Serbs, too, seeking refuge; some eye Hungary and US

Hungary, new NATO member, admits influx of Serb 'tourists,' with manyexpected to stay.

During three weeks of NATO airstrikes, America has emerged as a favorite target of Serbian hatred.

State-controlled media spews propaganda that likens President Clinton to Hitler and the US-led air assault to Nazi-like "fascist aggression." So it is a bit jarring that hordes of Serbian refugees should be clamoring for visas - to America.

For several hours on Friday, dozens of them paced and fidgeted in the gleaming, marbled waiting room of the US Embassy in Budapest, Hungary. One woman in heels, her two young sons in tow, railed that the US should be "ashamed" of itself.

Minutes later, though, she had secured a prized visa for the three of them on the strength of an invitation letter from a relative in America.

Ecstatic, she hugged her sons and reassured them: "No more bombs. No more shelters."

She then asked for directions to the nearest McDonald's and took the boys for a celebratory burger. The paradox doesn't end there.

Untold thousands of Serbians - mostly women and children - are today nervously milling about in Hungary. It was their best option, as the northern neighbor of Yugoslavia, the federation of the republics of Serbia and Montenegro. And while much of the world has condemned Yugoslavia's moves in Kosovo, Hungary still grants visas to its citizens.

Yet Hungary, exactly one month ago, became an official member of NATO. It quickly opened up Hungarian airspace to alliance aircraft.

THAT irony has not been lost on Serbian radicals. Recently, they raided and vandalized the Hungarian Embassy in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital. And last week, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic said it was tragic that former cold-war ally Hungary had apparently become "a tool of fascist NATO aggression."

Clearly, though, the plight of Serbian refugees in Hungary is far different from that of the Albanian refugees from Kosovo, Serbia's southern province.

In full view of the world, half a million or so ethnic Albanians have been forced out of Kosovo and into Macedonia and Albania.

Poor and hungry, they take what they can get.

The Serbian refugees, however, are the fortunate few whose money or connections have enabled them to escape the war. In relatively comfortable surroundings, then, they wait and see how long the NATO bombardment will last, or if ground troops will be called in.

Serbian "tourists" have filled the hotels in southern Hungary and in Budapest, the capital. Serbian expatriates in Budapest have mobilized to accommodate friends and family.

The Hungarian Jewish community is sheltering more than 250 Serbian Jews. And the philanthropic empire of George Soros has taken in wives and children of the independent journalists he supports in Yugoslavia.

Many other Serbians are frantically e-mailing from Yugoslavia, but their government has now forbidden men age 16 to 60 from leaving the country.

They'll be needed, in case of NATO ground troops.

Still, the refugee flow continues. Since the airstrikes began March 24, Hungary has recorded some 44,000 border crossings from Yugoslavia. Of these, only 503 Yugoslav citizens - a mix of Serbians, Albanians, and ethnic Hungarians from northern Serbia - have applied for asylum, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office here.

The numbers may be misleadingly low. Foreign embassies and refugee agencies here expect that once the Serbians' money runs out - or as their 30-day visas expire and turn them into "illegal aliens" - more will come forward for protection or visas.

Bracing for a refugee influx, Hungary is now preparing temporary facilities. It's a routine Hungary knows well: Early in the Bosnian war, the country was inundated with 145,000 refugees. In fact, some 500 Bosnian Muslim refugees are still here.

There isn't much sympathy for Serbians today at the US Embassy. It is assumed that visa applicants want to settle in America for good. In the past two weeks, only 50 of 200 applicants have overcome that assumption and won visas, according to an embassy spokesman.

Among those rejected was Jelena, a young psychologist from Belgrade. It didn't matter that her brother, who has lived in the US for six years, had pledged to cover her expenses. Later, Jelena said she'd had mixed emotions about approaching the US for help.

"This is one big game between America and my government and one side will have to give up," she says. "Of course, it angers me to see my country destroyed and made weaker and poorer. But I know that in the end, America will come and help us rebuild."

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