It's good to talk, say Balkan debaters

March 10, 2000

Two young female students who lived through 87 days of Nato bombing of their northern Serbian city last month engaged in debate with two students from the University of Sarajevo, which suffered an appalling siege at the hands of Bosnian Serbs.

They were taking part in a triumph of hope over despair: the first debating tournament of all the countries in former Yugoslavia to take place since the federation's bloody dissolution in 1991-95. The motion: this house believes that war criminals should be tried in the Hague.

If that were not extraordinary enough, the event took place in Belgrade, the heart of a country crippled by western sanctions. Serbia is the only country to be excluded from western loans and support under the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, which was the theme of the event.

Sponsored by a range of foreign and Yugoslav organisations, notably George Soros's Open Society Fund, the weekend provided the chance for students to meet and air their views.

The tournament included such controversial motions as: this house believes that Belgrade should be whitewashed, and this house believes that the break-up of Yugoslavia has enriched European sport.

The winning team gave a glimpse of the multi-ethnicity of former Yugoslavia: a student from a Serb and Muslim marriage from Belgrade and a Macedonian argued successfully that the stability pact would not defuse the Balkan powder keg.

The debate programme began five years ago, when the Open Society Institute funded school students in Serbia to begin debating clubs, which blossomed in Belgrade, Nis and Novi Sad with support from faculty members and other professionals.

Tomislav Kargasin from Novi Sad is one of the handful of committed staff supporting the students' efforts. Twice each week, even when Nato was bombing, he has worked with students in the local debate club. He was a judge at the weekend tournament. "We hope through reflection, through rhetoric, we can help develop critical thinking

in these young people," he said.

The gathering of students from across former Yugoslavia was an enormous success, said organiser and philosophy lecturer Djordje Pavicevic, despite the bureaucratic problems faced by so many former federation citizens who now needed visas to visit Belgrade.

Zorica Racic of Belgrade, a psychotherapist who helped organise the event and served as a judge, said: "We have created something quite different from the official education system. These students have broken down barriers. They may go home having made a friend from another republic in former Yugoslavia - and that is quite rare."

Damir Androsevic, one of the two students from Sarajevo University, was in the town of Zenica throughout the Bosnian war. "It is the first time I have been in Belgrade for ten years, and I was a little bit worried about what it would be like. My friends said they hoped it would be OK. But we come from Bosnia. Other people here come from Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia. We see that they are people too."

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