Ethnic Hungarians Fear They're Next

IN THE YUGOSLAV PROVINCE of Vojvodina, ethnic Hungarians are wondering whether they will be the next targets of the Serbs' ethnic-cleansing campaign.

BUDAPEST, Hungary - On the walls of homes and public buildings in the Yugoslav province of Vojvodina, the slogans are ominous: "Hungarians: Your God is dead and doesn't care for you anymore."

Just in case the message left any doubts for the ethnic Hungarians, predominantly Roman Catholics, their church in Subotica was bombed this week, and anonymous phone calls became more explicit: "Get out!"

The 350,000 Hungarians whose roots in Vojvodina go back as far as 1,000 years; they were the farmers of what was once the breadbasket of the Kingdom of Hungary and is now the breadbasket for Serbia.

For years, Vojvodina's Hungarian minority feared it was the next target for what the Democratic Community of Hungarians in Vojvodina (DCHV) described in a recent statement as a "sinister plan for the final solution of purging Vojvodina of its non-Serb ethnic population."

"The wall messages are very clear," said Josef Kasza, the mayor of the town of Subotica who was interviewed by telephone.

After the Croatian and Bosnian wars, a quiet Serb campaign has already "encouraged" 50,000 ethnic Hungarians in Vojvodina to go abroad, mainly to Hungary.

Many of those who joined the exodus say they were forced to go at gunpoint, or after beatings or constant intimidation, according to reports by the Human Rights Watch, a monitoring organization.

At the end of WWII

Once a majority, Vojvodina's Hungarians still constituted 50 percent of the population at the end of World War II. Today, only 17 percent of the 2 million people in Vojvodina are ethnic Hungarians in a region that was part of the Kingdom of Hungary until 1920 before the Western powers transferred it to Serbia.

When Ferenc Kisimre, 48, a writer, fled to Hungary eight years ago to keep his son out of the Serbian army, the penalty for running away from the draft was a jail sentence. Today ethnic Hungarians who dodge the draft and refuse to fight in Kosovo face death by firing squad, he said.

"I did not want to fight Croatians in those days. We had a good relation with our Croatian neighbors. And I did not want my young son to be drafted. So we fled and left everything behind, our home, our furniture, all our possessions," Kisimre recalled at his new home at the border town of Szeged in Hungary.

Atmosphere changed

Some 150,000 Serbs, nearly half of all Serbs displaced by the Bosnian and Croatian wars, were settled in Vojvodina in recent years. As that happened, the atmosphere became increasingly hostile to ethnic Hungarians.

Belgrade has pointedly ignored pleas from the European Parliament to stop the resettlement.

"People, mainly the young, left because the pressure in the media gave them a feeling of insecurity, because there were threats from paramilitary forces and a growing number of Serbian refugees came to settle among us. The authorities were also forcing our young men to join the army," said Kasza, whose family has lived in Subotica for 500 years.

The fertile, rolling flatlands of Vojvodina are a microcosm of the Balkan region. Wars and treaties have redrawn borders that left millions of ethnic minorities stranded and sprinkled in countries that do not share their religion, their culture or their language.

Vojvodina's population includes Serbs, Croatians, ethnic Germans, Slovaks, Romanians and Hungarians, who are the largest minority.

They lived together peacefully under an agreement by major European powers that guaranteed Vojvodina's autonomy after World War I and World War II, a guarantee reiterated by the European Parliament in 1993 and written, for both Kosovo and Vojvodina, into the Yugoslav constitution in 1974.

What happened in 1988

In 1988, mass demonstrations orchestrated by Belgrade forced the collective resignation of Vojvodina's provincial assembly, made up of Croats, Serbs and Hungarians. The assembly was then packed with Serbs loyal to Slobodan Milosevic's vision of a Greater Serbia.

Editors, senior media personalities and non-Serb managers were fired and replaced. Jobs went to Serbs. School curricula were in the Serb language and reflected Belgrade's version of history. The Hungarian language was phased out, and Hungarians were quietly but relentlessly elbowed across the border.

"You feel the tension on your skin. When your child is told it would do better to go to a country where he or she can speak Hungarian, it's easy to make the decision to move out," said Laszlo Jozca, president of the Vojvodina Association of Hungarians.

He spoke by telephone from Subotica, a city where 42 percent of the population is ethnic Hungarian.

"The tension is rising because people are frightened of the reaction after Serbia was attacked. Since Hungary became a member of NATO, the mood of the Serbs towards Hungary and Hungarians is changing for the worse," he added.