Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Serbia's Schools Teach New Lessons In War
Usually the start of September's new school year in Serbia gets no more than a passing mention in the media. This year however, it was the cue for an outpouring of xenophobic delight at an initiative by the country's education minister.
Education Minister Jovan Todorovic composed a message to primary and secondary schools and ordered it to be read to every pupil aged seven to 18 across the country in the first class of the new school year.
The pupils have been off school for five months - due to what Todorovic called "criminal NATO" attacks - instead of the normal summer eight-week break, he reminded them. These attacks were, he said: "the anticipated conflict between the existing and the New World Order, East and West, the law of force and the force of law."
It was a war, he added, between "hypocrisy and truth, high technology and classical weapons, cold-blooded mass murderers and dignified defenders of the homeland, formalised manipulative religion and the true faith.
"Children, pupils, your peers, were killed in the war as well," he said. "They are no longer sitting at their desks. They have received top grades for behaviour and have moved up to eternity..."
He signed the message as "Yours, Uncle Education Minister". After the reading, as requested, the schools had to play the national anthem and stand in silence for a minute in memory of the dead.
The exercise delighted the national media, which celebrated it as proof that ministers like Todorovic were putting Serbia back on the right path. The independent media wondered if the message was really appropriate, and whether it helped the children to be reminded of the trauma of this year's conflict.
Todorovic's speech was another 'tune on the gusle' - a Serbian phrase for 'banging the war drums - in the near decade long tradition of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's calls to war with his neighbours.
But those poor empty-handed Serbs who follow the gusle player to war at Milosevic's behest, even with tanks and artillery in their train, will eventually return with the gusle "broken over their heads". For falsification of Serbian myth and the fomenting of hatred in schools simply follows a political tradition of never citing friends, only enemies.
'Uncle Education Minister' has ordered the schools to teach their pupils to hate the Western countries. The habit of looking to Western Europe for Serbia's future is being discouraged.
Teachers like 46 year old Dragan Popovic spent their own childhood growing up in the shadow of war, and wearily decry the fact that history is still repeating itself. Only the war is different.
"So many generations of schoolchildren, including mine, spent years studying the smallest details of World War II, and the heroism of the communist partisans," he said. Playtimes were dominated by pretend partisan battles with the Evil Nazis. What now has changed?
"Tito, Bosko Buha, Pinki, heroes from the past, robbed us of our childhood," he said. "I had hoped that one day children might be allowed to have time for Peter Pan or Mary Poppins. But not yet, it seems. The baby 'partisans' are busy playing war with a new evil enemy, NATO. "Will there ever be time for fairytales?"
Not yet. Culture Minister Zeljko Simic has joined Todorovic's battle by announcing plans to ship copies of 100 carefully chosen books to every library in Serbia.
All dwell on the war, the Serbian perspective and Western moral bankruptcy. They include titles such as: 'F-117, The Downfall Of NATO's Strategy' by Zoran Gluscevic, 'The Book of Defence' by Dragan Milenkovic and 'The Twilight of the West' and 'Kosovo and the World War' by Mile Nedeljkovic. Simic's own works and the some of the collected writings of Mira Markovic, wife of Slobodan Milosevic top up the package.
Some might argue that the money spent on printing and distribution of these books might have been better spent, perhaps on more conventional school texts or even a few fairy stories.
But with the entire Serbian state sector starved of resources in the post-conflict months - schools as much as anywhere else - Simic's collection of nationalist thought and anti-western polemic may be all the new works they may get for a while.
Vlado Mares is a journalist for the Belgrade independent news agency BETA.
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