Where Did Everybody Go? Perspectives on the Wars in the Balkans

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

             Throughout the wars in the Balkans, there was a lot of movement. Refugees were brought out of their city and into different countries. Families moved out of the chaos of the war and into safe places. Teens and young men left their country to avoid being demanded in the military. Although many people moved from their houses to safer land, not everyone returned. The population is dwindling in the Balkans, and not only from the war, but also from the aftermath of the war. Today, many young professionals seek their jobs elsewhere. They believe that bigger and better jobs are out there for them. Many people have also seemed to lose hope, and believe their country is not progressing fast enough. People are frustrated with their country and have either moved or are thinking of moving because of this frustration. There seems to be a general loss of hope in the country, and with loss of hope comes no real reason to stay in the former Yugoslavia.

            When the war first began, there were many young people who left their countries because they were thinking about their careers. Over 500,000 young professionals left Serbia during the war in order to escape from being in the army (1).  They did not want to have to serve in the war, but rather wanted to finish their own studies, or continue with their career. These young professionals fled to Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa if they were trying to seek a permanent home. They also stayed in Europe, and moved to other European countries. Many young professionals fled to Germany if they were looking for a temporary job (3). In 1994, Brian Casey was the current Canadian consul in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. At this time, he said that he received between one to two hundred applications for emigration every day, and had granted around 6,000 permanent visas that year (3). This was the amount of people who were just trying to leave to get to Canada. This happened in many other countries as well. Casey stated in the New York Times, “We’re getting applications from well-educated, highly qualified people” (3). Countries naturally have problems with keeping citizens, but usually this problem is with less educated people who try and make a better life for themselves elsewhere. There becomes a problem when the college educated citizens look elsewhere to find a job. It creates a huge problem with the economy of that country. There are less professionals to do the jobs that should be done by an highly educated person. What happens to a country that cannot keep the doctors, lawyers, bankers, and the businessmen? It throws off the balance. During the war, people began to realize that their lives would be safer and they have better opportunities in other countries so they left and never came back.

            Dr. Vlastimer Matejic was the director of the Mihajlo Pupin Institute, which is a research center that specialized in computer science and telecommunications. Before the war began, he said that he lost between four and five scientists each year. During the war, in 1992, he lost around seventy scientists and in 1992 at the time the article had been written, he had already lost sixty-five (3). There is a substantial difference between losing four scientists, and losing seventy scientists. Research must have slowed considerably with such a great loss. This slowing of research definitely would do a great amount of harm to the company. This is just one example of a company that lost a huge amount of educated people. This happened everywhere, to many companies during the war. Yugoslavia was having a great problem with brain drain at the time of the war. Not many people wanted to stay in a country that was at war and was not safe. So if they could leave, they did. It is easier for a person with a degree of high education to get a job elsewhere.

            There was a survey dealing with 675 students, and 501 scientists performed at the time of the war asking these people whether or not they would leave Yugoslavia, and if so their reasoning behind leaving. The survey was taken between May and June of 1995. 76.6% of researchers, and 89% of the students responded yes to the question of whether or not they have considered working abroad. The majority of the people answering the survey confirmed that they have considered working abroad. This is a huge amount of young professionals not wanting to stay in their own country, or at least considering leaving their motherland. According to the survey, the strongest reason why scientists left was because 24.8% of them believed there is a low standard of living and the 18.7% thought there was an uncertainty of the future. Also another strong reason that scientists were thinking about leaving was because of the housing problem. There were more students that were thinking about leaving then scientists. This is a considerable statistic because the group of students were younger then the group of scientists. There is an increase in percentage of the younger generations that are considering going abroad. This shows that instead of staying in ones own country, it was becoming a bigger trend to leave. This increase in popularity of going abroad is not beneficial to Yugoslavia. 29.9% of students thought about leaving because of the current low living standards. 19.4% of students were not certain about their country’s future, 10% of the students found it impossible to fulfill one’s own conceptions and 5.8% of the students were thinking about leaving because of economic stability. These are considered the push factors for scientists and students. There are also pull factors for scientists and students. According to the research, 21.24% of scientists are pulled to different countries because of the high possibilities of high earnings and much better conditions for scientific work. Even with these pull factors, there are reasons as to why scientists and students prefer to stay in the country. These scientists and students were optimistic that situations will improve in their country and were uncertain of what awaits for them in other countries (4). This reason to stay seems to be the biggest factor in staying. While in Sarajevo, us students came across a restaurant with an owner who was very willing to give us his point of view on his own country. We asked him whether or not he has ever considered leaving and he said that he has moved out of Sarajevo to other countries but always returns. He likes his culture too much, and can’t part with being able to know his neighbors and drink coffee with people numerous times throughout the day. He is optimistic that his country will get better, and for this reason cannot leave Sarajevo again. Tables 1 and 2 further demonstrate the students and scientists’ push and pull factors as to why they would leave their country. The tables go into a little more detail into the specific reasoning, and what percentages of people believe in what reason to leave. As seen in the table, the highest reason to leave is the low living standards, followed by the economic instability. This survey was taken during the war, so it is no surprise that there was a low living standard at the time and that people would want to leave this low standard of living in order to live in a safer, higher living standard. The highest reason that scientists and students were pulled is due the idea of a higher earning. Even without the war going on, many times the idea of a bigger, better job with higher earnings can lure people into another country (4).


Table 1: Push factors for Students and Scientists

Push factors

Low living standards


Economic instability 




Political instability


Poor conditions for R & D work


S & T information unavailability 


Insufficient recognition of R & D work


Difficulties or impossibility of realizing ideas


Bureaucratic behavior


Housing problem






No answer 



Table 2: Pull factors for students and scientists


Pull factors

High earnings


Conditions for R & D work


High level of R & D work


Abundance of S & T information


Better living standard


Better status of research personnel






No answer



            Today, the scene is very similar to Yugoslavia during the war. People are leaving their country for the same reasons. Professionals are still not very sure of their future in the former Yugoslavia and go elsewhere. Students seek out education in other countries where they know the education is better. Recently, Al Jazeera, the popular news station, had a report on former Yugoslavia’s brain drain. In this report it said that today, students believe that “moving up in life means moving out.” There is a social norm in moving out of the country to further a student’s education, or to get a job. The attitude seems to be that in order to become successful, one has to leave the country. The report went on to say that although the media is talking about a brain drain, that the majority of the youth are still at home. When one looks at the polls, however, they show that 80% of the youth would leave at the first given opportunity. This is not a surprise at all because there is an unemployment rate of 60% amongst students and the economic press is at a halt (6). This high unemployment rate makes it no surprise that students and young professionals are seeking jobs and education in other countries. There are better opportunities for them in other countries.

            While in Bosnia, I talked to many Bosnians about refugees. When arriving in Mostar, Aida Omanovic had only been talking for five minutes when she had begun talking about the brain drain in Bosnia. She brought the topic up on her own about how many young professionals go elsewhere to find jobs, and how many students leave to complete their education elsewhere. She talked about how there is a very big imbalance in Bosnia today between the old and the young. Bosnia is becoming a country of old people, she said. No young person wants to stay in Bosnia. They all leave for college to receive a better education. Later, at dinner I asked her about the education system in Bosnia where Aida Omanovic explained that it is not a very good system. She said that many young students go to college and will get a major, but not know how to apply the major to their job. It is a huge problem, and is why many people leave the country to get a better education (5). Just like during the war, many of these young workers still flee the country and work in Australia, European Union countries, or North America (2).  Because of all of the young people leaving, it creates a huge problem. First, there is an obvious brain drain in Bosnia. Secondly, it creates an imbalance of civilization. There are more people dying, then being born in Bosnia. This means there is a population decline (2).

            With this many people leaving the former Yugoslavia, there is a question of what the people who still live in the former Yugoslavia think of those who actually do leave. When talking to Aida Omanovic I asked her whether or not there was a grudge held on those people who did not return home. She herself was the only person in her family that stayed in Mostar and I felt a sense of pride in her when she told us of this. I knew within the first five minutes of meeting Aida that I was going to ask her this question even though I thought I knew the answer already. Living in New Orleans, and going through Katrina there was a definite sense of pride within the people that stayed after Katrina and dealt with New Orleans’ ongoing problems. There is a grudge and a huge amount of judgment on those people who either left and never came back, or left and came back a year later. They did not have to struggle, and put their city back together like those people who stayed in New Orleans. I was almost 100% sure that Aida would say that the same thing happened in her home country of Bosnia. Needless to say, I was 100% wrong. When I asked Aida there was no hesitation to her response of “no.” This answer surprised me, so I kept asking her more questions. Aida went on to say that there was no reason to hold a grudge on the people who didn’t return. After the experiences that people went through during the war, no one blames anyone that does not return.  Aida probably saw the confused look on my face, and went on explaining further through different stories. She told me stories of families being split up during the war, and afterwards asked why anyone would blame that family for not coming back. She has a niece that is currently in Australia, and when Aida talks to that niece she tells Aida that she never wants to return to Mostar. Her niece, she believes, has better opportunities in Australia, so there is no grudge. Her final story she told was her own story. After the war, she immediately got a good job because she could speak English. This was the only reason why she stayed in Mostar. If it wasn’t for the job, she said she probably would not be in Bosnia (5). Hasaan and Muhamed Durakovic, two men who we met in Srebrenica, seemed to have very similar feelings as Aida. Both Hasaan and Muhamed have family in other countries, and do not resent them for not sticking with their country’s problems. Muhamed left and went to Chicago for a while and then later returned home but does not feel any judgment from Bosnians. People in general do not blame people that have not returned to their home country. The economy of Bosnia is very weak. There is a lot of corruption and there is a collision between illegal interests and political power (8). This is not a reliable place to live in. The people understand that they might have more opportunities elsewhere.

            There seems to be a lack of hope in the countries that were once the former Yugoslavia. It has been over ten years since the war, and there seems to be a general sense of discouragement throughout the former Yugoslavia. Aida really hit the nail on the head when she stated that her country is rich, and there are not that many people so the country can change quickly, yet it is not. There is no financial reason as to why these countries have not changed. It can be done, but it is taking a very long time to make this change (5). Because of this general lack of hope in their own country, most people that were talked to while studying in former Yugoslavia seemed to end their speeches with the idea that they might be leaving their country soon. Aida ended her interview stating that she found a very cute house in South America. Hasaan spoke about how he was considering moving to America. People are still considering leaving. Many Bosnians are awaiting the 2013 census that is currently being conducted. It was one of the first topics Aida mentioned when we met her (5). In 1991, 4.4 million people lived in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosniaks made up 43.5% of that population. Serbs made up 31.2% of the population and Croats made up the least amount of 17.4%. Between 1992 and 1995, 2.2 million people were forced out of their homes. 1.2 million people fled from their homes and 1 million of them are still displaced. Today, around 450,000 of the refugees returned from abroad and 600,000 of those people who were internally displaced have returned to their homes (7). There are a lot of people who never returned. This creates a huge brain drain, especially because many people are still leaving today.

            The current brain drain in the former Yugoslavia is not going unnoticed. After the 2000 election in Serbia, the newly elected government called professionals for help. Some of these professionals did return and now work in the Serbian government. The Ministry of Finance was given to a man who came from France. The Minister of Science and technology was appointed to a man who fled to Singapore. Also, jobs were given to professionals at the federal level. Two ambassador jobs were given to doctors from Switzerland and the United States of America. In 2001, a council called the Diaspora Council was established in Serbia to personally handle the issues of Diaspora. The aim of the council was to come up with measures for improvement of cooperation with Diaspora. It wanted to strengthen the connection between Diaspora and the original country (Motherland) in many different ways including the preservation of national and cultural identity of Diaspora, the advancement of cultural, economic, sport, information and other connections between Motherland and Diaspora. It also was established to instigate the cooperation with Diaspora in regards to heading of human and economic resources that are significant for the economic development of the motherland. It lastly wants to propose adequate measures and regulation to the federal government (4). Measures are being taken to try and bring people back to their former countries. The Balkans needs these young professionals in their countries, not in others.

            There is a definite Brain Drain in the former Yugoslavia that has been going on now since the war first started. The reasoning behind leaving the motherland country is essentially the same. There is a lack of opportunity in the former Yugoslavia, so those that know that can find a job elsewhere will move in order to get those jobs. The idea of leaving for better opportunities is not only a current issue, but was an issue at the time of the war as well. Because of this lack of opportunity, there is a loss of hope in the motherland country. It has been over ten years, yet many former Yugoslavia citizens believe that their government has not done much. Hopefully the new programs made by the government will help attract those who left back to their motherland. This way, these professionals can bring new ideas to their own country and help the economy out.





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  5. "Interview with Aida Omanovic." Telephone interview. 18 June 2012.
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