Calif. woman battles for return of children her husband spirited to Serbia

March 19, 1993|By John B. O'Donnell Jr. | John B. O'Donnell Jr.,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- For 3 1/2 years, Shayna Lazarevich's obsession has been her children -- spirited to the former Yugoslavia by her ex-husband, a Serb whom she met and married in California.

Despite promises from the Serbian government, despite court orders in the United States and Serbia, despite pressing her search daily in Belgrade, Mrs. Lazarevich has not gotten her children back.

She believes they are still in Serbia, though she doesn't know where, and she is afraid her former husband, scheduled to complete a seven-month jail sentence for forgery, will flee the country with them when he is released from prison March 29.

Her persistance attracted the assistance of then Secretary of State James A. Baker III who appealed to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic on a visit to Belgrade in June, 1991. Mr. Baker's appeal, she says, was simple: Enforce the orders of your courts to turn the children over to the mother.

Now, there is a new administration in Washington, and Mrs. Lazarevich is afraid that her plight will fall off the radar screen at the State Department. So she is in Washington this week hoping to attract the attention of President Clinton and Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher.

That effort included a round of meetings on Capitol Hill and a news conference yesterday organized by Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a Baltimore County Republican of Serbian descent who has pressed Mrs. Lazarevich's case with the Milosevic regime.

Mrs. Lazarevich, now 31, and Dragisa Lazarevich, now 47, were divorced in May 1989. The children, Sasha, now 10, and Andre, now 7, lived with their mother in Santa Cruz, where she was attending the University of California.

In September, 1989, their father took the children for a weekend visit, and never brought them back. A month later she discovered he had gone to Serbia with them.

She went in search of the children and found them, but only managed to get a couple of supervised visits before they vanished. She has lived most of the last three years in Belgrade trying to regain custody.

She says the courts have ordered her husband eight times to turn over the children. But the authorities won't enforce the orders.

Perhaps, she muses, it is because the former Yugoslavia is a "confusing place." Perhaps it is because government agencies are deteriorating. Perhaps it is the "tremendous corruption." Perhaps it is because she is an American, held in low regard, and her former husband is being protected by his brother Serbs.

She has printed posters and put them up in Serbia, usually at night. She has offered a cash reward, but to no avail.

In front of cameras yesterday, Mrs. Lazarevich was near tears when she described her last visit with her son.

"Despite all the court orders I've gotten, the last time I was allowed to see my son was in March 1992, almost exactly a year ago . . . for only two hours . . . He told me how his father spanked him but then showed me that 'spanking' meant slapping him across his face. He showed me the broken tooth in the back of his mouth.

"There was nothing I could do to protect him. There were people outside the room to make sure I didn't leave with him despite all the court orders."

After the news conference, she was composed. Unfailingly patient with questions she probably has heard a thousand times, she never theless betrayed a sense of weariness.

"The world goes on around you," she said. "People progress with their lives. You are stuck in this limbo."

Does she ever think about giving up?

"There is nothing that I could do . . . that would make me forget my own kids. I would have to pretend they don't exist. I would have to convince myself that they don't need me, that they were not being abused."

"It was extra painful to return to the states without my kids. That's why I stuck it out so long [in Belgrade]. If I can be with them, then at least I can be closer to them."

3' Next week, she returns to Belgrade.

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