Belgrade press-gangs refugees for distant wars

Robert Block in Belgrade meets a student playing cat-and-mouse with the authorities to avoid a conflict he fled
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The Independent Online
Nenad was nervous, as nervous as he was thin, and Nenad could make a walking-stick look healthy by comparison. He stood yesterday in the shadow of a tree outside the entrance to the dormitory at studentski grad, student town, at Belgrade University, watching when someone went in or out. His eyes darted from the entrance to nearby street cafes and back again. "Is that a policeman there? No? Good," he said with relief.

He was "dodging", his expression for the game he has been playing with Serbian military police for the past eight days. Since 11 June, Serbia has been rounding up students and refugees from Serb-held parts of Croatia, press-ganging them and forcing them to return home to fight in a war that many had fled in the first place.

Short of manpower, overstretched on difficult front lines and feeling their wars turn against them, the Krajina and Bosnia Serbs have long been screaming for Belgrade to send their "nationals" home to serve as cannon- fodder.

As far as Nenad was concerned, Serbian unity has gone and now it is every Serb for himself. If caught, he would be put on a bus and probably shipped to the worst front line in Croatia or Bosnia as punishment for being a "deserter" from the so-called Republic of Serbian Krajina, the self-declared state of breakaway Croatian Serbs.

"Last night was close. I was coming home from a friend's house; it was about 8:30. Someone was several metres ahead of me and when he opened the door I could see the police waiting there. I kept walking. I do not want to go back and I have heard stories that people who try to escape are shot. They are even grabbing people off the street, so I don't go to the centre of town anymore either," he said.

Human-rights groups say at least 2,000 men ranging in age from 18 to 64 have been rounded up since 11 June, many from refugee centres in Serbia and Montenegro, and shipped back to fight in Bosnia or Croatia in violation of international law.

News of the round-up has made the Belgrade independent press but has provoked little public sympathy. "Why are you asking about Krajina Serbs?" said a student from Nenad's dorm. "Send them to the front, where they belong."

The real question is why President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, the war monger-turned peace-maker, is still engaged in supporting wars that he says are nothing to do with him. The situation is especially confusing when you consider Mr Milosevic has recently not had good relations with the Knin authorities, who openly defied him. But a recent offensive by Croats to retake Serb-held territory may have influenced him.

"Just because he is not on good terms with Knin does not mean he is prepared to see Knin fall to the Croats," said Natasa Kandic of the Humanitarian Law Fund in Belgrade. "But politically Milosevic cannot send the Yugoslav army without incurring international wrath. He would rather have the refugees mobilised and sent."

Given that Mr Milosevic has adopted an anti-war stand which seems to have found a public echo, Belgrade may find it easier to hunt down the 180,000 names of draft-age males given to it by Knin.