Before he was junior kayaking champion of Yugoslavia, before he was an Olympian for the first Bosnian-Herzegovinian team at the Barcelona Games in 1992, before he would go on to a long and successful soccer career, Aleksandar Duric was his father’s son.
And being the son of Mladjen Duric was a challenge.
As Duric wrote in his fascinating book, Beyond Borders, his father was a “rugged, simple man, with little education”, whose mother abandoned him and whose father was killed in World War II. He was also an alcoholic and abusive to his wife and children. “When he was sober my father was a good man, not the sensitive or talkative type, but honest and unselfish – he would give you his own blood if you needed it. But drinking changed him; it turned him into an animal.”
The kayaker from Doboj, Bosnia recalled when his father got so drunk, he crashed and destroyed his car, in which so much hard-earned money was invested.
Our relationships was at breaking point at that stage. I was sick of him bringing shame to our family, sick of how he treated us all. I shouted at him, “You’re completely wasted. You’re a disgrace!”
“How dare you speak to me like that? I’m your father!”
It escalated from there. We had a blazing argument and my mother stepped in to try to calm things down. That made him angrier. He made a wild move to grab my mother and hit her. I got in between them, grabbed a kitchen knife from the counter and pointed it at him, saying, “If you ever touch her or Milan again, I’ll kill you. I swear to god, I’ll cut you into pieces.” The scary thing is, I meant it.
A few years later, Duric served as an officer in the Yugoslav People’s Army, just as the diverse and increasingly hostile parts of the Bosnian region of Yugoslavia – Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks – began to splinter. One time, Duric’s commanding officer sent him and his team on a convoy mission to protect trucks transporting weapons and ammunition into areas at the heart of the Bosnian conflict. Duric, who was personally wrestling with the suspect reasons why the Yugoslav’s People’s Army was fighting the battles it was, reluctantly took his team on the tense trip through hostile territory. When he and his team completed the mission successfully, he was asked again to take his team on another mission. Duric pushed back saying that he and his team were promised they would be able to return to their base and safety if they had completed the one mission.
As related in this book, after being called a coward, and slapped around, Duric was thrown into jail for insubordination, threatened with imprisonment for years. As Duric was being moved to his jail cell, he saw an officer he was friends with and shouted to him to tell his father that he was in military jail. And despite all that he and his father had been through, he knew his father would help. “My father was not an affectionate man and he had plenty of personal demons, but he was not going to let his youngest son rot in some cell in Vukovar.”
In the end, his father shouted, berated and threatened the right people and got his son released. “To this day I don’t know what went on behind the scenes after this. Favours must have been called in, more threats must have been made. But whatever happened, all I know is that he very next day I was escorted out of the cell, handed a couple of sets of keys to some waiting Landrovers with my men already sitting inside them, and told in no uncertain terms to get me out of their sight immediately.
Since that time, Duric left Bosnia and laid low in Szegred, Hungary, with little money and little prospects for the future. As explained in the previous post, Duric went on to compete in the Barcelona Olympics, and a 20-year career in professional soccer in Australia, China and Singapore. He did not return to Doboj to see his family again, even when his mother was killed by a Bosnian shell that hit her home in 1993.
But in 2000, Duric received word from his brother that his father was dying. Duric made the trip from Singapore to Doboj, and spent the final days with his father, telling him about his days at the Olympics and his successes on the soccer pitch. And his father, after years of shunning his son, and decades of acrimony and bitterness, made peace with his son.
He told me how happy he was that I had returned, and how sorry he was for the way things had been between us. He told me he had always been so worried about me as a child, that he didn’t think I would survive in this world, that nothing would come from my obsession with sport. He said, “I was wrong, son. I see now that you’ve become someone. I am proud of you.”
Duric told me that he was from a culture where your father is your god. “I always loved my father,” he told me. “I respected him and loved him. I just tried to protect myself and my mother and my brother, but I do understand that alcohol changes a person.”
Duric readily recognizes that he owes so much to his father, and that he learned how to be open-minded and understanding from his father and mother.
“You learn in the house, we are all the same,” he told me. “When I was young, I would tell my father that this boy was bullying me. He would say, ‘this is life, but don’t you mind whether he is Muslim or Croatian. He is a just a boy. You will grow up as a good person if you respect them. And give them a chance to be a part of your life.'”
- The Incredible Olympic Journey of Aleksandar Duric Part 1: The Decision
- The Incredible Olympic Journey of Aleksandar Duric Part 2: Hitchhiking to the Olympics