By MICHAEL LAYCOCK
Comox Valley Echo (Courtenay, B.C.)
Feb. 6, 1996

The Skobalj family had a life much like that of many people in the Comox Valley.

They lived in a comfortable apartment, skied in the winter and visited the ocean in the summer. They lived in a city steeped in culture, with a number of languages and religions living together in relative harmony.

But one day, all that changed. Mortar shells fell from the sky, destroying buildings and killing and maiming their neighbors.

The Skobalj family lived in Sarajevo, Bosnia, part of the former Yugoslavia.

During the past four years, the family — husband Miodrag, wife Dorica and 10-year-old daughter Irene — has undergone a terrifying ordeal that ended only weeks ago with refugee status and a new home in Courtenay.

Their plight began in early March 1992 when the ethnic violence erupted.

“It just started one day, and you couldn’t go out to work,” Dorica remembers as we talk over coffee in the living room of her rented home.

“It was impossible to stay outside and breathe fresh air.”

She and Irene stayed indoors for three and a half months to shelter themselves from sniper fire and the hundreds of shells that fell each day.

On one occasion, Dorica did venture outside, and a sniper’s bullet missed her by about a foot, she says, indicating the distance with both hands.

Miodrag would leave the home on his bicycle — for most cars had been destroyed, and there was no gasoline anyway — to search for food.

They knew they had to leave, but the Bosnian Serb army had encircled the city, and only women and children were allowed to leave.

In July of that year, Dorica and Irene left the city, bound for Zagreb, Croatia where they had relatives. The two endured a perilous, 28-hour marathon ride in a decrepit bus on gutted forest paths through the besieged countryside.

“It was a horrible journey,” Dorica recalls, cringing at the memory.

Miodrag, a professional engineer, stayed behind to defend the family home. For the next two years, he endured lengthy periods without electricity, running water or heat. He survived, as did many others, on meagre United Nations-supplied rations and by ripping apart tables and flooring to use as fuel for cooking and heating fires.

When it rained, he would collect water in containers. And at night, as tracers and machine-gun fire raged not far away, he would crawl on his hands and knees through fields on the outskirts of town, scrounging for vegetables.

Some Sarajevo citizens died of hunger. Miodrag lost 30 kilograms (more than 60 pounds), which he jokingly attributes to dodging bullets.

That sense of humor — and occasional brief contacts with Dorica by ham radio — played a key part in keeping a sense of hope in a desperate situation, he says.

“You hope every day that the next will be somewhat better,” Miodrag says in Serbo-Croatian through Dorica, an interpreter and professor of English. “You live from day to day. You don’t know if you’ll be alive tomorrow, but you hope.”

At last, the siege of Sarajevo eased enough so that Miodrag was able to escape in August 1994.

It had been so long since he had seen his daughter that Miodrag feared he would not recognize her.

One day, he suddenly appeared at the seaside where Dorica and Irene were waiting for him. The three had a tearful, joyous reunion (and Miodrag remembered his daughter).

“We were crying, laughing — everything mixed,” Dorica says, rubbing the back of one hand as she speaks. “We had lost our hope.”

The two decided they could make a better life for themselves and for Irene if they left the former Yugoslavia, so they applied for refugee status through a migration organization.

Six or seven months later, they learned Canada had accepted their applications. Last December, they learned Courtenay would be their destination.

“We thought Courtenay would be a village of 10 houses,” Dorica remembers with a smile. “We didn’t know anything. We just said, ‘Let’s try.’”

The family arrived in Canada Jan. 22 after a lengthy flight via Germany.

Since then, their lives have been a whirlwind of meeting new people, getting Irene into school and arranging English classes for Miodrag.

“We found people here so friendly,” Dorica says adding that many locals have offered them help.

While both say it will take time to adjust to a new country and culture and to find work, they are grateful for the chance to live in peace and start over, especially for Irene and her future.

And they’re particularly grateful to the Canadian government and to St. George’s United Church for sponsoring them. The church helped them find and furnish a home, and held a welcoming potluck dinner for them last week.

“We are very thankful to them,” Dorica says.

The Skobaljs have no plans to return to Bosnia, except perhaps to visit their many relatives still living there.

“Sarajevo is not anymore what it was,” Dorica says, “We would almost be foreigners.”

Dorica says she is sometimes overwhelmed by the good fortune that has come their way. She fears this may all be a dream and she will wake up in Zagreb.

And things may change, but now the family has some amount of certainty for the future.

“What life will bring us, you never know,” Dorica says with a smile.