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Refugee Reflections From The Former Yugoslavia

Prague, June 13 (RFE/RL) -- For many students in the former Yugoslavia it is not a question of "IF" they will return home, but when. Having survived war, hardship and untold sacrifice to find themselves as refugees, the students still speak of that elusive "better day."

Students like A.B., now of The Hague in Holland, who writes: "One day we'll go back to help rebuild our country and bring love instead of hate, order instead of chaos, democracy and prosperity instead of death."

A.B. is one of nearly 100 students whose writing and experiences were featured in a recent collection called "Children of Atlantis: Voices From The Former Yugoslavia." The project was part of the Soros Foundation's Open Society Grant Program for students from the former Yugoslavia. American financier George Soros, who was born in Hungary, finances the effort. Each student applicant was asked three questions: "what are your reasons for leaving the former Yugoslavia and your reasons for wanting to continue your education abroad?" And "How do you perceive your future and the possibility of returning to your country after your studies are completed?"

Their replies are straightforward accounts of how their lives were transformed by war. Pieced together, these fragments of their experiences help form a picture of what for many is incomprehensible.

Editor Zdenko Lesic says he chose not to publish the names of the contributors, such as A.B., identifying them only by their initials. That decision, Lesic said, is aimed at deterring readers from making presumptions based on nationality.

In their accounts, the writers reject the categories of Serb, Croat or Muslim. Their nationality, they say, is Yugoslav and they prefer to be treated as individuals. In the words of L.I., now of Toronto, Canada: "Human life deserves much more than to be erased by the whistle of a bullet or the explosion of a mortal shell."

A.B. of London put it this way: "The time came when I had to decide what to be: Muslim? Serb? Croat? or simply disappear."

And disappear they did.... as D.L. of Austria writes: "one of the most tragic outcomes of events in the ex-Yugoslavia is that so many young, educated people with open minds on life and the world have left."

Some found it hard to take what they called the unpleasant, stifling political atmosphere; others could not bear waiting in the shelters of their besieged towns. Some were abroad when the war broke out and could no longer return home; others fled from home because of the horrors of war.

I.L. of Vienna speaks for many when he writes: "A whole generation of young people has left Yugoslavia not because they do not believe in the future of that country, but because they were bitterly disappointed by current events."

For D.I., currently residing in the Czech Republic, the decision to leave was more personal. He said, "As an artist I would simply say that I decided I could do much more for my country with a brush in my hand in exile than by pointing a gun in a nationalistic war."

V.I. of Amsterdam writes simply,"I couldn't take it anymore."

S.K., who escaped to London, had this to say: "there are many reasons for my leaving my former homeland -- emotional, existential, intellectual -- but they are all epitomized in two feelings I have had for a long time: deprivation and helplessness."

For some, like D.M. who made it to Amsterdam, that helplessness hangs on. He writes, "This is not my country. I speak the language, I have Dutch friends, but I am still a stranger. And my heart is elsewhere."

A.H.A, now of Houston, Texas put it this way: "I often think about how nice it would be to see my home in Bosnia just one more time, to see the old tree in front of our house, and the river.... But I know that my wishes can not come true, and that is what hurts so much."

This excerpt by S.M. of Vienna, Austria paints a picture of the war many now wage within themselves: "I managed to escape from Sarajevo, but I only escaped physically. The war, which I have never called mine, follows me everywhere. All this time my thoughts have been back home with my family, my friends and everything I left behind. I have never felt peace of mind."

A.A., also of Vienna, had this to say: "I have lost fifty members of my family. Must I lose my country as well?"

Despite the extraordinary hardships and daily uncertainties they face, each and every one of these young students share the same basic desire to continue their studies. A.S., now of Bridgeport, Connecticut, perhaps put it best when he wrote: "I have since learned that the most precious possession one can have is knowledge. It is the only possession that can never be taken away."

Others have learned the age-old lesson of "forgive and forget."

B.K., who now resides in the Midwestern United States, recalled the lyrics of a wartime rock song in his entry..."Sarajevo will remain, the rest will pass."

Until then, these young writers pen their past and possible futures from the shores of native lands. Deep in their souls, however, they've never left the Balkans....

"Where am I from?," one contributor wrote. "Yugoslavia. Is there any such country? No, but it's still where I come from."