Serbia's Lost Generation

Thousands of Serbian draft evaders fled to Hungary rather than fight in Milosevic's dirty war. Now they find themselves in limbo-with no way out and no way home.

After fighting for the Yugoslav army in Croatia in the early 1990s, Milan Ljubojevic desired the simple things in life. A skilled carpenter, the 29-year-old Serbian wanted to build a home for himself in the Yugoslav countryside; he hoped to marry his longtime girlfriend, Irisa; and he yearned to raise a family. After he had worked for four years as a waiter in Subotica, a small city near the Hungarian border, it seemed as though things might finally work out according to plan. But like so many dreams in Yugoslavia over the past decade, Milan's was shattered.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The knock on the door came on the first of June. Serbian policemen showed up at Irisa's parents' home, Milan's officially listed residence, to demand that he report for mandatory army service in Kosovo. (Some Yugoslavs have come to wryly call these visits the military's "Please Mobilization"--as in, "Please come, now!") Milan had the foresight not to be living at his official address. When he heard of the police visit, he made a decision that would change the course of his life.

On June 5, he married Irisa. Then he bought a water bottle, a waist pack, and a canister of pepper spray ("for the dogs along the border," he would later say). On the 8th, he packed a sandwich and 100 deutsche marks and took off with Irisa's brother across the "green frontier," the name draft dodgers like Milan have given to the illicit smuggling route across the border into Hungary. A former professional handball player and avid athlete, he dodged the patrolling border guards, sprinting the final 200 meters.

Soon after that dash, Milan found himself in the hands of Hungarian border police. On June 11, just three days after leaving home, Milan was placed in a refugee camp in Debrecen, in eastern Hungary. Irisa came across the border legally some days later to join him (women, for the most part, were allowed to leave the country). Though Milan and Irisa passed the customary 14- to 21-day health check faced by all illegal immigrants in Hungarian refugee camps, the couple is spending their "honeymoon" in a quarantine section. They share a room with six others and are separated from the rest of the detainees by a thick grille of steel, because there's no more space in the rest of the camp. "Since I've been in Hungary," says Milan, "all I've seen is steel bars."

There were 20 Serbian men in Debrecen on the day I visited in late June--a tiny portion of the thousands of men who fled from Serbia to Hungary rather than serve in the military to fight for Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic in the war against Kosovar Albanians.

"I knew what the army had done in Croatia, and I could imagine what they would do in Kosovo," Milan says as we sit on tree stumps behind a barrack, one of the few private spaces in the camp. Milan's determination to leave was heightened after Irisa, a Croat, was fired from her job as a waitress. He says the desire of local residents to rid Subotica of all non-Serbs increased after the NATO bombing campaign began in March. "Those are the reasons why I left--the policies of our great, great president," says Milan, with a bite in his smile.

Debrecen, a former Soviet army camp now nearing its capacity of 1,300 refugees, is Hungary's largest facility for holding illegal immigrants. Inside, the 20 Serb men are thrown together among the cast-offs of the world's refugee population, sharing the stark barracks with Ghanaians, Somalians, Ethiopians, Bangladeshis, Afghans, Albanians, and a handful of Bosnians who have been here since the last Balkan war. Though these refugees come from varied corners of the earth, all share a common condition: They have few resources, and no one--not their own nations, nor Hungary, nor any other Western country--has shown much interest in resolving their predicament.

"We are all in the same shit," is how Brana Kokic, one of the Serbs at Debrecen, puts it. In January, Brana, 31, fled Sabac, a city 40 miles west of Belgrade, determined to avoid another stint in the army; he had done his obligatory military service in 1988, when there still was a unified, multi-ethnic Yugoslavia. "If we could bring back that time, I would serve once more," he says. Others sitting around the outdoor table as Brana spoke included a Croatian Serb and a 19-year-old Gypsy--both draft dodgers. "We could rebuild Yugoslavia right here," he cracks, gesturing toward a cluster of Kosovar Albanians playing soccer nearby.

For the past nine years, from Slovenia to Croatia to Bosnia and now Kosovo, life in Yugoslavia has been defined by war--fought against old schoolmates, soccer competitors, even past love interests. From 1991 to 1998, during the last period of Balkan wars, some 3.2 million people fled or were displaced from their homes throughout the former Yugoslavia. According to the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights, 50,000 people fled from Serbia over the three months of the NATO bombing campaign. Many of the evacuees were mothers who left with their children to avoid the bombs. But the Budapest-based Refugee Action Project estimates that 15,000 to 20,000 were draft evaders, many of whom crossed into Hungary, the sole NATO country bordering Yugoslavia.

Tired of war, unwilling to fight another one, the Yugoslav draft dodgers have found no country that will welcome them, as Canada and Sweden once embraced Americans evading the Vietnam-era draft. Rather, men like Milan and Brana find themselves tarred by their now-ignominious label, one borne by opponents and supporters of Milosevic alike: They are Serbs.

While the world's attention was understandably focused on the Kosovar refugees ousted from their homes by Milosevic's brutal ethnic cleansing, these men were making private and difficult decisions to flee the same brutality--or, more precisely, to flee the obligation to engage in that brutality in Kosovo, as well as to escape the increasingly repressive measures of the Milosevic regime at home. They now face a profoundly uncertain future as not one NATO nation that fought Milosevic has offered them refuge or protection. These men are a largely unreported casualty of the Kosovo war, victims of a conflict waged by a government that has pushed them into a sort of no man's land. Back home, they face prison sentences ranging from five to 20 years; elsewhere, no one is prepared to accept them.

Milan and Irisa have applied for visas to emigrate to Australia; Brana would like to join his wife and two children in Austria. But, according to Laurie Guida, who heads the Refugee Action Project (RAP), their chances of getting visas are slim.

For the moment, they are trapped. Barely 2 percent of all applicants were granted political asylum in Hungary in the first five months of this year, according to the RAP. Meanwhile, the number of Yugoslav applicants has increased dramatically. There were 7,000 total applicants for asylum in Hungary in 1998, says Ferenc Koszeg, president of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a group that provides legal assistance to refugees from Yugoslavia and elsewhere. Between March 24 and June 20 of this year, the period of the NATO bombing campaign, 2,315 Yugoslavs alone applied for asylum status in Hungary, including 825 ethnic Albanians, 787 ethnic Hungarians (there is a large Hungarian minority in the Serbian province of Vojvodina), and 506 Serbs--with males of draft age comprising most of the latter two categories. These figures represent only a fraction of those who entered Hungary; many more have come illegally or with tourist visas, and are residing unofficially in rented apartments or with friends. Various estimates suggest that between 100,000 and 300,000 young men have fled Serbia to avoid military service over the past decade. During the war in Kosovo, Budapest quickly earned a reputation as the Casablanca of Europe, as draft dodgers and refugee families swarmed to the city in search of visas and other documents needed to travel west. Many people are convinced that spies followed that human traffic over the border.

Serbs who wish to move to the West are likely out of luck: They are finding it practically impossible to get visas to travel anywhere, even for a preliminary immigration-office interview. "The situation of those who tried to leave Yugoslavia during the previous wars

was much better than for those who left during the Kosovo crisis," says Koszeg. "I think they [Western governments] are just fed up with refugees from the Yugoslav wars."

Draft evaders like Milan are generally granted permission to stay in Hungary for up to 90 days, but rarely do they get official authorization to seek employment. (Despite this policy, Hungary does not deport refugees after this term has expired.) The result is a cruel irony in which the accident of nationality--as experienced by Kosovar Albanians, Croats, and Bosnians, all victims of rampant ethnic cleansing during the last decade--is now used to deny Serbs a home outside their war-ravaged country, where they are perceived by the government as traitors. In mid-June, after the signing of the peace agreement that halted the NATO bombing, Milosevic denounced those who had fled to Hungary rather than fight, calling them the "Budapest refugees," ominously suggesting that they would face the consequences if they were ever to return.

Every weekday on a busy downtown boulevard near the capital's central train station, the Budapest refugees gather at a center established by Norwegian People's Aid, an organization funded by the Norwegian government and private donors. A dozen Serbian men and women--ages 18 to 35--are in the center on an afternoon in late June. They sit on couches reading press reports on developments in Yugoslavia, poring over a computer (with free Internet access), and calling home on the telephone, which the center provides free two hours a day. They look like they could be milling about a student lounge at an American university. The men wear Levi's and T-shirts, the women sport American Indian-style jewelry, and some have dyed their hair in punk colors of reddish brown and blue. Almost all speak near-perfect English. Unlike the refugees in Debrecen, these are the products of the Yugoslav upper and middle classes: well educated and with a sophistication that would put them at ease in any New York, London, or Paris café. They understand that the world sees them as outcasts. "They think we are all Serbian monsters," says a young woman who formerly worked as a journalist with one of the few independent newspapers in Belgrade, Danas. Like many at the center, she asks that her name not be used.

Factors of education, money, and connections can largely make the difference between ending up in cosmopolitan

Budapest or in the dreary limbo of Debrecen or any of a dozen other Hungarian refugee camps. Some of the luckier refugees are able to rent apartments with deutsche marks saved up from home or from their parents; some stay with friends or relatives; others crash in youth hostels or on the street. Among the Serbs who have taken refuge in Budapest are leading university professors, journalists, photographers, artists, musicians, former leaders of the opposition, and participants in the mass demonstrations protesting Milosevic's rigging of the elections in 1996 and demanding a democratic Yugoslavia. Those who came in recent months blend into an already thriving expatriate Serb community--with its restaurants, cafés, and even a weekly Serbo-Croatian language show on a local underground radio station.

"These are mostly anti-Milosevic people. They have been self-selected by events in their country," comments Miklos Haraszti, formerly a top anticommunist dissident and now a leading Hungarian political analyst and one of the founders of the country's first postcommunist political parties, the Free Democrats. "They share common beliefs: They don't like the nationalist disaster in their country; they are democrats. They are talking with each other and they are fucking each other. For them it is a formative political experience, and ten years from now, if they can ever return, they will be the new power in Yugoslavia."

If they can ever return. That possibility, in midsummer at least, seemed remote. The new arrivals face legal troubles back home on several fronts. First, all have broken a law--imposed by Milosevic after the bombing began--that forbids any man between the ages of 16 and 65 from leaving the country. Second, many of them left after refusing to respond to a visit from Serbian recruiters, making them draft dodgers subject to up to 20 years in prison. And many, like Milan, could be prosecuted for giving false addresses to the authorities in order to avoid being found when the policeman's knock came at the door. In June, a coalition of 47 nongovernmental organizations and civil rights groups, both inside and outside Serbia, signed a petition demanding amnesty for draft evaders, an action that generated no response from the government.

Even if such an unlikely event were to happen--almost certainly requiring President Milosevic's resignation or ouster--many have serious doubts about returning to a country that has been devastated by war. The bombing has left billions of dollars in damage and destroyed the country's industrial infrastructure. Even prior to the war, economic conditions were tough: It was not uncommon for government employees to work without pay for as long as two years. So the question for many who have left the country is: What is there to return to?

"The situation is like this," says one 26-year-old man at the Budapest center. I'll call him Bobic; he has a soft, delicate face and a thin black beard. "We fled from our country because of the bombs and because of problems with our government. The people have been terrorized." Bobic worked with Dnevni Telegraf, another of the rare independent dailies in Belgrade. The founder of the paper, Slavko Curuvija, was assassinated on a Belgrade street on April 11, two days after giving an interview to the British Sky News. The murder sent Bobic across the green frontier.

"Now," Bobic says, "I don't have a job. I don't have permanent residency. I don't have the right to work. I'm not used to that. I just spend some of my parents' hard-earned money for a flat or food. I have no money to buy shoes or anything else."

Even before the war, conditions in Serbia were distinctly inhospitable for critics of the government. In May 1998, Milosevic pushed a law through the Serbian parliament that put all universities under direct government control, resulting in many professors being fired for their involvement in opposition political activities. Throughout the fall and winter of that year, Milosevic launched a crackdown on independent media, issuing a decree in October forbidding radio stations from rebroadcasting foreign news programs and prohibiting newspapers from reprinting articles from foreign sources. Another law imposed strict new libel proscriptions restricting criticism of public officials. These measures were aimed specifically at such outlets as Radio B92 (the sole independent electronic media outlet until it was shut down by the government in March); the weekly independent newsmagazine Vreme; and Bobic's former employer, Dnevni Telegraf, which, along with a magazine founded by Slavko Curuvija, was hit with substantial fines. "It is difficult to live in Serbia and have political ideas," comments Bobic.

The feeling of isolation and abandonment that draft dodgers experience cannot be overstated. Many were involved in the opposition to Milosevic that flowered briefly in 1996 and 1997, when hundreds of thousands of people hit the streets of Belgrade, Pristina, and other cities to protest the president's increasingly authoritarian rule. Those fledgling efforts, critics now claim bitterly, received no support from the West. Instead, they saw a parade of top Western diplomats coming to Belgrade to negotiate with Milosevic to end the wars that he had incited, granting him a legitimacy that only strengthened his standing inside the country. Then came the bombs. Without exception, all those I spoke with--at the Budapest center, at Debrecen, and elsewhere--no matter the vehemence of their opposition to Milosevic, expressed fury at NATO's bombing campaign. "People at those [opposition] demonstrations were waving American and German flags," comments Stojan Cerovic, formerly a leading political columnist for Vreme. Since mid-April he has been living in Budapest with his wife and three children. "Now Milosevic can claim that bombs are the only thing we ever got from the West," he says.

Cerovic has spent his professional life opposing the Milosevic regime. Calm and prone to laughter, he has a lined face, fierce eyes, and a Lenin-style thin brown beard. He has twice evaded the draft: At the age of 43, during the war with Croatia, he helped found the Center for Anti-War Action in Belgrade and refused induction into the army, calling on others to do the same in an interview on Radio B92. For several weeks, Cerovic lay low in Montenegro (which even then was refusing to enforce the mandatory service law, and still does today), but returned to Belgrade to continue writing his columns lacerating Milosevic and his associates.

Eight years later, within a week of the commencement of NATO bombing in March, Milosevic started censoring Vreme. Cerovic, now 50, watched from the balcony of his apartment near the U.S. Embassy as NATO bombs fell, unable to write a word. Once again refusing to be conscripted, he flew in April to Budapest from Sarajevo--"an oasis of peace," he quips as we sip Jack Daniel's on his patio in the leafy hills of Buda. Due to his prominence in Yugoslavia, the family lives in a house provided by the Hungarian government, a highly privileged position compared to that of most other Yugoslav draft dodgers. Cerovic was informally asked to join a shadow government in exile, an offer he refused, hesitant to get involved in the shadow-puppetry of exile politics. He is uncertain about his future. "I've been trying to change my little part of the world," Cerovic says. "Now I have a feeling I live in a screwed-up world. It's a much bigger problem." He is determined to return to Belgrade, though associates caution that his high profile would certainly put him on a list for arrest.

Other Serb draft dodgers have no dreams of returning. Bobic, for one, sees little future in that prospect. "They would accuse me of treason," he says. "I'm no traitor, but I would be sitting in jail while trying to prove it." Bobic, like many others, would prefer instead to start a new life somewhere else, someplace without the legacy of war.

Amid the many brutal ironies of this war, one seems particularly poignant in Budapest: After being bombed by NATO planes attacking the leader they detest, Yugoslav draft dodgers, who refused to be part of Milosevic's war machine, are now stranded. While the Kosovar Albanians continue trying to rebuild their shattered province under NATO's protective cover and are finding new homes in more than a dozen countries offering refuge, Serbian men like Milan Ljubojevic, Brana Kokic, and Bobic have no such protection. They are, most decidedly, on their own.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.