The 1990’s gave us Friends, Bill Clinton, the World Wide Web, hip hop and Seinfeld. But it also gave us the worst genocide in Europe since the Holocaust.
The civil war in Bosnia started in 1992 when a referendum on the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina was passed in the aftermath of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat nationalist groups opposed the move and conflict resulted.
A horrific feature of the war was the siege of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital. It was the longest siege in modern warfare and over four years the city was the scene of bitter fighting that claimed almost 14,000 lives, including those of 5,400 civilians.
Vedran Drakulic lived through the destruction of his city.
He says that options were limited for men and boys living in the capital. Either you joined the army or tried to escape. If you chose to stay, you risked falling victim to the constant bombing, sniping and shell fire.
Vedran says he was lucky in that he got a job with the International Committee of Red Cross. From 1992 to 1995 he worked for them — as a logistics officer, interpreter, and press officer.
These jobs meant he worked across the front lines of the war, helping injured individuals on both sides of the conflict.
Even though he had the opportunity to leave earlier, Vedran chose to stay through three years of the war.
“I needed to take care of my family. While I was still in Sarajevo, I was getting a salary from the Red Cross and I could help feed and protect my family,” Vedran said.
“I always had a desire to escape, especially after my brother’s death during the first few months of fighting, when he was killed by bombing as a civilian, but I couldn’t leave my family,” he said.
His brother’s death was one of 100,000 recorded during the Bosnian War. And while Vedran vowed to stay to help his family and others, it eventually got to be too much.
“I escaped thanks to my work across the front lines with the Red Cross and managed to go to Split, in Croatia, after spending three years in the war,” Vedran said.
“By that time in 1995, I was married and my wife Anita joined me two-and-a-half months later,” he said.
Even though fighting ended only a few months after his escape — with a NATO bombing campaign forcing Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table where the peace agreement, the Dayton Accords, was signed in December 1995 — Vedran wanted to get as far away from Europe and the terrors of the war as possible.
“In Split, we began our process of trying to resettle. Split was sort of a ‘clearing station’ for people trying to go somewhere else, we couldn’t stay nor did we want to after what we had lived through,” Vedran said
“A lot of non-European countries were accepting refugees from the Bosnian conflict due to the world-wide media attention it was getting at the time,” he said.
“We applied for resettlement to Canada, America and Australia. These countries were providing Bosnian refugees proper residency conditions, whereas immigrating to somewhere in Europe meant being put behind barbed wire in compounds only to be sent back to a destroyed Bosnia after the war,” Vedran said.
The US were the first to accept Vedran and Anita. But, this wasn’t their first choice. Australia was the nation they wanted to call home, so they waited in Split hoping to receive a letter from the Australian Embassy.
“There were two reasons we wanted Australia,” Vedran said.
“Firstly, I worked with a woman at Red Cross who was from Australia. Her father was a QC in Cairns and she said if we decided to go there he would help my wife and I,” he said.
“The second reason was we wanted to get as far away from the conflict in the Balkans as possible, and Australia is pretty much as far as it gets,” Vedran said.
Six months later the letter arrived, affording residency in Australia to Vedran and Anita under the government’s humanitarian refugee resettlement program.
Not wishing to spend any longer in Europe, the couple flew to Brisbane where Vedran’s friend’s father met them and took them to a house he owned in Rockhampton.
The move from Split, on the Adriatic Riviera to Rockhampton in Queensland was a bit of a culture shock.
But the couple were grateful to be out of Europe and enjoyed every minute of their new-found freedom from war and displacement.
“We spent two to three weeks at this house in Rockhampton with Cassy the dog and a fully stocked fridge, just relaxing and drinking this thing they call beer – ‘Four X’,” Vedran said with a smile.
After spending time unwinding in Rockhampton, the couple resettled in Brisbane where they were assessed for language and got re-involved with the Red Cross. But resettling in Brisbane wasn’t easy.
“We had a huge cultural shock after coming from cities in Europe that were buzzing, full of life,” says Vedran.
“We had spent our whole life in a city environment, where it was full of life. In Brisbane, we would be walking around city at 5pm and everything was quiet,”
But reading Melbourne’s The Age newspaper everyday planted in Vedran an interest in the southern city.
Fortunately, The Age was being shipped from Melbourne to Brisbane and arriving every Sunday morning — Vedran took a specific interest in the Melbourne based paper’s jobs section. It was while reading one of the classifieds that he noticed an advertisement for a job in Melbourne at Australian Red Cross.
“I applied for a job in Melbourne at The Australian Red Cross and flew there to meet with the head of the Public Affairs department, who at the time was Robyn Thompson,” Vedran said.
“While in the meeting the CEO of Red Cross came in, former politician Jim Carlton,” he said.
“Jim heard there was a job applicant from Bosnia, a refugee. He visited Bosnia only a few months back and wanted to check me out. After a brief chat with me, he told Robyn to give me the job right away. From that moment on, Jim became my mentor and good friend,” Vedran said.
“I didn’t want to be a burden on this country. We moved to Melbourne so we could work hard and give back. We didn’t want Centrelink support or any support really,” says Vedran.
Vedran says he is grateful to the Red Cross for the opportunities provided to him in Australia. He says he was fortunate the organisation took a risk on him by employing a person they didn’t know and who had never worked in the country before.
“My story as a refugee made me want to stay working for the Red Cross. From working with them in Bosnia, it was clear they provided literally lifesaving humanitarian assistance during the conflict,” Vedran said.
In Yugoslavia, Red Cross was mainly known as blood service, but through the Bosnian war with Red Cross, they opened my eyes to humanitarian work and the things they do when it comes to conflict or even natural disasters, and how they help people,” he said.
This passion and appreciation for humanitarian work is something Vedran got hooked on and rapidly became involved in — it was also a way to give back to the country who gave him and Anita a chance to start all over again.
Since arriving in Australia over 20 years ago, Vedran has committed his career to humanitarian work. From working with Red Cross, to Oxfam Australia and now as the CEO of Gandel Philanthropy.
He is also a Board Member of refugee and migrant settlement agency AMES Australia. Because of his humble beginnings as a refugee, Vedran also works as a volunteer at AMES Australia as he believes it is important to do something for people who are experiencing what he went through.
Vedran received the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in January 2017. He described the emotions stirred up by the award as both shocking and humbling.
“I think everyone who does this line of work doesn’t expect to be recognised for it, doesn’t do it for the accolades,” he said.
But the more poignant aspect of receiving the award for Vedran, was finding out who nominated him for such an honour.
“Jim Carlton was the one who nominated me. I found out after his death and after receiving the award. His wife told me that it was Jim who nominated me as he believed in me entirely — I was completely overcome,” Vedran said.
“Jim was known as a ‘dying breed’ of politicians, one who could bring Liberals and Labor together and overcome the political divide. Enough to say that at his funeral the former Prime Ministers John Howard and Paul Keating, as well as the former deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer, were all in attendance,” he said.
Being a refugee has come to be part of how Vedran defines himself.
He recognised as much in his acceptance speech for the OAM.
“An important element for me is that I came to this country as refugee so I felt a responsibility to dedicate the award to all the other refugees who came here and contributed to this country,” Vedran said.
“Too often we hear refugees are a burden on society, here to trick us, or be dole bludger,” he said.
“I believe that by and large this is not true, I strongly believe most refugees try to make a new life and have incredible obstacles to overcome, such as learning the language and getting that first break in the workforce. And I can promise you, most of them want to give back,” he says.
And after overcoming many obstacles himself, both emotional and physical, Vedran is doing just that.
By Portia Conyers-East