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Yugoslav bureaucracy thwarts mother battling to get custody of her children


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- For almost three years, American Shayna Lazarevich has given her life to a battle -- trying through Yugoslav courts to get back her two children, who were abducted from their California home by their Serbian father and spirited to his hometown in Yugoslavia.

It is a Kafkaesque struggle that has involved both U.S. and Serbian governments at the highest levels and Wednesday was brought up in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Mrs. Lazarevich, 30, who had been a sheltered Los Angeles housewife, has accumulated a pile of custody and enforcement orders from U.S. and Serbian courts.

But she has found that the Balkans have little respect for the law or for women -- or for her impressive documents. Even worse, Yugoslavia's system of justice became even more ineffective as the nation disintegrated in a bloody civil war.

Recently, for instance, she was told the district court in Belgrade that could prepare an enforcement order could not yet hear the case because the judge who had blocked several previous orders had "gone sick and taken home with her the keys to her desk which is where the case file is on the children. And, until she is better and comes back again, there is nothing we can do."

Five weeks ago, her ex-husband's final custody appeal in the Serbian courts was denied, and Mrs. Lazarevich was waiting for the Ministry of Justice to force him to turn over the children.

It never did. Tuesday, she learned that her ex-husband has once again disappeared with the children.

Other foreign women -- from Poland, Britain, Sweden and Germany -- have begun similar battles in Yugoslavia but given up in despair within weeks or months, according to the Belgrade branch of the organization Women's Solidarity Now.

"One of the things that pains the most is that I made a decision to try and get back my children lawfully," Mrs. Lazarevich said. "But the cost is really great."

Her nightmare began in September 1989, a year after she and Dragisa Lazarevich had separated, four months after their divorce.

She was 18 when they met; he was 16 years older, a Yugoslav citizen and U.S. resident. He had a business and had represented maturity and stability. But during their seven-year marriage, Mrs. Lazarevich said, she suffered severe emotional abuse.

Her husband insisted all property be in his name. He was furious when she registered to vote.

She decided to leave him when he began threatening to take away their daughter, Sasha, then 6, and son, Andre, then 3. She moved to her mother's guest house and won a scholarship to the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Under the divorce agreement, her husband had visiting rights one weekend a month. Dragisa Lazarevich picked up the children one weekend in September 1989. When he didn't return them by Monday, Mrs. Lazarevich phoned a neighbor where the couple used to live.

bTC "Didn't you know, Shayna?" the neighbor asked, and told her that Mr. Lazarevich had sold the house and moved out the previous Friday.

For weeks, Mrs. Lazarevich did not know where the children were. Then she traced him to Serbia.

It takes Mrs. Lazarevich almost an hour to detail her efforts to win back her children, including obtaining translations of U.S. court orders giving her sole custody of the children, and getting numerous court orders for custody and enforcement from lower Belgrade courts and the Supreme Court of Serbia.

In the process of obtaining the U.S. sole-custody order, she learned that her ex-husband had $80,000 in a Canadian bank account. She persuaded Canadian courts to give her the money.

But court orders, she learned, can be little more than pieces of paper. When an enforcement order was sent to the police in her husband's Serbian hometown, they said they could not find him.

After Mrs. Lazarevich arrived there, she went to her husband's house with a U.S. consular official, and the same police who said they could not find her husband were waiting there with him.

Her husband lodged a series of appeals with various courts, which meant the judicial process was delayed or had to be reinitiated.

At one point, he was awarded custody of the children after he accused her of being "a feminist lesbian who smoked marijuana." Another time a court convicted him of kidnapping the children -- but all it did was fine him $40.

Mrs. Lazarevich is worried about what her children have been told. When she has managed to see Andre, he has behaved awkwardly. Her daughter, she is told, is angry at her and does not want to see her.

U.S. Ambassador Warren Zimmerman three times brought up the case with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and received promises that something would be done. Secretary of State James A. Baker III brought up the case with Mr. Milosevic last year. No action was taken.

But now, Mr. Milosevic wants better relations with Western nations.

Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, is hoping to use this desire as leverage to persuade him to act.

Mrs. Bentley, who is of Serbian-American descent and maintains ties in Yugoslavia, has written numerous letters to Mr. Milosevic, has met in Belgrade with him and other officials, and arranged appeals signed by more than 30 members of Congress. After the March ruling, she asked him to help place the children in protective custody at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade until they could be transferred to their mother.

Wednesday, on the House floor she denounced the Serbian government's inaction. "I hit them hard this morning on the floor and I'm going to send some very strong letters . . . about how outrageous this is."

She pressed the matter two weeks ago with a deputy speaker of the Serbian Parliament who visited her office.

Mrs. Lazarevich said she has lost all faith in Serbian officials who assured her everything would be taken care of. She is unsure about what to do next.

"It's not all taken care of. And now after having spent two years in this country, going through a legal quagmire and playing by their rules, I'm nowhere again."

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