No debate about value of debating society

THE night NATO began bombing Yugoslavia, a group of pupils were gathered in Belgrade's Stari Grad cultural centre debating the legalisation of soft drugs, writes Gillian Sandford.

For the rest of the bombing campaign, which ended a year ago this week, the debating club continued. It provided the youngsters with somewhere to get together and talk when normal life was utterly disrupted. They also received counselling from psychologist Zorica Rasic.

"It was very useful," said Nikola Pucarevic, 16. "We didn't do anything during the bombing. There was no school."

The Debate Club programme was set up in Belgrade in 1994 to encourage independent thought and logical argument among young people. It is financed by the Open Society fund of George Soros and was one of many set up across eastern Europe.

B last year, there were nine clubs across the country. Normally 30 beginners and 30 regulars attend each club twice a week. The centrepiece of the programme is a summer camp that teaches debating skills. While some have included international participants, last year's camp could only draw members from clubs in Yugoslavia because of the political situation.

As Serbia enters a period of increasing repression, with few sources of news and information beyond government-controlled media, the debaters say they value their programme greatly.

Nadja Dukacik, 19, said: "This is a healthy environment and one in which we can ask questions, as opposed to school."

Gojko Jukic, 18, said he had learned: "You don't have to beat a man because he is arguing with you. You just give him good arguments back."

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