As young Serbs flee, seniors rule

Some 350,000 Serbs have left Yugoslavia this decade. Many of those

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On a rare evening excursion to a downtown cafe, Ana, Bojan, and Dusan discuss their futures.

They are university students from well-to-do families, fluent in English and with bright career prospects. But after nine weeks of NATO airstrikes, they say they are torn between loyalty to Serbia and a desire to flee.

"We divide ourselves into two groups," says Bojan, a Serbian refugee from Sarajevo who came to Belgrade in 1992. "Those who think they can do better outside the country and those who think they can do more to help here."

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Mass exodus

Since the breakup of Yugoslavia and the onset of sanctions, some 350,000 Serbs have left Yugoslavia. Most of those who left were young and educated. Many of those remaining are plotting their escapes.

This has left Serbia largely in the hands of the older generations, people who came of age under communism and are skeptical of Western-style democracy. They vote for incumbents and constitute the backbone of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's constituency.

According to Milan Duric, the president of a pensioners' group in Belgrade, 25 percent of Serbia's population has already retired. They live in poverty but fear nothing as much as they fear change.

"The people who help keep Milosevic in power are the ones who suffer the most," he says. "But their children leave for the West."

The decision to leave, however, is not as easy as it once was. Yugoslavia's borders have been closed to draft-age men since airstrikes began. Moreover, the countries they wish to emigrate to - the United States, Canada, Britain, and Germany - are intent on bombing the Serbs into submission.

"The only way I would go to America would be as a terrorist," says Tatijana, a top engineering student in the northern city of Novi Sad.

A few months ago she couldn't stop talking about how much she wanted to finish her degree in the US.

Now she says that if she leaves Yugoslavia, she would opt for a non-NATO country.

The reverse

Others still are returning from abroad, saying they want to join the Army.

Miljan, who is in his 20s, came back from Italy when the airstrikes began, "to defend his country."

When he arrived in his hometown, Lebane, he was full of patriotism. But after a few days of air sirens, blackouts, and shortages, he changed his mind.

"I want to go back," he says. "But I was in Italy illegally, and they probably won't let me in again. Also, the borders are closed."

For Ana, Bojan, and Dusan, best friends, there are no clear-cut answers. On one hand they say they are optimistic - drawing comfort from an increase in diplomatic activity to end the airstrikes.

On the other hand, they realize the extent of the damage already inflicted on Yugoslavia - and are not sure they want to spend decades rebuilding the country.

They are part of a generation that grew up with Nirvana and the Spice Girls. They speak the West's consumer language and don't have much patience for the nationalist rhetoric of some of their leaders.

"I work in a bakery from 9 to 3, just until the bomb sirens ring," says Ana, who has long brown hair and is the most talkative of the group. "Then I run home and get on the Internet - if we have electricity."

She studies Chinese and seems set on moving to China after she gets her degree.

Bojan, Ana's boyfriend, is the most determined to leave. He has lived through two wars: the one in Bosnia and now the one in Yugoslavia.

He says he moved to Belgrade to flee the siege of Sarajevo but received no help from the government here. Having left his home once, he reckons he can do it again. "I won't be bothered by it," he says.

Kosovo is a distant reality for them all. Bojan went there once, when he was a child, and has no desire to pick up a gun and fight for it. Dusan, an engineering student, has never been. Ana went on several school trips and says, "We read many books about Kosovo; we get so much input from school. We believe Kosovo is important because it's part of our history, but here nobody wants to join the Army. It's OK when there is peace, but not now."

The longer the airstrikes continue, the less likely it is that Serbs would leave.

Change of heart

Rudi, a mechanical engineer who spent several months in Chicago last year, says he is still determined to go back and make it into graduate school. But if NATO intensifies bombings of vital civilian infrastructure, there is no doubt in Rudi's mind that Serbs of all ages will turn against the West for generations to come.

"Already, I know some people who decided not to go to America because of the injustice," he says.

"If this continues, if they keep bombing us and do more and more damage, it will change people's hearts for a long, long time."

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