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Comic Book Tells of Woman's Journey to Macedonia

LYNN NEARY, host:

Even when a vulnerable nation escapes the pitfalls of war, there's no guarantee that peace will lead to a bright future. That's what writer Heather Roberson learned when she visited Macedonia.

Ms. HEATHER ROBERSON (Co-author, "Macedonia: What Does it Take to Stop a War?"): I traveled to the Balkans in 2003 to find out how it was that the Republic of Macedonia, a country with every reason to go to war, somehow didn't. Like Bosnia, Macedonia was poor, multi-ethnic and struggling to define itself apart from Yugoslavia. But time and time again, it managed to cut a peaceful course.

But peace hasn't brought the prosperity you might expect, and many of the best and brightest think that they have to leave Macedonia to have a good life.

That's even true with the prestigious South East European University. I was a college student myself when I first traveled to Macedonia and became intrigued with that new multi-ethnic campus. Before the University came, the land was orchard, and a little plot has been kept where students and teachers can pick apples fresh from the tree. Everything else here is completely modern, with buildings painted in bright colors, blue language lab, red cafe, orange dorms. And the fresh attitude extends to the classroom as well.

Macedonia's older, state-run universities are notorious for absentee professors, bribery and ethnic discrimination. But at South East European, instructors come from all over the world to hold discussion groups and office hours, encouraging students to broaden their minds and think for themselves.

I returned recently as a new class was graduating. I wanted to interview them to ask that age-old question: what's next for you? There they were, wearing flip-flops and sunglasses, strolling around the campus. Some were tanned from a recent group trip to Spain - a triumph in itself when you consider the visa restrictions that make it nearly impossible to leave Macedonia. They're an impressive bunch - intelligent, confident, citizens of the world.

One student name Maria met me with cigarette in hand, exclaiming, I must quit. I leave in two weeks and I can't smoke where I'm going. I imagined her in a spotless office in Switzerland, collecting credentials and skills that she'd use later to take over the whole Macedonian government. Then she announced, I'm going to Louisiana. I told Maria that people smoke there, too. She laughed. Heather, only the poor people smoke. I will be working in a casino. Only rich people can afford to gamble, and they don't smoke. Now I imagine Maria, the scholar with all of the promise in the world surrounded by big, plastic cups filled with casino tokens and dead-eyed gambling addicts.

But I can't say that it's shocking that Maria and her classmates are seeking greener pastures outside of Macedonia. The university prepares them to take part in a new, prosperous European future, but it can't guarantee that future here. The country avoided all-out war, but it still has the same old problems. Its unemployment is still at 40 percent. The economy is still largely state-run and stagnant. And so, for now, Macedonia's best, brightest, and most tolerant will come to my country to mop floors and clean toilets. They will leave behind their own country, which needs them, but which will have to limp along without them.

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NEARY: Heather Roberson is a writer living in New York. She collaborated with legendary comic artist Harvey Pekar on the graphic novel "Macedonia," a chronicle of her journey through that country. For excerpts from the book, go to our Web site - that's npr.org/tellmemore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.