War in Europe: Serb liberals take refuge abroad

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The Independent Online
The Serb border police's message to Milos when he reached the Hungarian border was simple: don't come back.

As an anti-Milosevic political activist in Belgrade, Milos was used to being arrested and harassed by the Serb authorities. But his journey out last month, a few days before airstrikes began, was particularly nerve- racking. With the authorities' knowledge, border guards took him off the train and detained him while they pored over his documents and questioned him.

Now Milos (not his real name) has joined other former activists, student demonstrators from the mass protests of 1996-1997, and journalists associated with the independent radio station B-92 and the liberal weekly Vreme to find uncertain sanctuary in Budapest, capital of the only Nato member state to border Serbia.

Many are young men, dodging the draft, unwilling to fight in Kosovo. Others are young Serb mothers who have left their menfolk behind. They gather in Budapest's parks and squares, discussing the airstrikes while their children play, the women fretting over the fate of their men serving in Kosovo.

More than 1,000 Yugoslavs sought asylum in Hungary in the first three months of this year, according to the Budapest Office of Refugees and Immigration; but that figure covers only those who have gone through official channels, a fraction of the total number of Yugoslavs here, many of whom come in on tourist visas and stay with friends.

For the new Serb exiles in Hungary, history repeats itself. Serbs who arrived in Budapest in the early 1990s, and stayed on, now provide advice and tips about finding housing and jobs to the latest newcomers.

"I knew what was coming," Milos said. "I already had a lot of problems with the state and the police because of my political activities. I was repeatedly arrested, harassed and advised it would be best not to be involved in politics any more. They have arrested many people in the opposition and one journalist has already been killed, and the Serbian regime was involved in his death. I got out just in time, my call-up papers for the army arrived a few days later."

Like many who have fled to Budapest, Milos has applied for political asylum. As long as the bombing continues, there is little role in Belgrade for the Serbian opposition, Milos said. "The people are afraid, and their fear makes him stronger. Milosevic is a tyrant, and tyrants need fear, because it helps them rule for a long time. Milosevic portrays himself as a national hero and the opposition cannot criticise him now, only criticise the airstrikes."

Stylishly dressed, sophisticated and multilingual, the Serbs blend in comfortably with their cosmopolitan surroundings. But war refugees such as Milos are easy to spot: they sit beneath a fog of cigarette smoke that always characterises a gathering of Yugoslav refugees.

The successive waves of refugees from Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo highlight how thin is the veneer of civilisation in the former Yugoslavia, when whole communities can be uprooted and expelled in a few hours. For Serbs such as Milos it has come as a shock to find himself, in effect, stateless. He said: "I am very sorry for the Albanians - all the Albanians from Kosovo are refugees or prisoners - but the Serb refugees don't get as much publicity. All the opposition activists are either on the front or have been arrested. What is happening in Kosovo is the same as [Croatia's President] Tudjman did in Krajina, expelling the Serbs as fast as possible and then making it impossible for them to return. Tudjman and Milosevic both went to the same Communist school of ethnic cleansing."

For Mirjana, 26, who demonstrated with Milos against Milosevic in winter 1996-1997, exile demands some psychological gymnastics. A former student at Belgrade University, Mirjana (not her real name) too is surprised to find herself a refugee.

"I knew the airstrikes would happen but I tried to convince myself they would not. But they are driving people towards Milosevic. My friends who are not political asked me how I could leave Serbia at a time like this. I tell them I don't want a madman to ruin my life, although he already did. Some of my friends think they have to support Milosevic, because they are poisoned by the television and newspapers."

Perhaps the greatest tragedy for Serbia is that almost all of those such as Milos and Mirjana, who would constitute a liberal opposition and build a post-Milosevic Serbia, are simply no longer there. They have fled, in their tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. They fled after the Croatian war and the Bosnian conflict; and now the Serbian onslaught on Kosovo has triggered the last great exodus of the intelligentsia.

"I don't know if I am a refugee," Mirjana said. "I'm not in a camp. But if I think about it, a refugee is what I am now."