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Serbian Students Decide to Take Fate Into Their Own Hands

December 2, 1996

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ For years, Serbia’s students responded to the repressive regime of President Slobodan Milosevic by leaving, silently. Now, their response is to stay _ and to fight, loudly _ for a home they want.

``I have this one life and I want to live it here,″ said Jelena Covic, a 22-year-old law student. ``No one will help me if I don’t help myself.″

Tens of thousands of students protested in the streets of Belgrade for a ninth day on Monday, defying freezing weather and police threatening to launch a crackdown.

Their main complaint is a decision by Milosevic and his ruling Socialists to annul Nov. 17 municipal elections in dozens of towns and cities where the opposition seemed to have won.

But the students say they also are fighting for normal life in Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic. They want a secure future that holds the promise of democracy. Some say they wouldn’t go abroad _ even if they could.

When the wars among the former Yugoslav republics began in 1989, most young people saw themselves trapped between warriors they did not support and an outside world that condemned them as a nation. Many were sent into the army. Hundreds of young people died as soldiers or deserted. Thousands fled, dodging the draft.

Some 200,000 young Serbians joined the hundreds of thousands of war refugees fleeing conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia _ conflicts that were funded and abetted by Milosevic.

Today, that option no longer exists. Western countries groaning under the refugee load have slammed their doors to new arrivals. That leaves those stuck in Serbia with little choice but to take their struggle to the streets.

More than half of Serbia’s work force is unemployed. Average salaries have plummeted to $150, down $700 before Milosevic rose to power in 1987. His since-discarded nationalism made Serbia a pariah state, isolating it from the rest of the world.

Students staged two previous protests under Milosevic: one in 1991, when Milosevic sent police and army forces to crush a rebellion in Belgrade, and another in 1992. Neither had any effect.

Now, they say, it’s time to take to the streets again, but this time with greater strength and determination.

``We must hold on,″ said Djordje Sakic, 20, a biology student. ``If we don’t win this battle, we will lose the war for our future.″

The students insist on independence from any political party, staging their marches separate from the main opposition rallies that have been shaking Belgrade for two weeks.

They seem to be the hope of many who distrust the organized opposition. Hundreds gather on Belgrade balconies daily to cheer on the students.

Support also has come from hundreds of university professors. Friends from abroad, foreign students, scientists and intellectuals have sent them telegrams. Even Serbian basketball star Vlade Divac of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets sent a message of support.

Milosevic has shrugged off their protests. The only response has been an angry tirade from Milosevic aide Dragan Tomic. On Sunday, he accused the political opposition of ``manipulating″ the youth.

The tens of thousands marching on Monday jeered and booed, and passed by the United States embassy demanding that the West support their struggle for democracy.

``Our only weapon is words, but no one wants to hear them,″ said their statement.

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