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Yugoslavia: UN Seeks Refugee Status For Serbian Deserters

Hundreds of Serbs deserted the army or fled Yugoslavia this year, refusing to become part of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's brutal military machine in Kosovo. RFE/RL's Askold Krushelnycky examines the plight of some of those army deserters, who seek to be classified as refugees.

Prague, 22 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The world remembers the grim images of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians fleeing their homeland of Kosovo earlier this year. But some Serbs, too, left their country, refusing to serve the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

The Serbian political opposition estimates that around 300,000 Serbs, mostly young people, have left the country since the wars began in 1991. Many were men who did not want to fight in a war they considered unjust.

This year, as conflict spread to Kosovo, an unknown number of Serbs deserted the army and fled the draft (conscription). Several hundred of them ended up in neighboring Hungary, a country for which Yugoslavs do not need visas. They have been allowed to stay there but have not been granted refugee status, and some fear they could be sent back to Yugoslavia to face prison terms.

Amnesty International says there could be thousands of other Serbs living in similarly unclear legal positions in other countries.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Amnesty International are trying to secure refugee status for the Serbian deserters in Hungary. They say giving such status to draft evaders could set a precedent for Hungary and other countries.

The Serbs in Hungary are scattered in camps on the outskirts of Budapest and in areas on the border with Serbia. Their spokesman, Vidan Ivanovic, says that together with their families, there are about 1,300 Serbs in the camps. Ivanovic, a former shop owner, said he fled in April after he was called up to serve in the army.

"They searched for me at home and at the store. I saved myself by crossing the Drina River and then, using false documents, I crossed into Croatia, and then went on to Hungary, where I have been for seven months. These have been seven months of despair."

Most of the Serbs cannot speak Hungarian and have been unable to find work. The camp conditions are cramped and there is little assistance from the Hungarian government. Ivanovic says many of the men fear they will not be able to feed their families.

Milomar Mockic is one of the Serbian draft evaders. He has been a member of the opposition to Milosevic's regime for many years, and says he received threats because of his activities. With a group of others, he slipped out of Serbia in March.

"There was great pressure in Serbia and we left. They tried to mobilize us into the war, and I didn't want to fight in an unjust war and kill innocent people for no reason. We have also been involved in political activities and demonstrations since 1991. People were threatening us if we didn't go to the war and said they would settle scores with us afterwards."

The head of the UNHCR in Hungary, Stefan Berglund, believes that the men who fled to avoid serving in the Yugoslav army should be given refugee status. The organization is bringing a legal case on behalf of one of the men in the hope that, if it is successful, other Serbs in Hungary will also be granted refugee status.

"According them refugee status would assist them to find a place at least temporarily in one of the refugee centers run by the government, and they would get at least shelter and food and medical attention -- which they may not if they're running out of funds, be able to get in the open society, so to speak."

Berglund hopes that if the case in Hungary is successful it will have important implications in other countries.

"For Central Europe at least and perhaps even for Western Europe, such cases, if we succeed with one government and in one country, they may have implications in another country. And our colleagues would, of course, follow this case closely -- say in Poland or the Czech Republic -- and would more likely than not bring forward similar cases or the argumentation, at least, in a similar fashion."

Amnesty International last month published a report about the plight of Serbian deserters and draft dodgers, called "The Forgotten Resistance." The report's author, Brian Phillips, told RFE that Amnesty wants the Serbs in Hungary and elsewhere to be granted refugee status to ensure that they will not be sent back to Serbia against their will.

"We believe that the men do qualify as refugees, and of course our primary concern is that they should not be sent back to Serbia. We know that prosecutions of men in this position are taking place. There are estimates of something like 20,000 such cases before military courts and people have been given lengthy sentences anywhere between one and two years or up to five and ten years. And we believe it's important that these men are not sent back to face this sort of punishment."

Phillips believes that the NATO countries, which encouraged Serbian soldiers to desert during the bombing campaign in Kosovo earlier this year, are morally obliged to help the men who did leave the army.

"Interestingly enough, NATO was very much taking this position when it was leafleting, dropping leaflets over Serbia and Kosovo during the conflict itself, leaflets which were explicitly encouraging men not to be party to war crimes and to desert from their units. So one of the arguments we are making in our campaign is that if the NATO governments were very keen to encourage people to stand up to the regime and to resist and to refuse to participate in a conflict in this way that they should now be given protection. It's simply not satisfactory that they should be abandoned at this point."

The Hungarian government is expected to make a response to the UNHCR's legal arguments for granting refugee status within the coming weeks.

(Nebojsa Bugarinovic of the South Slavic service contributed to this report.)