Echoes of War in Balkans Resound in the Lives of Serbian-Americans : Immigrants: Many say Americans have come to automatically regard them as Nazi-like villains.


Each evening they gather around a television in a drab parochial hall, two dozen Serbian emigres sipping slivovitz and soaking up the minutiae of a far-off war that reverberates in their hearts.

The nightly news in Belgrade, delivered via satellite, is the usual swirl of horror from Bosnia-Herzegovina. The men watch intently.

Moma Mrdakovic, a 39-year-old architect who immigrated in 1978, retreats to the bar, where photos of Serbian soldiers have been taped on smoke-stained walls or jammed between faded portraits of kings, poets and medieval saints.

The war has become an obsession for him. It is a source of grief--three of his uncles have been killed. And his torment is compounded by the hostility he says he encounters in Americans who have come to automatically regard Serbs as Nazi-like villains.

"At this party, this writer I met told me right away we should be bombed by the U.S.," he said. "It wasn't a tough guy on the street, it was an intellectual, and I thought 'Wow!' Liberals, intellectuals, they're for bombing Serbs, people they didn't know 1 1/2 years ago.

"I wanted to kill him," he added sardonically, "but I figured they'd call it ethnic cleansing in New York."

Since Serbia-dominated Yugoslavia began dissolving in 1991 into Europe's worst post-World War II killing ground, Serbs have climbed America's scale of most-vilified ethnic groups.

While sporadic violence between Balkan emigres draws headlines, lost to all but individual lives are the nasty, everyday encounters in which Serbian-Americans are taken to task in schools and in the workplace, at soirees and academic conferences, in bars and on the street.

"You can't believe how many times people have said, 'Oh, you're one of them," ' said Robert Stone, 65, president of the Serb National Federation in Pittsburgh.

Novelist-playwright Nadja Tesich said the U.S. media have presented the war like a Hollywood melodrama--with the Serbs as the bad guys.

"This is a murky, nasty, tragic war that's like a death in the family. If you bombard the population with a totally distorted image, it doesn't surprise me that there is among ordinary people this response to Serbs."

A man she met at a dinner party was surprised to hear she was Serbian. "I watched him literally move away. I said, 'Am I not barbarian-enough looking?' "

"There is this automatic assumption that one is guilty for what Serb paramilitaries are doing," echoed Sanya Popovic, a political science professor at Barnard College in New York. "I'm constantly on the defensive--at dinners parties, departmental meeting and at conferences.

"The real horrors there are worse than has been presented and far more evenly spread," she said. "There is more than enough guilt to go around."

Serbia has been implicated in a campaign of rape, starvation, internment, forced relocation and murder by sponsoring two wars that have carved out Serb-populated land in the Croatian and Bosnian republics.

Their enemies, and the West, dub them aggressors, but Serbs insist that they are defending their own in a civil war.

Many of the regulars at the hall next to the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava in Manhattan are recent immigrants, more ambivalent about Serbian nationalism than those long separated from their native land. Few would give their surnames.

"All my life I was close to Muslims and Croats," said Boban, a 28-year-old security guard from Sarajevo. "I can't say who's guilty exactly. The Serb people are much less guilty."

The audience forms a ragged semicircle around the TV, which is flanked by Serbian flags.

"They see their homes being destroyed and there's absolutely nothing they can do about it," said Danilo, 27. "Serbian people, with few exceptions, don't show their emotions. But if you look from face to face, you will see their feelings all bottled up inside."

The echoes of the war resound in their American lives.

"I can't tell you how many parishioners have had such terribly negative things happen at work," said Mirco Dobrijevic, 37, director of Christian education at Holy Resurrection Church in Chicago. "Co-workers have simply stopped talking to them because they're Serbian. One man was asked, 'Did you ever rape anybody?' We hear it constantly. It's become a way of life."

In nearby Schererville, Ind., a 13-year-old girl who was repeatedly ignored by her teacher, even when she was the only one to raise her hand to a question, confronted him, saying "I know the answer. Why don't you give me a chance?"

The teacher replied, "Well, why don't you give the Croatians a chance."

"The student was crushed," said Ron Divjak, a family friend. The teacher later wrote an apology to the girl's family and "they've made up," he said.

Divjak said his 18-year-old daughter, a freshman at Indiana University, was reduced to tears at a recent fraternity party when a student who had too much to drink "accused her of being a Croatian baby killer."

In New York, Dushica Protic, a 35-year-old lawyer, went to an Italian restaurant with her husband and, after a waitress inquired what language they were speaking, "they didn't serve us," she said. "They just passed us like we didn't exist. Finally I made a big stink and got served."

The same question was asked of an elderly woman shopping with her son at a supermarket in Weehawken, N.J., last summer by a woman who then "began screaming 'Shame on You!' and spat on her," said community leader Drago Canic.

Slobodan Dimitrov, who cited a dozen "hate crimes" against Serbians in an address before the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission last spring, said one effect is to make Serbian-Americans fearful enough "to think twice about identifying themselves."

On the other hand, there have been a mushrooming of Serbian groups, bigger turnouts at churches, a rare coming together of a once largely unrecognized immigrant group that numbers up to 1 million.

"I see mostly Yugoslavs these days," said Tesich, 50, who immigrated here in the late 1950s and is married to an American. "I feel less lonely with them. Americans do not understand or share our concerns."

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