In other circumstances, there would be nothing unusual about busloads of Yugoslavs visiting the capital of their northern neighbor, Hungary.
But with NATO’s daily assault on Kosovo and other locations throughout Yugoslavia, these are no ordinary “tourists.” Roughly 200 Yugoslav Jews — some of whom arrived one day before NATO fired its first missile, on March 24 — are now in Budapest, hosted by the Hungarian Jewish community.
As the Jews here wait and see how events unfold at home, more buses are on their way.
“We are not refugees; we’re still tourists, who crossed the border legally with our passports,” said one woman from Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, who arrived on March 23 with her two grown children.
“The plan was just to come for a couple of days until things settle down, then go back. But we’re still waiting.”
Indeed, there is a huge distinction between these citizens of Yugoslavia — composed of two republics, Serbia and tiny Montenegro — and the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, Serbia’s southern province.
During 14 months of conflict, the Yugoslav army and Serbian police have forced tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians — known as Kosovars — to flee south into Albania proper. And more are coming every day. In all, 500,000 of the 2 million Kosovars have reportedly been uprooted from their homes.
Escalating tension in the province, fueled by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, prompted NATO to launch its unprecedented air campaign. Soon, there may be other ethnic minorities in Serbia seeking relief from the warfare.
Hungary, for example, is bracing for a wave of ethnic Hungarians from northern Serbia, and many Serbs themselves are believed to be already staying with relatives in Hungary.
All the activity in Serbia is reminiscent of what happened earlier this decade, as Milosevic orchestrated the wars in Bosnia and Croatia next door. From 1991 to 1995, some 200,000 Serbian citizens emigrated abroad, many of them to avoid the army draft. At that time, some Yugoslav Jewish parents also sent their draft-age sons to Israel.
This time around, as NATO strikes loomed last week, the Hungarian Federation of Jewish Communities offered shelter to the estimated 3,000 Yugoslav Jews.
With Yugoslavia a pariah state, Hungary is one of the few countries in the world that hasn’t slapped visa requirements on Yugoslavia’s citizens.
So, on March 23, the Belgrade community took up the Hungarian offer and rented the first two buses to make the 400-mile trip.
As NATO bombing has intensified in the days since, so, too, has the stream of Yugoslav Jews into Budapest. Two-thirds of them are teen-agers and young adults, sent away for safekeeping — and for their parents’ peace of mind.
“I’m here because my mom made me,” said Iva, 23, a university student who, on Monday, sent her first e-mail back home. “She said: ‘Go, while you can. You can always come back.’ But I have just a few more exams before I graduate, so now I don’t know what to do.”
Other arrivals include a handful of families, a few elderly people and several young children.
The visitors are spending their days gathered at the center, the adults sitting on wooden chairs, chain-smoking, nervously talking about the war. Community officials are trying to come up with activities for the kids — such as arts and crafts and basketball games — especially those separated from their parents.
Thrown into the mix are a pair of young sisters, Bosnian Jews who are on the move for the second time in their short lives. They were among the 200 Jews evacuated from Sarajevo to Belgrade in 1992.
Up to 150 of the visiting Jews are being housed at the Jewish Community Center in downtown Budapest, in dorms usually reserved for 40 Hungarian Jewish students from the provinces. But those students are home for Passover. So extra foam mattresses have been crammed in to sleep seven to 10 per room.
The other Yugoslav Jews are sleeping at a Jewish high school in town, which lacks shower facilities.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has quickly swung into action, assisting with individual needs of the Yugoslav Jews, including counseling and finding better accommodations.
In Budapest, when the number of Jews streaming in jumped from 40 to 200 over the weekend, the local Budapest community, which had initially thought it could assist their neighbors on its own, asked the JDC for help.
But now thinking longer-term, the JDC’s priority is to find better housing. One possibility is the Szarvas international Jewish camp, located two hours from Budapest.
Yugoslav Jews want to return home when the dust clears. Many have opted not to come to Budapest — yet — for fear of losing jobs difficult to come by in a country in economic ruin.
And when it comes to the NATO assault, most share the hostility of their compatriots toward the United States and Europe.
“Milosevic is a jerk, but this does nothing to him,” Iva said, echoing the views of many here. “Instead, they’re killing people like my friends, who are forced to serve their military service in Kosovo.”
Meanwhile, Jews in Kosovo have declined offers to help them leave, according to Jewish aid workers who have been active in the former Yugoslavia.
Plans have reportedly been drawn up to extract the approximately 50 Jews remaining in the Kosovar capital of Pristina if necessary, the workers said.
Meanwhile, eight Jewish men from the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia fled to Bulgaria over the weekend and are being cared for by local Jews near the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. The men, all college students, expressed fears that the conflict may spill over the Serbian-Macedonian border. *