BUDAPEST — Bosko Spasojevic doesn't know if he's a hero or a coward. The bespectacled, square-jawed Serb saw himself as a patriot and had excelled in his mandatory year of military duty.
Yet he resisted the draft to fight again: Although Serbia was not officially at war, he knew he could easily be sent to Croatia's and Bosnia's brutal battlefields. He finally left his homeland for Hungary in 1994, following 200,000-plus draft dodgers and deserters.
Giving amnesty to Mr. Spasojevic and others like him is seen as a critical step toward the success of last year's Dayton accord, which requires Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to pardon those who didn't fight.
But amnesty has yet to become federal law. And even if it does, the expatriates carry a lingering fear of retribution that makes reconciliation complicated at best.
One of two federal chambers of the Serbian government approved an amnesty law in mid-May, with Mr. Milosevic's backing. But passage of the law requires the second chamber's approval, and there are no immediate plans to discuss it. Some observers say the Serb leader is stalling on passage of the controversial law until after December elections.
Prior to the Dayton accord, Serbian expatriates faced arrest in their homeland for draft dodging or desertion. Now, with their fate in legal limbo, they suspect Milosevic's motives and fear future harassment.
They are also alarmed by Belgrade's increasingly oppressive politics, and the alliance between Milosevic's ruling Socialists and the neo-communists. "Here I don't feel at home, but there I can't be free," said Spasojevic, now an archivist in Budapest.
Some analysts question whether Milosevic truly wants the deserters back: They represent a potentially vocal bloc of dissent.
When fighting broke out in 1991 - first in Slovenia, then in Croatia - the Serb president seemed intent on having most young men uniformed and ready for action. Milosevic targeted Vojvodina, the northern province densely populated with ethnic minorities and Serbians with roots in Bosnia.
Belgrade churned out draft notices and military police cordoned off entire streets, searching for conscripts. But the dragnets spawned chaos. Many, like Spasojevic, rejected the idea that men in Croatia and Bosnia, who once were brothers in one Yugoslavia, now had become enemies.
Some families shielded their sons. Other men shuffled between homes of friends and relatives. Networks were set up at work or school to alert draft-dodgers when police came calling. Meanwhile, thousands of young men poured over the border into Hungary, scattering across the globe.
Keeping your voice down
Nenad Dimitrijevic, then an associate law professor at Novi Sad University in Vojvodina, received eight draft notices. Police searched for him often. He had grown up in Bosnia, and when fighting broke out, he joined in antiwar demonstrations.
At work, Mr. Dimitrijevic switched offices with an older colleague; at home, his wife answered the door and phone. His daughter, Tiana, trained herself not to laugh loudly. But when he saw repeated antiwar demonstrations (ignored by state-controlled media) fail to rally the public, he gave up. In October 1993, he and his family left for Hungary.
"I ask myself now, could we have done more?" said Dimitrijevic, now a visiting professor in Budapest. "But we were isolated and helpless because the war propaganda was so pervasive. Skipping the draft was a sign of protest you could do by yourself."
First try at a pardon
Milosevic, it appeared, was willing to part with anyone opposed to his policies. In the spring of 1992, the government made a half-hearted effort to prosecute draft-dodgers in absentia. It initiated court proceedings against 10,000 to 20,000 of them, according to Tibor Varady, who served as federal justice minister under the short-lived tenure of Prime Minister Milan Panic.
But prosecution was destined to fail. A serious attempt would have strangled the courts. So in August 1992, Mr. Varady presented Serbia's first amnesty proposal. The objective, he said, was twofold: to restore credibility of the legal system and score points with the West. "It would have signaled a moral shift toward peace and reconciliation," said Varady, now head of the legal-studies department at Central European University in Budapest.
But instead, Varady was assailed as a traitor and forced from office a few months later. The draft quietly continued, prompting more men to flee.
Today, however, amnesty has a different ring to it in Belgrade. Croatia and Bosnia have already granted amnesty to their deserters. Milosevic is air-brushing his rogue image, and the amnesty would heal relations with scores of heartbroken mothers and fathers. "Milosevic is always looking at things within the context of what best serves his interests," Varady said, "and it's not in his interests to hate those people."
Federal Yugoslav officials were unavailable for comment, despite several requests.
Still, it would take a great deal to bring the boys home. Serbia's economy lies in ruins. Half the work force was unemployed last year. And those amnestied may also face various forms of discrimination back home. They may be blacklisted from the few jobs available. A law enacted last year revokes draft-dodgers' rights to inherit family property. And an imminent passport law may restrict their travel abroad.
Human-rights monitors are ready to pencil in amnesty violations. "Amnesty is no guarantee there won't be discrimination," said Tamas Korhecz, president of Equality, a watchdog group for amnesty abuses in Vojvodina. "And it won't happen to everybody, just ... enough to frighten those who haven't come back to never come back."