Thousands of students packed a neighborhood in central Belgrade on Thursday afternoon to mourn the eight children and one school guard gunned down by a 13-year-old boy in a shooting rampage that has plunged the Serbian capital into grief and stunned the entire country.
Wearing black, their eyes brimming with tears, the students lit candles, lay white flowers and hung messages scrawled on paper on fences near Vladislav Ribnikar primary school, where the shooting took place a day earlier.
“We’re all shocked and saddened,” said Luka Zivkovic, 18, a student from a nearby high school who came with dozens of schoolmates to pay his respects. Long streaks of wax ran under his feet, the remnants of hundreds of candles lit by Belgrade residents since Wednesday evening. “This is madness.”
The rampage, which also injured six children and a teacher, some of them seriously, has sent shock waves through the country, which has experienced few mass shootings, let alone violence of this sort at a school. Three official days of mourning will begin Friday.
But the shooting has also raised broader questions about gun ownership, a lingering issue in Serbia, prompting the government to approve a series of measures on Thursday designed to better regulate guns, including setting a two-year moratorium on new licenses and enhanced surveillance of shooting ranges.
The changes followed suggestions by President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia, who in a speech Wednesday urged the government to address the roots of the tragedy. “It will not go away just like that,” Mr. Vucic said.
But in the mourning crowds on Thursday, people were mostly wondering about what led a seventh-grade student known for academic excellence to perpetrate what the police described as a planned, coldblooded attack. Some, including the president, said he had been bullied by classmates, others speculated about other possible motives.
“I don’t know what came through his head,” said Elena, 13, a student who said she was in a history classroom that was targeted. Her surname is being withheld for privacy reasons. “He was totally normal, everybody liked him.”
The police revealed that the student had sketched a map of the school and a list of targets. They added that he called himself a “psychopath” upon his arrest.
The student entered the school with two pistols belonging to his father and four Molotov cocktails, which he had prepared himself.
Serbian officials revealed his identity at a briefing Wednesday, but The New York Times is withholding his name since he is a minor and has not been charged. The officials said the boy would not be held criminally responsible for the killings because is under the age of 14.
The student began shooting immediately upon entering the school, killing the security guard and others before making his way down a corridor toward the history classroom.
Elena, who came to mourn on Thursday wearing a black dress and holding a bouquet of flowers, said she first mistook the shots for fireworks. But she said she then saw the student entering the classroom, shooting the teacher in the stomach and looking around for more targets.
“I went under the table,” Elena said, as she described the bloodstained bodies that lay on the ground. “After he killed three people, I met his eyes.”
Elena said she managed to flee through the door. Several students at the school said they had been told that some classmates also escaped by jumping from the classroom window into a courtyard.
One girl who was wounded underwent emergency surgery overnight and was in critical condition Thursday, officials said. Among those killed was a French girl, according to the French Foreign Ministry.
The attack shocked residents of Belgrade. “Nobody thought this could happen here in this neighborhood, here in Serbia,” said Anita Lainovic, 45, who had come to the school with a pot of flowers to pay tribute to the young victims.
It also prompted many to wonder about the killer’s background and upbringing. The student had accompanied his father to a shooting range in the past and knew how to shoot, Serbian officials said. “What did his father teach him by taking him to the shooting range?” Ivana Savic, 49, asked.
In the mourning crowd, somebody held a sign that read, “Someone’s child didn’t come home because someone did not bring up his child well.”
The shooting prompted a large show of solidarity in Belgrade. On Thursday morning, dozens of people lined up for a second day to donate blood at a clinic located a few blocks from the school.
“I have a daughter who’s about the age of the victims,” said Dragan Bugarin, 59. “When you know that you can help somebody, you do it.”
Mr. Bugarin said he was O-negative, a blood type that students from the school said was desperately needed in messages shared on social media Wednesday night. “Urgent!” read one message posted on Instagram calling for donors.
Mirjana Knezevic, the head of communications at the clinic, said that nearly 700 people had come to donate blood on Wednesday, many, many more than on a typical day. She compared the situation with some of the bloodiest days of the war in the former Yugoslavia, part of which makes up Serbia.
Mr. Vucic, the Serbian president, said that the shooter had been taken to a mental health clinic, and that he “showed no remorse.” The boy’s parents have been arrested, he added.
Following the president’s suggestions, the government on Thursday said it would start a sweeping revision of existing gun licenses in Serbia. It added that it would also work on amending the criminal code to hold responsible people enabling minors to handle firearms and would consider lowering the age of criminal liability to 12, from 14.
Serbia has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world, a legacy of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, but does not have high levels of gun violence.
A 2018 study by the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey research group estimated that there are about 39 guns for every 100 Serbians, the highest level in Europe and one of the highest in the world. The United States, which ranks first, has about 120 guns per 100 people.
“It’s part of our culture, it’s a legacy of the war,” Ms. Lainovic said. “But it can’t go on like this.”
Several residents of Belgrade, along with the Serbian education minister, also blamed what they described as the pernicious influence of war video games on young people.
Students and teachers at Vladislav Ribnikar described the school as one of the best in Belgrade, with a particular emphasis on the study of the French language. Their eyes moistened with tears, they recalled the friends they lost.
“She was constantly laughing, she embraced life,” said Leda, 12, whose surname is being withheld for privacy reasons, of a friend she said who was killed Wednesday.
Igor Kolundzija, a French teacher at the school, as well as several current and former students said they were particularly saddened by the death of Dragan Vlahovic, the security guard, who was killed while trying to stop the attack, according to officials.
“He was the best, he knew everything about the students, he would look away when they were messing around,” Mr. Kolundzija said.
Several messages and drawings attached to a fence near the school paid tribute to him. One of them, by a second-grade student, represented him smiling and wearing a red cape. “Dragan Vlahovic, our hero!” it read.
Alisa Dogramadzieva contributed reporting.