Yugoslav Unrest 'Living Like A Rat In A Hole' The Youth Of Yugoslavia Are Fed Up. So Many Are Leaving The Country.

Posted: October 04, 1999

BELGRADE — Ivan Buncic watched the barefoot Gypsy boys eating bread under a billboard for Miss Yugoslavia and spoke of escaping "the black humor of my life."

Lanky and blue-eyed, Buncic grew up on MTV, war and economic depression. His country disintegrated throughout his youth. And now, at 21, Buncic earns $60 a month as a parking attendant.

He knows computers, spouts hip-hop American English. He is connected to the global village, but lives in an outcast nation where $60 a month is about as good as it gets.

"I was 11 years old in 1989. I was raised through the pain of this country," said Buncic, an engineering major at Belgrade University. "You keep thinking maybe this is the year there will be hope. But the year passes and there is no hope, and you're living like a rat in a hole. I want to get out of here. Buy me a ticket to paradise."

Thirty of Buncic's friends have left Yugoslavia. They joined 300,000 to 400,000 young people - 30 percent with university or vocational degrees - who have fled their homeland since 1991. The surge of those escaping escalated during the war in Kosovo, and since 1998 more than 50,000 Generation X'ers have emigrated to Canada, Australia, the United States and other countries.

It is an enormous brain drain, one that will cost the Yugoslav economy about $4 billion in lost potential, according to the Institute for International Affairs and the Economy. Analysts say that's a staggering price to pay for a country that will need 40 to 80 years to recover from NATO bombing and a decade of economic turmoil.

But more wasted time, said Buncic, is unthinkable for youths who already have sacrificed their childhoods to the disastrous whims of President Slobodan Milosevic.

"The future? There is no future here," said Buncic.

Buncic's generation had a precarious birth. In grade school, he and his peers recited the epic poems and battlefield myths of Serbian heroes. By adolescence, those stories had become the grist for a twisted nationalism as Milosevic hurled his nation into four Balkan wars. Economic ruin quickly followed.

Serbs a few years older than Buncic began emigrating. Those who stayed enrolled at Belgrade University, led street protests and read in the newspapers that Milosevic's 24-year-old son, Marko, had opened an amusement park called Bambi-land. Street protests fizzled and another war emerged. By the time Buncic turned 21, he and his buddies were huddling in cafes during the day and dodging NATO missiles at night.

They wear baggy pants and Nike hats, they buy pirated CDs and pierce themselves with earrings, but the young of Buncic's generation have become increasingly alienated from the West.

Yugoslavia's world image has demoralized them, and their parents urge them to leave. Many stay connected to the outside world through the Internet, but often find that chat rooms ignore them when they type in their Serb identities.

"It's horrible how the world sees us," said Maja Jankovic, 27, a sales clerk. "We're drowned by all of this."

"They kicked us out of Bosnia and Croatia. NATO bombed us, and the world looks upon us as dogs," said Srecko Mojsilovic, a muscular young man with a brush cut who sells parking stubs with Buncic. "I have an uncle in Switzerland. He tells me his friends treat him as if he's bloodthirsty. This is the perception we live with."

But reality at home is a strange mosaic of survival. At the ZuZu Cafe, the young sip Nescafe cappucinos and Schweppes tonic. They light black-market Marlboros with Bic lighters and listen to Elton John sing "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." The nouveaux riches among them - those with Versace T-shirts and BMWs, whose parents hold offshore bank accounts - talk on cell phones as beggars hobble past.

"Young people are just trying to exclude themselves from all the mess around them," said Dejan Kastratovic, 23, a law student whose father quit the Yugoslav military in disgust. "We have no faith. I don't know if I'll stay. But my degree won't be recognized anywhere else in the world. There aren't many solutions. Milosevic has ruined us."

A bus rattled toward the National Opera, and Sasa Ivanovic sat on a park bench drinking beer and smoking marijuana. He was "bleating" - Yugoslav slang for hanging out and doing nothing.

Ivanovic is an unemployed chef. He bleats a lot. Wearing black sunglasses and blue shorts, he relies on the fatalistic shorthand that young people here have perfected.

"I'm definitely not doing anything else," he said. "Maybe I'll move to Beverly Hills," he said.

Ivanovic appreciates the ironies of his life. His pleasures are supplied by his enemies. The beer he drinks - nicknamed "traitor" - is from Montenegro, a tiny republic that is trying to break away from Yugoslavia. The marijuana he smokes comes from Albania and Kosovo. He pointed his face to the sun, finished his beer and talked to his friend Bojan Banovic, who in two days was heading to Greece.

"We gotta leave this place," said Ivanovic, who then hopped on a bike and pedaled away.

Ivan Marovic is not ready to buy a ticket out. A 25-year-old with a mechanical-engineering degree, Marovic belongs to Resistance, a political opposition group founded by university students. He sat in a cafe the other day, rolling his own cigarettes and borrowing historical footnotes for his country's woes.

"Serbia is like Japan after World War II. The whole structure is twisted," he said. "In the last 10 years, we've gone numb. We lived through four wars and lots of death. . . . A lot of my friends have left, and I was really thinking of leaving the country in 1992. But after the 1996 protests failed to change the government, I became angry. Now I think it's between me and Milosevic.

"It's personal. I don't want to go and let Milosevic and his rotten regime remain in power. There are students willing to sacrifice their livelihoods and youth for this . . . because if we don't, we'll be losers no matter where we go."

The young women in the Monza Racing Cafe watched a jet ski dart across the Danube River, which twists through Belgrade. The Monza has cheesecake, strudel, and a great view of war damage. A nearby casino, run by a suspected war criminal known as Arkan, is peppered with holes from NATO bombs. The "sponzoruse," or "sponsor girls," sit outside under green umbrellas. In their 20s, they are kept in nice cars and designer clothes by rich men who are seldom seen.

Most of the young patrons in the Monza have only poor parents to rely on. Their clothes are worn, and they nurse 60-cent coffees through long compilations of Abba's greatest hits. Some are university students. Others work in offices and banks, earning the equivalent of about $10 a week. More than a few evaded the Yugoslav draft, refusing to be sent to Kosovo and end up disillusioned like their brothers and cousins who fought years earlier in Croatia and Bosnia.

Ana Barjaktarevic, 22, is too busy these days to linger over coffee. She's in her fourth year of medical school. Her father is a doctor, but she doubts she will find a job in an economy with a 50 percent unemployment rate. She can't afford textbooks - one costs $120 - so she goes to the bookstore or to the homes of friends and copies the pages.

She sat in a park the other day, her hair in a bun and her fingernails painted blue. She said everything was fine with her - that she "lived in the moment."

She sounded unconvincing, even to herself. She paused. After a few minutes, her voice hardened.

"Being young and being Serb," she said, "is the worst thing you can be in the world today.

"You can't understand what I've been through. I know I don't have a future here. But this summer I tried to get a visa to go on vacation to Canada. I drove 12 hours to the Canadian Embassy in Romania since the one here is closed because of sanctions and everything else.

"They turned me down. It was so humiliating. They turned me down because I was a Serb. They didn't want me. So why should I think about the West?"

She has found no solutions in Belgrade, either. Barjaktarevic marched in the streets during 88 days of protests against Milosevic in the winter of 1996-97. Nothing changed. She and other students have little faith in the new opposition movement that is leading protests today. Politics, she said, is a chorus of the uninspired.

"Sometimes," Barjaktarevic said, "it's an effort just to get out of bed."

Across town, the Gypsy boys disappeared into the afternoon shadows, and Ivan Buncic collected parking stubs and strolled around a park named after Vasa Carapic, a 19th-century Serbian war hero. Carapic's statue, which shows him stepping with his sword to battle, brooded over the park. But Buncic has grown weary of folk tales and myths. He was doing math:

"My brother went to Slovenia and earned $265 in just 15 days," said Buncic. "I work a month and earn $60. This is not right. This is crazy."

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