- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2000

BUDAPEST Thousands of young men who fled Serbia rather than take part in Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's war in Kosovo now find themselves stranded in Hungary, facing long prison sentences if they go home but denied refugee status in Hungary or any other NATO country.
Many have been held since the Kosovo campaign in Debrecen, a former Soviet army base made up of rows of dilapidated barracks surrounded by barbed wire, where they spend their days sitting on iron beds in dank rooms staring into space.
This so-called "reception center," housing about 1,000 asylum seekers from around the world, is just one of the camps holding the Serbian deserters and draft resisters, some accompanied by wives and children. Others survive in overcrowded and inadequate private accommodations in Hungary.
In the words of Amnesty International, they are "the forgotten resisters" of the Kosovo war.
"Throughout the conflict in Kosovo, NATO member states made repeated calls to those serving in the Yugoslav military to resist their leadership," said Brian Phillips of Amnesty, one of the few organizations campaigning on their behalf.
"Now the men who … heeded these calls and the prompting of their conscience, find themselves in urgent need of protection. But the governments who issued the calls to resistance appear to take little interest in the uncertain future facing these men."
Lorenzo Pasquali, deputy representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Budapest, said no one is sure how many Yugoslavs are living in Hungary, although newspapers have quoted figures up to 20,000. Amnesty and other human rights organizations estimate their numbers in the thousands.
Typical of these men is Goran, a 28-year-old Serbian technician who fled when military police came to deliver his draft papers on March 31, 1999, a few days after NATO started bombing Serbia.
"I knew the risks. Milosevic had declared a state of war and the borders were closed," said the tall, dark-haired man, who asked that his last name be withheld to protect his family. "But I didn't agree with his senseless policies. I had always opposed him. I wasn't going to serve in his war."
Goran said he grabbed a change of clothes, a piece of bread, his passport and some meager savings and took off through roads, fields and woods across what refugees call the "green border" into Hungary.
"I felt so optimistic. I thought my worries were behind me" when he crossed the border, Goran said. But he was soon picked up by Hungarian border police and sent to two refugee camps before ending up at Debrecen. There, he was told his application for asylum had been denied for lack of evidence.
Today, he feels utterly abandoned. "I know I did the right thing by refusing to fight in the war. I don't regret it, but it costs me so much. I have no job. I miss my friends and family. I am afraid," he said.
Hunched on his bed, slowly sipping tea from an old yogurt pot, he continued: "In the eyes of my people, I am a traitor and a lot would never forgive me… . If I go home, I'll go to jail. But it seems that everybody expects us to be sent back and doesn't care."
His main hope is to emigrate to the United States, where an uncle in Texas is willing to sponsor him, but he says that so far the U.S. Embassy has been of little help.
The Yugoslav Lawyers Committee for Human Rights says men like Goran have good reason to fear returning to Yugoslavia. Special laws imposed during the Kosovo campaign provide for jail sentences of up to 10 years for draft dodging, and up to 20 years for leaving the country to avoid a recruitment call-up.
Amnesty International has determined that at least several hundred draft evaders are already imprisoned in Yugoslavia, most of them serving five-year sentences, and as many as 23,000 more cases are before the military courts.
Even without the threat of imprisonment, return would be difficult for many. "My grandfather told me, 'If you come back, I'll kill you, and if I don't, someone else will,' " said Sinisa Prole, 26.
He and eight friends who used to plan anti-Milosevic demonstrations and write political pamphlets at a cafe they called the "Bastion of Freedom" live together in a cramped two-room apartment on a busy boulevard in Budapest.
All are now despised in the small mining town 35 miles north of Belgrade where they once lived.
Both UNHCR and the Council of Europe have said that "refusal to take part in a war condemned by the international community because of serious violations of international humanitarian law should be considered grounds for granting asylum."
Yet no European country including Hungary has been willing to grant refugee status to the Yugoslav draft dodgers.
Under pressure from UNHCR, Hungary has given one-year renewable permits to some 1,200 draft evaders and other asylum seekers. The U.N. refugee agency is now lobbying to win them the right to work and go to school.
Other draft evaders are in Hungary on tourist visas while they await a decision on their status or are in the country illegally. Hungary so far has not deported anyone and is unlikely to do so "at this stage," Mr. Pasquali said.
"We're not asking for special favors. We have skills; we'll work," said Snezana Bozickovic, 30, who fled with her husband and son. She said her family is prepared to go to any Western country where people can speak English.
Not all draft evaders, however, want a new life abroad. Sveta Matic, 26, an active member of the student opposition in Belgrade who was arrested many times, dreams only of going home.
"I want to go back to Serbia. I don't care if we don't have electricity, if I have to wait until I am 40, if I [go back as] a simple worker. I want to be part of building a new democratic Serbia," he said.

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