Deserters take dangerous ride on Serb underground railway: Robert Block in Belgrade on the man who has a way out for those who will not fight

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SITTING around a woodstove in a house in Serb-held Bosnia, a couple - he a Serb, she a Croat - talk to a friend from Belgrade about their immediate worry. Their son, Darko, is about to turn 17 and soon will be called to fight in a war neither of them believes in. 'We already have lost so much to this war, I will not risk my only son,' the mother, Maja, says. But, she explains, they cannot afford to pay the black-market vultures who prey on the troubled. For dollars 50,000 ( pounds 32,000) they promise passports, visas and tickets to safety. 'We don't have that kind of money,' the father, Dragan, says.

The friend listens, then leans forward, whispers a name and scribbles down an address in Belgrade. This is the escape route for the battle-shy and the principled. It is the underground railway for conscientious objectors and deserters, and the only hope for those Serbs in Bosnia and Krajina who, for whatever reason, refuse to shoulder a weapon or kill their neighbours.

The address leads to a back street in Belgrade, to an office with a Zen-style painting of a crane on the wall, a green-stained pine table and a few chairs, and to Milan Jovanovic. Mr Jovanovic - not his real name - is a deserter from the Croatian campaign of 1991 who chose to remain behind in Yugoslavia to help others like himself who did not want to fight for a Greater Serbia. 'I deserted, but to be able to stay in Serbia I had myself declared mentally unfit,' he said in an interview last week.

Mentally unfit is exactly how extreme nationalist Serbs would describe Mr Jovanovic if they knew what he was up to. A handful of well-known small peace groups in Serbia are routinely classed as traitors and cowards by extremists. Some have been threatened, had their offices broken into and their volunteers beaten up. 'It is very dangerous both for us and for those who are looking to escape the fighting,' said Lenka, who works with Mr Jovanovic. 'It's also difficult explaining to kids that fleeing military service is punishable by law and if they leave they can never come back. But we never turn away anybody who comes to us.'

Lenka, Mr Jovanovic and their organisation rely almost exclusively on a network of groups throughout Europe which works to find loopholes in visa requirements and emigration laws, in order to help deserters and conscientious objectors.

'We don't get them passports or smuggle them over borders, but we do counsel them and find ways for them to leave the country legally,' Mr Jovanovic said. Smiling, he added: 'There are, of course, times when it is much better just to appear on the other side of a border with no papers.'

When dealing with a potential deserter, the first thing Mr Jovanovic and Lenka try to establish is whether there are any friends or relatives abroad who could offer letters of guarantee. With letters, they can apply for visas. In cases where this is not possible, they have to turn to the outside groups for help. Once deserters make it to a West European country, groups like Mi Za Mir in the Netherlands can help them to regularise their status or move to another country.

Although some people with contacts have obtained visas allowing them to live in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and, to a much lesser extent, Britain, few European countries now accept immigrants from rump Yugoslavia. This was attacked at a meeting earlier this month in Salzburg, where peace groups met to condemn deportations of deserters and conscientious objectors from Germany and Austria.

'Soldiers and people who fear a call-up to war have the right to refuse service. They have the right to protect their own life and the lives of others. They do not want to take part in this war as murderers or rapists. In order to escape from the military . . . they must be able to flee their countries. They need open frontiers,' a declaration of the meeting said.

The vast majority of those Mr Jovanovic helped to escape left during the 1991 Serb-Croat war. Up to 300,000 men are estimated to have dodged conscription between 1990 and 1992.

According to Mr Jovanovic, fewer people are now seeking to flee the war in Bosnia: 'People there don't know about us and it is hard for us to reach them. More often than not they look for private ways to leave or choose to live underground in Serbia, staying with friends or family. If they get caught, though, they are sent back to fight or face worse problems,' he said.

'I know we cannot stop this war, but I think we can lessen it a little bit. The more deserters you have, the fewer there are to fight.'