Aleks Duric father and brother
Aleks (left), when he was 9 years old with his dad and older brother Milan at a restaurant where his dad always visited. (Photo © Aleksandar Duric)

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.”

beyond borders cover duricThe 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.

Aleks Duric and kayaking team
Winter in Doboj with the kayaking team. 15-year-old Aleks is second from left, squatting. (Picture © Aleksandar Duric)

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

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Szeged to Barcelona

The weeks leading up to an Olympic Games can be exhilarating – for many, a once-in-a-lifetime period of gleeful privilege: receiving your kit, which contains your team outfit, training wear, and uniform for competition, being feted in pre-departure parties, meeting dignitaries and celebrities, and having all travel and lodging logistics taken care of for you.

Alexsandar Duric, also had a once-in-a-lifetime experience leading up to his trip to the Olympic Games. But his was not one of glee and delight. As detailed in part 1, Duric was asked to represent newly established nation, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the midst of an internecine war. He made the difficult decision to go. Now he had to figure out how to get there.

Duric, who was not a person of means, had a small backpack, a kayak paddle that a good friend gifted to him, and $20 in his pocket. Now he had to travel some 2,000 miles from his base in Szeged, Hungary to Barcelona. He fortunately did not have to make it all the way to Spain. He just needed to get to Ljubljana, Slovenia where he would join his nine other teammates on the Bosnian team, and from there get on a plane to Barcelona.

Duric stuck his thumb out and a man driving an empty mini-bus stopped to pick him up. The driver said that he could take him to the Austrian border, but not through it. The driver was Serbian, who had a hard time believing that he was sitting next to a fellow Serb going to Barcelona to represent Bosnia in the Olympics. “He didn’t like that, and he asked why I was going to the Olympics for ‘them’. It was an awkward conversation, but he was a nice man who drove me to the border.”

Duric made it to the Austrian border, and explained to the officials in Austria that he had a legitimate reason to enter Austria. “Why would an Olympian in this day and age be hitchhiking across Europe instead of being jetted and pampered as befitting his status” was what the officials were wondering. Even when Duric showed his invitation letter from the Austrian Olympic Committee, which was managing the process for the Bosnian Olympic squad, the Austrian authorities were skeptical, until they called the number on the document and confirmed that this unlikely straggler was, in actuality, an Olympic kayaker.

Duric told me that at that time, the Austrian-Hungarian border was closely monitored as many people were trying to leave the countries in the Soviet bloc. In fact, the friendly Hungarian border officials had told Duric the Austrians would probably send him back to Hungary, as they did routinely to all of the people trying to escape to Austria. When Duric watched reports of Syrian refugees struggling to find freedom from war and famine, he remembered his time at the border. “I was there in the 1990s. I saw so many families with small kids trying to find a better place. People talk bad about refugees, but I wish I could open my house to them. I know how they feel.”

The Austrian border officials eventually made contact with someone in the Austrian Olympic Committee verifying that Alexsandar Duric was indeed a member of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Olympic Team, and needed passage through Austria to get to Slovenia. “I clearly remember,” he told me. “At first, they didn’t believe me. I couldn’t explain it. They were asking me ‘where’s your car?’ ‘Where are you going?’ I only had this piece of paper from Olympic Committee of Austria. Eventually, they were all smiles, asking me where my car was, or if I had my first-class air tickets. They slapped me on the back and wished me luck.”

The officials also asked someone who was headed to Slovenia to take Duric, and even phoned ahead to their colleagues at the Austria-Slovenian border to let Duric through quickly. United with the other members of the Bosnian team, Duric spend a few days in Ljubljaana before getting on a plane to Barcelona, finally no longer having to figure out the logistics.

Bosnia Herzogivna team
The first ever Bosnia-Herzegovina Team in 1992.

And suddenly, he was an Olympian, in Barcelona, at the 1992 Summer Games. “I grew up in Doboj, and then, I thought Belgrade was like New York. When I arrived in Barcelona, I thought, ‘Am I in this world, or another planet?’ All the lights. The beaches. I was in a magic world.”

“Stepping into the village was amazing. I couldn’t believe my eyes who was walking by me in the huge restaurants. I was there for hours staring at people. I saw the Dream Team the first day before they moved out of the Village I saw Michael Jordan. Carl Lewis came up to

beyond borders cover duric

He was Yugoslavian. More specifically, he was a Serbian born and raised in Doboj, a town in the province of Bosnia-Herzegovina. More intriguingly, he was a powerful kayaker, junior champion of Yugoslavia at the age of 15, and one of the top ten kayakers in the world at the age of 17. Aleksandar Duric had a very viable dream of going to the Barcelona Olympics, but his country was crumbling.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Yugoslavia was a diverse federation of republics and provinces, primarily held together by the former president, Josip Tito. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the USSR’s influence waned, Yugoslavia’s political world began to spin apart. In 1989, Serbia declared independence. Soon after, Croatia did the same. Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was a highly diverse province of Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks, became an independent sovereign nation in March, 1992, and fell into years of a cruel and bloody civil war.

Duric was an eyewitness to Yugoslavia’s disintegration as a teenage officer in the Yugoslav People’s Army, following orders while trying to understand why Serbs, Croats and Muslims who had lived peacefully were now at each other’s throats. He was ethnic Serbian in an army that was dominated by Serbs, in a region that held a Muslim majority.

In 1992, Duric left the Army, his disagreements with leadership and distaste for the war making it untenable for him to remain in the Army. In fact, he felt the need to leave the country, settling in with a friend in a border town in Hungary. Out of work, out of training, away from family and friends, Duric merely bided time.

And then one day in July, 1992, his mentor and friend, Jusuf Makaravic, gave him the news that the IOC was inviting ten athletes from the newly established nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and that Duric was one of them. The IOC understood that many of these athletes would not be in peak condition due to the war, that their intent was to emphasize that all nations should participate in the Olympics. Duric’s first reaction was “But I’m a Serb.”

Duric immediately understood the difficult decision before him. As he explained in his autobiography, “Beyond Borders“, Duric was swayed by his mentor’s rationale.

“Yes, Aleks. But you’re a Bosnian first, don’t forget that. You can play your part in showing the world that Bosnia does not necessarily mean Muslim, you show them that Bosnia is home to people of many backgrounds. You lived your life in Bosnia, you trained half your live on the river Bosna, you deserve to compete for Bosnia as one of their first ever Olympians.”

Help Bosnia Now

As Duric told me, despite his friend’s advice, he felt so alone as he knew his family and friends would be made uncomfortable with a Serbian son representing a nation in conflict with Serbians in the former Yugoslavia. “When I got this call for the Olympics, it was definitely one of the toughest decisions I had to make. I was sitting in my room alone. In the back of my mind, I could deal with friends. But I didn’t want to disappoint my father, my mother, my brother.”

In the end, it was the life lessons from his parents that enabled Duric to make his decision to go the Olympics. He had learned a lot from his parents, particularly how not to hate other colors, other religions. “My mom and dad shaped me. When I was growing up, I was told that you have to respect all people, even if they are not good to you. All my friends were Bosnians. I was a Bosnian.”

And from that moment, Duric was an Olympian from Bosnia-Herzegovina, fulfilling a dream he had nestled for over a decade. “Holy shit, I’m going to the Olympics!”