Thirty years on from escaping wartorn Bosnia, TV producer Inga Lovric tells Sheron Boyle how a person endures and survives in the face of losing everything.
It was a calm, star-filled night in June 1992 when Inga Lovric left her apartment in Jajce, Bosnia, for the last time carrying just a change of clothes, her passport and some money hidden in a tin.
Only weeks before, she had been living the carefree life of an English literature undergraduate: ‘I was 22 when the first bomb landed in my hometown. It was a warm day in May and I was with my best friend and her boyfriend in a café. About 2pm, I heard the loudest noise ever – the first grenade to land in Jajce,’ Inga recalls. ‘As I ran for home, I was painfully aware that my white jeans and brightly coloured top made me an easy target for a sniper.’
Making it to the basement of her apartment block, Inga waited for her mother Mira – a 48-year-old dentist who was working at the local hospital – to join her. ‘It was cold and dark down there,’ she shudders. ‘We had no electricity.’
Over the coming weeks, the basement was to become a shelter for Inga, Mira and the other families who lived in the block, as Serbian forces attacked the town.
‘I’d be in it every day, sometimes two or three times,’ remembers Inga. ‘I’d take candles to give some light. As the shells rained down, I’d calm myself by staring at the flame.’
One day, while Mira was working, Inga decided to get some fresh water during a pause in the bombardment. Heading to a nearby stream, she filled two buckets and was on her way back when a sniper spotted her and began shooting, first at the buckets but then directly at her. ‘I was the only person on the street. He wanted to kill me. I darted in between my house and outbuildings but he kept shooting, bullets flying everywhere. I crawled into the grass and somehow made it home,’ she pauses, before adding, ‘There was still some water in the buckets.’
By June, Mira had decided that she had to get her daughter out of Bosnia. ‘She told me that she had found someone who could smuggle me to safety,’ remembers Inga. ‘She said: “It’s too dangerous to stay here. You have a life ahead of you.”’
Inga’s smuggler was a colleague of her mother’s. ‘He was a soldier trying to get to Croatia to collect medical supplies for the hospital where he and Mum worked. She trusted him, as did I, but to say I was scared of what lay ahead was an understatement.’
Inga said an emotional goodbye to Mira. ‘My darling Mum and I hugged as we tried to hold back the tears. I am an optimist and so was she. “We’ll meet again, and it will only be a few weeks before I am back,” I whispered. “If, for any reason, you start feeling unsafe, please leave and meet me wherever I am.”’
Mira agreed but told her daughter that she wanted to stay in Jajce as long as possible to help in the hospital. Inga weeps as she recalls those final moments together. ‘She smelled like Mum.’
In the dark of the night, the frightened young woman got into the smuggler’s van. With a curfew in place, the only way out was to drive through country lanes and orchards with their headlights off.
Despite their attempts to stay quiet, the van’s engine drew the attention of Serbian snipers who responded by shooting haphazardly into the darkness. ‘They heard the van’s engine, but they couldn’t see us,’ says Inga. ‘It was a lottery whether we’d be hit or not.
‘My way of coping with the fear was to imagine happy scenarios. I’d marry my handsome smuggler; we’d run away from this nightmare and live happily ever after. Sometimes, I’d drift into sleep then wake again. We just kept going and going.’
The following day the pair arrived at the Croatian city of Split. As the smuggler dropped Inga at the busy port, he said: ‘Good luck. I hope you have a good life.’
Inga then headed for the capital Zagreb, where her cousin lived. From there, she made contact with the Fishman family in England, for whom she had au paired in 1990. They immediately offered her shelter in their London home.
Contacting Mira back in Bosnia, however, wasn’t so easy. ‘I found some radio amateurs who sent a Morse Code message to colleagues in Jajce. They then passed it on to Mum. This was before mobile phones and most landlines weren’t working any more.’
Mira, in turn, had spent four agonising days not knowing if her daughter had made it out alive. Over the ensuing weeks, Inga was able to send a few more messages, one to say she got safely to London and the other in August asking Mira to join her.
As Jajce fell under Serb control, thousands of people – including Mira – fled their homes in a convoy of vehicles. Two hours into their journey, a sniper opened fire. In the confusion of the attack, the lorry in front of the car Mira was travelling in stopped suddenly and her vehicle went under it. Mira was left paralysed in the wreckage.
When medics reached her, Mira’s only concern was that somebody contact Inga – and that she wasn’t alone when she got the news about the accident. Despite being transferred to hospital in Zagreb, Mira didn’t survive her injuries. ‘It was the darkest day of my life,’ says Inga softly. ‘I wanted to say goodbye to Mum, to hug and touch her one final time.’ When Mira was buried in Mostar, in Bosnia, her relatives put a white rose on her coffin to represent Inga, for whom it was still too dangerous to return home. ‘That was the end of my old life,’ she says.
The only ray of light was that she discovered that the radio amateurs had got a message to her mum before she died, telling her about the place Inga had secured to study English literature and history at St Mary’s College, Twickenham. ‘It still felt like I was in a nightmare,’ says Inga, ‘and I only wore black during the first term. But I know my achievement would have made her proud.’
Unclear about the exact events surrounding her mother’s death, Inga received a letter from her aunt attempting to explain, but it was – and still is – too hard for her to read. ‘I’ve saved it,’ she says. ‘But it’s been 30 years. I don’t think I’ll ever be brave enough to read it.’
It was to be another 11 years before Inga felt strong enough to visit Mira’s grave. By now married and a mother herself (her daughter Freya was nine months old at the time), Inga made the emotional journey home. In August 2003, as she finally reached the grave in Mostar, it felt like the culmination of the journey that began on the night she fled. ‘I stared at the black marble stone that had her picture engraved on it. I sobbed as I touched it, calling out her name. But she was gone. There was no hug for me. Instead, I squeezed my baby daughter and hoped she would never endure this kind of pain. I placed a candle next to the stone, lit it and again watched the flame as I had done all those years ago in the shelter. A sense of peace passed through me as I said goodbye.’
During lockdown, Inga – who is now 52 and a series producer of international current affairs at the BBC – felt drawn by the sense of calm that candles have given her over the years to start making her own. She has also recently produced a BBC Two documentary on Ukraine entitled Platform 5: Escaping Ukraine, which tells the story of Lviv train station where women and children fleeing Ukraine have had to leave loved ones behind.
Inga has a message to the Ukrainian people: ‘Hard and heartbreaking times undoubtedly lie in store, but there is a way ahead. When you lose everything, all you are left with is hope to find the light. I did – and so will you.’