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On the move: It isn't ethnic cleansing but they're leaving all the same

AS HIS congregation of tiny old women filed out of the church in Senta, Father Nagy stared gloomily at the parish register. The list of weddings and baptisms was minute, but the funerals covered a page. 'We Hungarians are getting older and older, and the number of funerals is always going up,' he said.

Senta is a bastion for 350,000 Hungarians in Serbia's northern Vojvodina province, where they make up 80 per cent of the population. But the rotting cornices of the grand old houses built under the Habsburgs evoke the declining fortunes of Hungarians as a whole in nationalist-ruled Serbia.

In the museum a dramatic 19th-century painting portrays the battle of Senta in 1697, when a Habsburg army expelled the Turks from Vojvodina. The painting recalled the centuries of Hungarian rule over Vojvodina, which ended in 1918 when victorious Serbian forces welded the province to Yugoslavia.

Since then it has been downhill all the way for Vojvodina Hungarians. From half a million in 1961, their numbers have tumbled remorselessly. But the trickle of emigrants became a flood two years ago as draft dodgers of the vicious war between Serbs and Croats joined young families fleeing Serbia's ruined economy.

At the office of Magyar Szo, Vojvodina's Hungarian-language newspaper, the journalists idle away their hours. A shortage of newsprint and the hostility of the Serbian authorities are killing it; circulation has dropped from 50,000 to 10,000 - not surprising, as the paper's cover price is three times higher than its Serbian counterparts. Magyar Szo is down to two editions a week. 'We are trying to survive, but there is less and less hope,' said Mihaly Both, a journalist. Asked what the paper's closure would mean to Vojvodina Hungarians, he replied: 'How would English people feel if they closed down the BBC and the Times?'

Fear of persecution by Serbian nationalists has driven some Hungarians from Vojvodina. 'The Serbs want to push our kids into their army, and force on us Serbian refugees from Bosnia, when we do not have enough to feed ourselves,' whispered an old man who declined to be named. 'The local Serbs all have guns and we do not,' he added.

But poverty is driving out many more. Crumbling Senta is only 40 miles south of the bright lights of Szeged in southern Hungary, and it is easy to see why young people up sticks and hop over the frontier.

'Hungary looks to me now like Vojvodina looked to them 10 years ago,' said Mr Both. 'When I used to visit my aunt, I took her powdered coffee. Now she gives it to me.' He is teaching his teenage daughters to speak English and German. 'I have told them to be ready to go out into the world. My generation has nowhere to go - we are too old.'

With the threat of extinction hanging over them, local activists have rallied to the League of Vojvodina Hungarians, a party that seeks an autonomous province around seven majority Hungarian towns in Vojvodina.

'War psychosis, forced mobilisation into the army, and the attempt to colonise the region with Serbian refugees make us feel endangered,' said Emil Farkas, Senta's deputy in the Serbian parliament. 'We have suffered no atrocities, but they could happen if Serbian paramilitaries provoke the citizens.'

Mr Farkas claimed that Serbia's parliament had passed 30 laws reducing ethnic Hungarian minority rights. 'They closed our youth papers, our children's papers, our medium- wave radio programmes, and they make sure that international humanitarian aid never reaches Hungarians.' Serbia would have to grant the Hungarians a province if it was ever to end its diplomatic isolation, he claimed.

But if Hungarians continued to trickle out of Vojvodina, a lack of people might prove a bigger long-term obstacle to plans for autonomy than resistance from Belgrade.

The leader of the Vojvodina Hungarians, Andras Agoston, may have shot himself in the foot politically when he said he would lead a mass exodus of the entire Hungarian community if Serbia sponsored a bout of Bosnia-style ethnic cleansing in the region.

There is no sign that Serbia plans any dramatic changes in Vojvodina, beyond whittling away ethnic minority rights. Talk of a mass exodus just frightens people.

At Senta hospital, a doctor claimed that 20 per cent of his colleagues had left for Hungary in the past two years. The flight of young people has left villages populated by elderly peasants.

In the border village of Totovo Selo, I watched toothless crones driving their flocks of geese over the windswept and snow-covered plains, past a fine stone crucifix, while old men clip-clopped down the muddy lanes on horseback. Not a youngster in sight.

Compared with the rest of former Yugoslavia, where warring Serbs, Croats and Muslims are bent on presenting their national demands in strident terms, the Hungarians look an apathetic bunch.

'I am more worried about the lack of petrol to visit my parishioners than not having a province,' said Father Nagy with a laugh. 'Seeking autonomy is unreal for us,' scoffed Attila Pejin, a local historian. 'There are just not that many Hungarians. This is not Kosovo, and we are not Albanians.'