Last spring, as NATO planes were raining down bombs on Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia, the alliance was also dropping tons of propaganda leaflets urging members of the Yugoslav armed forces to desert. "Stay in Kosovo and meet certain death," read one, "or abandon your units and your military equipment and run away as fast as you can." Thousands did run away, including men like "Aleksa," 32, who one night in April a year ago laid down his side arm in northern Serbia, exchanged his uniform for a jogging suit and disappeared into the woods on the Bulgarian border. "I knew I could be killed by soldiers on either side," he recalls, "but I didn't want to fight in another senseless war started by Milosevic." Aleksa and others figured that by allying themselves with the West against Belgrade, they would be welcomed on the other side.
That was wishful thinking. Thousands of Serbian deserters and draft evaders from the Kosovo war are being rejected as refugees by the U.S., Canada and Australia as well as most of the countries in Western Europe that participated in the war. In Hungary, a new NATO member where perhaps the greatest number of Serb deserters have gathered, thousands of Yugoslavs applied for asylum last year; only 37 succeeded, none because he was a resister. The rejections have left these men and their families in an administrative limbo: they can't go home, can't become legal residents of their desired countries of immigration, can't work because of language and legal barriers, and in some cases can't even obtain a passport. "They are forgotten people," says Brian Phillips, a researcher for Amnesty International.
Istvan Dobo, Hungary's top bureaucrat for refugee affairs, says he doesn't believe Serb resisters have any special rights to asylum. "No one promised them a residence permit," he says. "We hope that they go home as soon as possible." He called the deserters' future more a moral than a legal question, adding that "It's not my job to moralize. My responsibility is to apply the provisions of our country's law."
Hungary is not alone in this approach. A U.S. judge in the state of Illinois last month rejected three asylum applications from Serb resisters because they failed to prove that it was Yugoslav government policy to commit human rights abuses in Kosovo. Amnesty International and other human rights groups reject such hairsplitting. They say NATO governments in particular have an obligation to grant asylum to the people whom they urged to flee. With the possibility of new trouble brewing in the Republic of Montenegro, they add, encouraging resisters from the Yugoslav army could pay off in the future.
No one knows exactly how many resisters left Serbia during the Kosovo war, though analysts say about 23,000 would face prosecution in Serbia if apprehended. In neighboring Hungary, officials say 10,000 to 15,000 passed through the country last year. Almost all attempted to reach Western Europe, Australia or North America in search of relatives.
As a group Serb resisters have attracted little sympathy, perhaps in part because they include in their ranks at least some war criminals. A senior official with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, Erika Feller, said three self-proclaimed resisters she interviewed in Macedonia last year admitted to taking part in gang rapes in Kosovo. "They said it was like having breakfast," Keller recalls. "Well, there is a limit to obeying orders." Evidence of complicity in such crimes would automatically disqualify a candidate for asylum.
More typical, however, are the impoverished resisters who washed up in places like Debrecen in eastern Hungary, where a fetid network of former Soviet military barracks houses refugees from around the world who have failed to get papers for the West. "Conditions are horrible," says "Dragan," 30, an optician from Belgrade who fled the draft via Sarajevo and Switzerland and ended up in Debrecen, sleeping six to a room and eating beans out of a can. Rejected for asylum, he plans to hit the road again this summer and go underground.
Vladimir Pavlovic, 23, a resister who dodged the draft for five years pleading psychological disability, fled to Bosnia and then Budapest last May. Unable to get papers to join his uncle in Chicago, Pavlovic is now organizing a resisters' support group to try to obtain help from nongovernmental aid agencies. "We were naive about the West," he says from the smoke-filled two-room apartment he now shares with eight other resisters. "We thought that they would want to help us for refusing to take part in the genocide. We were wrong."
Bad as life is, none is contemplating going home. Under Serbian law, wartime deserters face up to 20 years in prison; draft evaders up to 10. Hundreds are already in jail. The independence-minded Montenegrin republic recently granted an amnesty to draft dodgers, but it was annulled by a Serbian judge as unconstitutional. Paul Miller, an Amnesty investigator in the region, says families of deserters live in fear for their sons and daughters. "Border guards are on the lookout," he says. "The risk of arrest is high." Lately, resisters have seen a few glimmers of hope. Two municipalities in Germany accepted a handful of Serb resisters earlier this year, and Denmark recently approved 15 for refugee status. After an appeal by unhcr, Hungary agreed this month to review the rejection of one applicant.
In Serbia, conscription is underway again in the south and southwest. There are also reports of localized resistance. By refusing to grant asylum to draft dodgers already out of the country, Western governments may actually be discouraging such resistance. Leave, they seem to be saying, but then you are on your own.
With reporting by Dejan Anastasijevic/Belgrade