BUDAPEST, HUNGARY — Zarko tools his rusty Renault over roller-coaster cobblestones, half-joking with a passenger, "Did you know this is the most hated car in Budapest? We have the Belgrade license plates!"
For an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Serbian refugees scattered throughout the Balkans and Central Europe, there is little of the ecstasy felt by the Kosovar Albanians for the end of the NATO bombing campaign.
Instead, the Serbs who have fled to Hungary or Austria are living in a world of cheap hotels and private homes, borrowed money and donated food - and disdain. Many were opposed to the Milosevic regime in Belgrade, but also to NATO airstrikes - a position that leaves them feeling despair about their future in a country with a mangled infrastructure and almost no economy to speak of.
Many won't return. Others can't afford to stay out.
"They have bombed us, destroyed us, left Milosevic to us, and now what? We will get no help," says Slobodan Nakarada, a former Belgrade executive now living in Budapest. "When [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair says we must oust Milosevic to get reconstruction aid, that leaves us two choices: live in perpetual misery or find ourselves in a civil war. Either way, people are going to starve and freeze."
Unlike the Kosovar Albanians who were kicked out of their homes and flooded the borders of Macedonia and Albania by the tens of thousands, these Serbs received little media attention or humanitarian aid. Instead, the intellectuals, Army deserters, doctors, mothers, and children left by twos and threes.
Most headed for the open border of Hungary, sometimes packing their bags on impulse in 20 minutes and leaving at night. Many are supporters of the ailing opposition movement inside Serbia and felt they could not last there while the Milosevic regime became more hard-line and more popular with every NATO bomb.
Still, in cities like Vienna and Budapest, these Serbs feel unwelcome. They are marked by their passports or their language as undesirable, often forced to pay higher rates for hotels and services. Many say they have been harassed and stopped by city police.
Margareta, a young Serb who escaped to Vienna a year ago, says her boyfriend is in Belgrade but that she won't live there anymore. She needs her job in Austria but finds the atmosphere cold and unfriendly.
"I just want to fly up into the sky and live there," she says, pointing to the blue beyond. "My work and my love are in two different places, and I feel unhappy in both. What kind of world is this?"
Those who opposed both the Milosevic regime and NATO now feel extremely divided among themselves when they meet in various Western-style therapeutic groups to discuss the future, tell jokes, and commiserate. They feel the personal defeat of their liberal Zajedno movement of 1996, in which throngs of as many as 500,000 Belgrade citizens blew shiny whistles in protest of the Milosevic regime for three months. They feel defeated by NATO. And they feel misunderstood abroad.
"We didn't leave because of Kosovo, which most of us don't care that much about," says one. "We left because of the regime. I don't think this is well understood in the West."
Zarko, who says his family was part of the opposition that was hounded in Belgrade, does not know what to tell his son, who used to love all things American but who now hisses at NATO planes and American politicians when they appear on the news.
"This bombing war is now the primary experience of the West for our children," Zarko explains during a meeting over biscuits at a Norwegian aid-agency office in downtown Budapest. "Their country was the most important story on TV for months and months, and was reviled. How can I explain to them not to hate the West and Europe? How can I tell them the situation is more complicated than that, that it isn't quite what it seems?"
No exact figures for Serbian refugees are known. At the beginning of the war, some 44,000 Serbs were counted crossing the Hungarian border, where visas are not required. Nor are all or even most of the Serbs who left their country during the war considered to have done so for reasons of politics or conscience.
Many Serbs did not register in Hungary or Austria, feeling that to do so might target them for later deportation. Hungarian and Austrian officials did refuse long-term visas to men who wanted to escape the draft in Serbia.
Now at war's end, some Serbs, including those less wealthy or apolitical, are going home. The early-morning buses out of Budapest to Belgrade are packed with families carrying the hefty burlap sacks of vegetables and clothes that mark them as farmers or villagers.
"I can't afford this place anymore," says a Serbian father who refused to give his name. "There's no choice. We have to leave."
For the leaders and organizers of the Zajedno movement, there are no plans to protest anew. "That doesn't seem like [a few] years ago, it seems like 200," says one. "We don't know what to do. We thought we did our best. We mobilized, but our coalition broke up, and the West seemed to abandon us. Now one cares for us. We're Serbs."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society