Leaving Subotica

While Subotica authorities consider reintroducing cattle-drawn carts for refuse collection, its multi-ethnic population is voting with its feet and leaving.

Leaving Subotica

While Subotica authorities consider reintroducing cattle-drawn carts for refuse collection, its multi-ethnic population is voting with its feet and leaving.

As the Yugoslav Army pulls its tanks and heavy artillery back from Subotica, a town on Yugoslavia's border with Hungary in the north-western corner of Vojvodina, townsfolk wonder whether they too should be on the move - heading not back into Serbia, but abroad.

Most in this multi-ethnic town of 100,000, which has sizeable Serb and Croat communities and a Hungarian majority, are relieved that the war ended when it did. However, few see any future for themselves staying put.

Despite the ethnic mix, there has been little tension among the various peoples, with the one exception of shattered windows on the handful of Albanian-owned private shops in the first days of the NATO bombing. Nonetheless, many people decided to leave the town during the bombing and, though the war is over, the exodus continues.

"I plan to leave as well. I used to join in anti-regime protests, but now I have given up hoping that things will ever get better," says Kristijan Bartus, a 28-year-old civil engineer and the teaching assistant the Civil Engineering Faculty in Subotica. Kristian is typical of Subotica's young and educated who are deeply frustrated with the quality of their lives and the political situation.

A young doctor, who wished to remain anonymous, shares his opinion. "I would truly wish to see some future. But it seems to me that nothing will change in the coming two or three years," she says. "I live with my boyfriend, but we cannot even afford basic necessities with our salaries. I am for leaving."

Her friend, a teacher, has taken up smuggling - buying goods over the border in Hungary and selling them on in Serbia - to make ends meet. She has been forced to do this because her already tiny salary has not been paid for four months. "I can make 80 German Marks on one smuggling trip, which is almost the monthly salary of a teacher. But, I am not a smuggler, and I think that I should leave," she says.

Most people in Subotica were convinced that their town would be spared NATO's bombs, since they argue that Subotica has, throughout the decade, been a consistent opponent of the regime. Indeed, the Alliance for Vojvodina Hungarians has called a rally, for July 14, this Wednesday. Echoing demonstrations elsewhere in the country, they will be calling for a change of regime and the democratisation of Serbia.

And for the first 22 days of the NATO campaign, the people of Subotica were indeed spared. But on the 23rd day their luck ran out, as four missiles struck the town.

In response, the town mayor Jozef Kasa, who is also a deputy in the Serbian parliament and leader of the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, sent a protest letter to the government of neighbouring Hungary, since that country had became a member of NATO on the eve of the war.

"Multinational, multi-confessional Subotica is a stronghold of the democratic transformation of the country and as such it does not deserve the fate it has befallen," he wrote. Kasa's words were, however, to no avail, as Subotica was subsequently bombed seven more times.

One person died and several were wounded in the attacks which also inflicted an estimated one million German Marks of physical damage. Among the most significant casualties of the bombing was the transmission equipment of Radio Subotica.

That station had been the only remaining broadcast medium specifically for members of the Hungarian and the Croat minorities in much of Vojvodina.

As the bombing dragged on and since the end of the campaign, non-Serbs from Subotica began to leave for fear that they might become "collateral damage". In an attempt to stem the exodus, political parties representing the interests of Hungarians and Croats have appealed for people to stay.

The Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians said: "To leave or to stay? We believe that only one answer is possible - to stay." The leader of the Democratic Alliance of Croats in Vojvodina, Bela Tonkovic, had an identical message: "Aware of the difficulties, we are saying this time as well - stay and survive."

However, the appeals have fallen on deaf ears. There are no official statistics cataloguing the scale of the exodus, but almost everybody has one or more friends who have recently left the country. The reasons for the exodus are largely economic, though the fact that Yugoslav citizens do not need visas for Hungary makes it very easy to get out.

Most workers in the big state-owned companies are now on enforced leave. Only a handful of smaller, privately owned factories still operate. As a result, desperate workers support their families by buying and selling goods from Hungary on the black market.

The shortage of fuel for private cars, public transport and other public services is also alarming. The number of buses in public transportation has been reduced to a minimum, and rubbish is now being collected once every two weeks.

Indeed, so acute is the fuel shortage that the authorities are considering the reintroduction cattle-drawn carts for refuse collection, as if Subotica was suddenly returned to the 19th century.

Josip Stantic is an independent journalist from Subotica.

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