Younger Serbs, resolute hopes As their generation leaves, a few remain

War In Yugoslavia


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Marija Babic could not stay away, not while her generation and hometown were at war, not while history was taking place day to day instead of being lodged in musty books and documents.

So, three weeks ago, the 20-year-old college student dropped her yearlong Holocaust study project in Germany, packed her bags, and returned home to the bombs and uncertainty of NATO's war against Yugoslavia.

"The problem I have with this country is I cannot leave it alone," she says. "I want to live here. I love this town, this country and these people. I have been trying to survive here the last 10 years. I don't want to be forced to live anywhere else. I'm on the edge of saying, 'Forget it,' and going. But I can't."

In her defiant way, Babic is trying desperately to avoid becoming part of Yugoslavia's lost generation.

In the past decade, Yugoslavia has experienced a brain drain, as the best and brightest have fled wars, economic sanctions and the crushing burden of living in a collapsing country that was seemingly on the wrong side of history.

During the 1990s, 200,000 to 400,000 Yugoslavs sought refuge abroad as the country disintegrated in a series of wars. Many who left were young, skilled and educated, the kind of people any society needs to advance and prosper.

Their absence can be felt in many ways, from elementary schools in central Belgrade that have a difficult time boosting enrollment to the static intellectual life of a city that was once among the most vibrant in Eastern Europe.

It seems that everyone knows someone who is now living abroad, in North America, Europe or Australia. There is even a joke that cuts to the core of the problem: How does a clever Serb talk to a not-so-clever Serb? By phone, from Toronto.

As the war against NATO drags on, some of the young here are beginning to acknowledge that their future is clouded, with jobs scarce, wages low and unemployment soaring to about 75 percent of the work force. Even if the war ended immediately, it would take years for Yugoslavia to rebuild its shattered economy and industries that have been smashed by NATO bombardment.

Marcher for democracy

While some are making plans to leave as soon as the war ends, Babic is planning on staying. She has traveled frequently, and spent a year in Border, Texas, as a high school exchange student in the heart of the Bible Belt.

With her brown hair, quick smile, flawless English and casual dress sense of overalls and sneakers, Babic could pass for any college kid in the West. Yet she has uncommon maturity, working on projects such as so-called peace camps to bring together young Serbs, Croats and Muslims who would otherwise have been divided by war.

Like others, she marched in the streets of Belgrade through the winter of 1996-1997 in pro-democracy demonstrations that shook but did not end the regime of President Slobodan Milosevic.

Even as the bombs fall, Babic says she wants the West to remember that there is a new generation in the country willing to embrace democracy.

"How much money are you going to spend on bombing Serbs?" she asks, saying the money would be better spent on rebuilding the economy.

Whatever the outcome of the war, she plans to stay.

So does 32-year-old Zoran Dimitrijevic. In almost any other modern European country, he would be a prosperous member of the middle class, using his computer, telecommunications and lan

guage skills to fashion a career in the private sector. Instead, he lives at home with his parents. He has cobbled together a career working as a driver and translator for international agencies working along the front lines in Kosovo and Bosnia.

'Maybe I'm stubborn'

"Since the breakup of Yugoslavia, everyone can tell you of a dozen friends who are gone," says Dimitrijevic. "I could have left myself, but something kept me here. Maybe I'm stubborn or dumb. But I just stick to something."

Now, he's even less likely to go because he has a girlfriend "who wouldn't leave Yugoslavia, even at gunpoint."

Dimitrijevic says he realizes it might be too late to leave. He would have to prove himself all over again in a different society.

He remains hopeful that things can improve because another young generation is out to change the world.

"The new kids are coming, replacing other people" he says. "Every fresh generation, the kids think they are the best and can't be replaced."

Biljana Srbljanovic, a 28-year-old playwright, agrees that not all is bleak in Yugoslavia.

In her career-making play, "Belgrade Trilogy," she traced the lives of three young Yugoslavs who fled the country during the early 1990s and landed in Prague, Sydney and Los Angeles. It was a play without happy endings.

'A pathetic moment'

During the opening days of this war, Srbljanovic had a chance to leave for Germany, where she was offered a position as writer-in-residence in Hamburg.

Her bags were packed and her mind nearly made up.

"It was a pathetic moment," she says. "I thought, 'If I go now, what will I get? Some money? A decent job? A future?' And if I stay, I thought, 'I will live in a war with people I love and no job.'"

In the end, the choice was easy. Despite the war, she stayed, refusing to join the lost generation.

"I don't want to be pushed out," she says.

Pub Date: 05/17/99

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