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Escaping the Yugoslav War: I Don't Remember But I Will Never Forget

In light of the Russia-Ukraine War, I ask you to be kind to refugees. This is my family's story of fleeing from the Yugoslav War.
Escaping the Yugoslav War: I Don't Remember But I Will Never Forget
Update: I started Ukraina Guide to help refugees sift through the bureaucratic overload.

It is a free collection of visa application information and other helpful resources for people who arrive in various European countries.

Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, 2022.

I hoped I'd never see a war in my lifetime.

My friends are unable to leave the country and a peaceful nation is engaged in a war against their will. It breaks my heart.

This post is not a "what to do" list or analysis of the situation. I don't have these answers.

The only thing I can share is my family's experience fleeing from the Yugoslav War in 1992.

Maybe this story will help at least one reader to be kinder down the road.

Wars are cruel and refugees will come. Be prepared.

A Lineage of Refugees

Looking close enough most of us would be able to find a story of displacement in our own family tree.

On my mom's side, it was her grandmother's family who escaped Poland in the 19th century and relocated to Siberia. A couple of years later her husband - my mom's grandpa - was taken and killed by the Stalin regime. Why? Because he was married to a Jewish woman.

My dad's family has Scandinavian roots and settled in Latvia in the 19th century. What followed were decades of alternating oppression by Soviet and Nazi regimes.

My parents met in the late 80s in Siberia.

Shortly thereafter, I was born in the Soviet Union.

From One Failing Country to the Next

Shortly after I was born, our family relocated to Mostar, Yugoslavia.

My dad found a job as a conductor with the local philharmonic orchestra. The prospects were a new beginning.

My parents wanted to leave an economically deteriorating country for a stable one. But what followed was a game of Russian Roulette at the scale of a nation.

The Yugoslav Wars began in 1991.

A nation of brothers. Divided by their religions.

Paps visiting Dubrovnik before hell broke loose.

Luck, Luck, Luck: Fleeing the War Zone

In 1992 the war had come to Mostar.

It was a Yugoslav version of Jerusalem. All religions in a city.

I was two years old and don't remember much.

My parents never talked about the war. They didn't buy me toy guns because of the war.

War changes people and I experienced that first hand through my parents.

Yet they did tell me a thing or two. Here are the three most vivid memories:

1. It Was Not Real Until It Was

My dad told me that one day the orchestra had practice as always. The next day a colleague got shot on the street.

Unfortunately, you can see by the invasion in Russia what that means.

  • Last week: Reported diplomatic de-escalation and "removal of troops"
  • This week: Full-scale invasion and civilian population fighting for survival

2. You Have to Get Lucky. It Is Completely Out of Your Control

Luck #1: Saying No to the Car Route

Our neighbors offered us spots in their car. My parents declined.

They took the land route out of Mostar.

Snipers shot at the car. No one survived.

Luck #2: Asking the Right Person at the Right Time

When asked how we got out of Mostar, my dad told me the story where he walked over to the barracks to talk to a Serbian army officer.

His goal was to bribe him and get an exit opportunity for our family with one of the cargo vehicles.

The army officer was drunk and asked my dad to sit down and talk. The conversation went something like this:

  • Officer: "Where are you from?"
  • Dad: "I'm from Latvia and my wife is Russian."
  • Officer: "What religion are you?" (comment: this was to probe if we were Orthodox [Serb]; Catholic [Croation]; or Muslim [Bosniak])
  • Dad: "I'm Protestant."
  • Officer: "What is that?"
  • Dad: "It's our main religion in Lativa. ... but my son has an Orthodox godfather." (comment: this was true. my Serbian godfather 'kum'  was Orthodox indeed.)
  • Officer: "Weelllll.... then let's drink to that!"

He got paid and we got our way out.

3. The Window of Opportunity Is Shrinking

I was two, that's why I don't remember much. But there are two things I can see clearly:

  1. We lived in an apartment next to a hill
  2. When we ran across the airfield I dropped my kid's umbrella and wanted to return and get it. My mom took me by my hand, lifted me from the ground, and we continued running towards the cargo plane.

For the longest time, I thought that these memories were made up.

Many years later my mom confirmed that we indeed lived by a mountain.

She also said, that after leaving the umbrella behind we made it just in time to get airlifted out of Mostar. I don't remember this, but my mom said there was constant air bombardment during the flight and that everyone on the plane was sure that we wouldn't land in Belgrade.

We eventually landed and were able to stay with my godfather and his wife.

Shortly after, the airfield in Mostar was bombarded.

The air route was no longer.

Starting a New Life

My dad scored a weekend gig in Vienna and we all went there.

A weekend became six months. Six months became a lifetime.

I have been an Austrian citizen for as long as I can remember and I'm eternally grateful for the sheer luck and the help of many kind souls along the way.

I wouldn't be where I am without it.

I might not remember but I will never forget.

The war in Ukraine has started. It is an immeasurable tragedy.

I don't know how this will end but I know that many refugees will come.

Poland and Slovakia have opened their borders. God bless them.

Sooner or later you might be in a position to help a refugee. Please do.

They will never forget.



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