After the bombs, what next for Belgrade University?

June 25, 1999

In an email interview at the outset of Nato action against Serbia, Jagos Puric, rector of Belgrade University, described the effects on his institution. After the end of the bombardment, he tells David Jobbins of later developments Q: Are you resuming lectures and classes immediately or delaying until the new semester?

A: The university was prevented from living its normal life for the past two and a half months. As soon as the bombing stopped, we resumed classes and lectures, and we will do our best to make up for the lost time during the summer.

Some students and lecturers were killed and injured in the bombings. Such a barbaric attack affected everyone, at least on the psychological level. Therefore, we decided that high school graduates wishing to enrol this summer would not need to take entrance exams. Our current undergraduates will also be given certain privileges so they can finish this year as successfully as possible.

Q: Did the university suffer further damage?

A: Unfortunately, yes. The university clinic received a direct hit. Four persons were killed, and three women, who were in labour in the maternity ward, were injured. The fine arts building was also damaged, as well as student halls of residence. In Nis, the university rectorate was massively damaged, along with the university hospital and the electronics faculty. In Novi Sad, practically no university building has been spared in the bombings.

Q: Is reconstruction of the university possible without outside aid?

A: Our country has been isolated under international sanctions for seven years. With electric power and petrochemical facilities destroyed, it is impossible to talk about helping the university only. If there is no electricity, water and heating, the university will have to close this winter.

Academic support has grown. We have received many offers of help from our colleagues from all over the world, regardless of their governments' positions.

Q: Do you have a message for the global academic community?

A: When you contacted me on April 6, Nato aggression seemed to be a restricted military operation with limited objectives. It has since turned into a total war against the civilian population, depriving them of the most basic necessities of life. Mostly civilian targets were hit in the bombing, and the civilian victims outnumber the military ones.

Q: What have you to say about the departure of thousands of Serbs from Kosovo?

A: I believe that the Serb exodus, in spite of the presence of armed Nato peacekeepers, shows how complex and difficult the task of fighting Kosovo Liberation Army terrorism in Kosovo is.

Last week I went to a conference in Pristina attended by the rectors of all Yugoslav universities. I was shocked at the endless lines of Serbian refugees heading out of Kosovo, women, children and elderly, whole families on tractors. And they say the war is over. Two days before our trip, two vice-rectors from Belgrade travelled to Pristina. Their experience was far worse: they were stopped and searched at every junction by K-For soldiers, while Albanians threw stones at them.

Q: What about concern in the Nato countries at apparent atrocities committed in Kosovo?

A: The western media are trying to justify illegal aggression against Yugoslavia by portraying Yugoslav forces as barbarians and criminals. In spite of great propaganda efforts, people in the West have not been persuaded that the "collateral damage" and the destruction of industry and infrastructure was done in "good faith" to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. We are witnessing a last push by the propaganda machine to demonise the Serbs and portray Nato aggression as a just war.

As for the alleged war crimes and acts of barbarity, if they happened, they were committed by individuals, who should be prosecuted and punished. I support the actions of the international investigators in Kosovo. However, I believe that crimes were committed by all sides involved. I doubt that the West will have the moral authority to prosecute and punish war criminals from the KLA and their own ranks. Still, I hope they will prove me wrong.

If the aggression has helped to awaken the consciousness and conscience of the human race, then we might believe that our suffering has not been in vain.

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