Report on the activities of the "Safe House" project
The "Safe House" project actively took part in the preparation of Amnesty International's campaign to draw world's attention to the problems of hundreds and thousands of deserters and draft evaders from Serbia and Montenegro who are either imprisoned or in exile, fearing extremely harsh penalties if they return. The biggest number of them is to be found in Hungary. The vast majority of those has no status, no help or understanding from anywhere. In order to fully evaluate their situation a visit was organized to two biggest refugee camps in Hungary. We also visited deserters and draft evaders who stay in Adventist Church seminary and many others who stay in houses of friends or relatives or simply live in rented summer bungalows. It was shocking to realize that we were the first people to visit these camps after NATO made an agreement with Milosevic which ceased the military activities in Kosovo and Serbia. Since then no interest was shown by any journalist, humanitarian or human rights organizations for the fate of these people who can not return to their homes as amnesty for those who opposed the war was not a part of the agreement reached. We spoke with tens of people and made twenty three interviews. Very soon fully detailed report will be available from AI office. Here are only a couple brief stories:
Zoltan Ric, 25 year old ethnic Hungarian from Zrenjanin, Vojvodina accepted his call up and served in reserve forces battalion near Senta. After he showed some dissent he was imprisoned but then released to wait for his trial in freedom. In the Military Court in Novi Sad he was convicted to three years of imprisonment for "leaving his unit without approval" (nine hours altogether) and "spreading influence of disloyalty and weakening the combat moral". For leaving his duty and allegedly driving under influence of alcohol he was punished with one and for other offences he got another two years of imprisonment
Zoltan bitterly explains that he and his colleagues as witnesses were under terrible pressure to confess to all claims. They were threatened to be imprisoned for smoking marihuana some years ago if they wouldn't sign beforehand written statements. He adds that his opinion about fighting with NATO forces cost him years of imprisonment while Milosevic eventually let NATO troops in Kosovo and was not punished at all. Zoltan's teachers and friends from Zrenjanin reacted on the verdict in which he was qualified as a traitor and Hungarian nationalist. They believe such accusations are without precedent and that "he is paying the price for being Hungarian and not being able to stand the pressure".
Before the sentence was brought Zoltan fled to Hungary and is now in Budapest looking for support.
D. I., 31 year old electrician from Negotin in Eastern Serbia, accepted his call up right after the NATO bombing started. For two months he and fellow reservists in his army unit were digging trenches in the mountains in Eastern Serbia. When they were told that they should go to Kosovo to replace some other troops D., an Adventist, strongly committed not to kill, decided to desert. In full gear he ran over mountainous border to Bulgaria, where he reported to the police. After two months of staying with acquaintances and with no support in Bulgaria he came to Hungary.
In Hungary he reported to refugee authorities and is still waiting to get any temporary status. He wants to go to Australia where his mother and two sisters live but was rejected at the Australian embassy. He was told to wait until the consulate reopens in Belgrade and that he should also bring a document certifying that he was not under investigation which is more than absurd in his situation.
At the moment D. is staying in the Adventist Seminary near Budapest trying to cope with his position and trying to start a new life somewhere.
These people often encounter response from both Hungarian or international authorities that there is no place for them and that their duty was to defend their homeland. As if Serbia was not waging an internationally condemned war and as if NATO countries' leaderships were not calling people of Serbia to resist it.
The same week a meeting with activists from Serbia was organized in Budapest with the idea to learn more about the concrete situation in various areas and further disseminate the information about initiatives for amnesty in Serbia. Another aim was to identify possibilities for antimilitarist work in the future. The participants included activists from The Group of Irresponsible Citizens and Society for Development of Culture - Kraljevo, Party of Labour and Students' Union of Kragujevac as well as a recently released initiator of mass demonstrations in Leskovac, one of the towns, most severely affected by recent war. All these groups have stressed over and again their demand for general amnesty. Here is what they told us:
Military or civil authorities in Serbia do not release any information on number or identity of imprisoned deserters or draft evaders. The same is with the names and number of those killed during the war in Kosovo or elsewhere in Serbia. The only exception is Kragujevac where the Army publicly announced names of evaders during the first month of bombing and mobilization campaign in order to humiliate them. Later on however, their number increased so much that it actually put shame on the army, which in turn ceased this practice. Besides couple of cases of well known political activists, trials to deserters and draft evaders are also held secretly. The same is with verdicts and thus many people who were trialed in absency can not realize they were prosecuted or sentenced until they are arrested.
This issue does not play a role in actual political campaign in Serbia. Economic hardship and tragedy of refugees and other victims of war surpass in its intensity any interest in general public for the fate of imprisoned deserters and draft evaders. Their family are the only concerned but they too are not organized. So far NGO's and civil groups were not much involved in this problem either. There was only one public round table discussion organized by the Yugoslav Committe of Lawyers for Human Rights and a students' group "Resistance" launched a symbolic protest in front of the Military Court in Belgrade.
From the participants of the meeting we also learnt that they also took part in The Youth Social Action, a newly created network of youth, previosly involved in the "Antiwar campaign,"which has an idea to make a big campaign demanding a general amnesty for deserters and draft evaders. They plan leafleting and posters' announcing all over Serbia which would exercise pressure over authorities and even more importantly, draw people's attention to this problem. The "Safe House" project will get involved as well and will inform you about developments.