Escaping Former Yugoslavia

I was born in a country that no longer exists – I was born in Former Yugoslavia.

In my last post, I wrote about the war in Former Yugoslavia.

Let’s talk about how my parents escaped and brought our family to safety amidst the rising tensions and brutal killings.

A Life Left Behind

My brother and I were born in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina which should answer at least one of your questions about where I’m from. Both my parents were also born in Bosnia, however my mother’s side of the family was Croatian my father’s was Serbian. Once the war started, my parents were considered to be in a mixed marriage. That was bad.

My mother was an accomplished dentist. Here is one of my favourite childhood photos of us.

Family photo of Billi Milovanovic as a toddler, circa 1987
My family, Mostar, Bosnia | Circa 1987

I was fortunate enough to be born into a military family because my father was an Air Force pilot.

Tom Milovanovic Yugoslav Royal Airforce
Tomislav Milovanovic | Circa 1980’s

In 1992, seeing that things were going downhill fast, my father decided that it was time to get the family out of Mostar. My mother didn’t think that the war would escalate that quickly and I think she hoped it would all blow over.

How My Family Escaped Former Yugoslavia

My mother stayed in Mostar, in our home, and continued working while my father took us on a little vacation to Tivat, Montenegro. As I was leaving our home, I turned back around to go to my room, I left my box full of make-up. My mother stopped me and said that there was no time, I’ll be back soon to play with all my things. I was six.

The next time I came to Mostar, I was 19.

Shortly after my father, brother and I left, the Army base in Mostar exploded. My mother’s story of leaving Mostar deserves its own post, but I’ll give you the short version.

On the day the Army base blew up, my mother was getting ready to go to work. If you’re asking how many people would like their teeth fixed during a war, the answer is probably none. My mother was working at the emergency hospital looking after injured civilians. When someone knocked on the door, she didn’t expect to see two officers standing in the doorway giving her two choices.

If she chose to stay, she wouldn’t be able to leave. Borders were closing, shit was getting real. She can leave with them but she had to leave then and there. So she grabbed a jacket, my father’s two service guns, a bag with some things and she left our apartment, our home, forever. We never returned to live there.

Packing Heat

My mother arrived in Belgrade, Serbia, and declared the guns she brought with her. She was arrested, questioned for hours and finally released – sans guns.

After being in Tivat for many months, my brother, father and I met up with my mother in Belgrade.

Once we were all reunited, my father returned to the airport to get his weapons back. On his return from the airport, he was unharmed and packing heat, having acquired an additional two guns and two hand grenades! He must have been very convincing.

Meanwhile, my father continued working for the Yugoslav Army, but Yugoslavia was now only Serbia and Montenegro. As the war was well and truly on, the notion that he would be fighting against his own people was not appealing.

Yugoslavia to Australia

In 1995, after 17 relocations, six different schools and three years of applying for a visa to other countries, we left Serbia and Yugoslavia, forever. We came to the land of the free – good ol’ Wellington, New Zealand!

Image of Billi Milovanovic in Wellington New Zealand, wearing a Hutt Intermediate School Uniform
11 year old Bildo | First day of school | Hutt Intermediate, Wellington

We were in NZ for five years where my parents had to learn a new language and start a brand new life. I was nine, I found friends easily and fit right in with my new life. I was probably too young to realise that we weren’t going back. That realisation didn’t hit me till many years later.

In 2000, we moved to Australia. I was 14.

The War Rages

The war itself continued for much longer than the violence. Shit kicked up again around 1999 and the unrest was never far from our minds, or far from our family still residing in Former Yugoslavia. I can happily report that none of my immediate family were hurt, but more distant family certainly didn’t go unscathed.

It took many years for me not to identify with being a displaced citizen. Although my story was sad to me, many things have happened since then and I can no longer carry the past around like it’s the only thing that’s shaped me.

But this should explain why whenever someone asks me where I’m from, I don’t take the easy way out and say that I’m Bosnian. Because I’m not. That wouldn’t do me, my past, or the legacy of Yugoslavia, any justice. Being Yugoslav will always be a part of my identity.

The Last Generation of Yugoslavs

I am the last generation of Yugoslavs.

But I am also a first-generation migrant to Australia.

I am immensely proud of that. My entire adulthood was spent here, I met my husband and had my children here. None of that would have been possible had my story been different or if my parents didn’t make the difficult decisions they had.

So I will go through the motions of explaining that, no, Yugoslavia doesn’t exist anymore, I wasn’t on any side, I was on the side of unity, the place I was born is now exclusively known as Bosnia, and what was the war about? Who the f*ck knows. About nothing. About everything. But let’s just hope it doesn’t happen again.

And I feel I’m in the best place in the world to enable a safe, beautiful, beach-filled life for my daughters and my family.

Thanks for reading and please feel free to join the conversation in the comments section.


26 Comments Add yours

  1. What a story! This was such an interesting post, thank you for sharing!

  2. Incredible story!

  3. Very nice title and great share friend 💐

    1. Thank you 🙂 xx

      1. My pleasure 🌻

  4. Wow. So engaging post. Could make a movie out of it .

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