monument to mediaeval Albanian hero Skenderbeg in the capital in tribute to five classmates, all from the Jahi family, who were killed in the crash along with their mother.
I COULD ONLY HEAR HIS VOICE
In Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, people placed flowers and toys in front of the North Macedonian embassy.
Bulgarian authorities continued to investigate the crash, with human error or a technical problem remaining the most likely factors, although the condition of the stretch of highway where the accident occurred was also in question.
Lulzim Sylejmani, an ethnic Albanian from the Serbian town of Presevo, and his fiancee from a North Macedonian village, Medina Lutfiu, were among the few survivors.
“It was late and all were sleeping. I was sleeping, too. My fiance woke me up and broke the window. Then I could not see anything. He jumped out. I could only hear his voice,” Lutfiu told Bulgarian national television.
“There was a man behind me, who stepped on my feet. He was trying to save himself. I managed to stand up and get out through the window,” said Lutfiu said, who said a fire broke out after the bus hit the barrier.
Relatives of the dead and survivors of the crash gathered at Sofia’s Pirogov Hospital awaiting more information.
Isa Doshliak, 47, who lost his wife and two other relatives in the bus inferno, said he was told that DNA tests would be carried out on Thursday but he was still not sure when the bodies of his loved ones could be transported back home.
North Macedonian Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani said after visiting hospitalised passengers on Wednesday that DNA samples had been collected to help in identification of the victims.