VILNIUS - Over a hundred Belarusian schoolchildren held a special reunion in Lithuania after their school was closed down for holding classes in Belarusian rather than Russian and shunning Soviet-style education programs.
One Dec. 21, the 104 pupils, aged 14-18, their 14 teachers and headmaster from the Jokub Kolos Lyceum in Minsk moved into the Vilnius Lyceum after Lithuania agreed to give them two weeks' refuge during the school holidays.
"It is wonderful. After a six-month break we are all together again as a real school," said 15-year-old Lyudmila, a second-year student at the Belarusian school.
"We had a dream to assemble again and it has become reality," the school's headmaster Vladimir Kolos said.
Although Belarusian authorities say they closed the school last June because of lack of money, the school says that was not the real reason.
"The authorities do not like the fact that we conduct our studies in the Belarusian language and that our programs are new and have nothing to do with Soviet style studies," said Liavon Barscheuvski, the school's deputy head.
"Lukashenko's policy now is to return to the Soviet Union, but they could not impose that in our school," he added.
"We fought for our survival for two years, but finally they took over."
Although the school continues to work on an underground basis, pupils are dispersed across 11 different rented locations, and it is badly in need of specially equipped laboratories for chemistry, physics and information technology studies.
"In fact we were operating underground. It worked, but the problem was to keep the soul of the school as a collective," headmaster Kolos said.
"We are happy to help them as their situation reminds us of the one we were in 10 years ago when we started," said Saulius Jurkevicius, the headmaster of Vilnius Lyceum.
During their stay the Minsk schoolchildren spent every day in the Lithuanian classrooms and laboratories, except for Christmas and New Year's Day.
They played - and lost - in basketball, table tennis and chess games with Vilnius students but won a soccer match.
They were given free accommodation and meals by Lithuanian authorities, as well as excursions around the city.
"Vilnius is so beautiful with its narrow streets in the Old Town, fancy cafes and drivers who stop to let pedestrians cross the street," Katia, a second grade student, said.
As the schoolchildren prepare to return home, headmaster Kolos held out hope that the short stay in Vilnius could give a new lease of life to the school.
"Some in the Parliament, which is totally dependent on Lukashenko, are already wondering how it could be that our children are needed by Lithuania and not by us," he said.
"I think that maybe we ourselves today cannot fully understand the meaning of this project and its possible impact for the future."