By Dawn Yip and Les Tan
Aleksandar Duric is a Serbian who became a Singapore citizen in 2007 and within weeks he was wearing the red of Singapore at the National Stadium. Duric got his papers the hard way – he applied like everyone else and was rejected twice before he got approval. He was not on the Football Association of Singapore Foreign Talent Scheme, as most folks would assume. Today, at age 38, he is still a first-choice striker for Singapore, an amazing situation for someone his age. He remains one of the fittest players in the S-League where he plays for the Singapore Armed Forces, a testament to what a professional he is. But there is more to Aleks than just football. In his 38 years, he has experienced poverty, the loss of his mother to war and years of separation from his family because of the Balkans conflict. He sat with us for hours one day to chat. Here is his story.
Part 3 (of 5)
Alone in Hungary
Aleks was now a refugee in Hungary, but was spared from sleeping on the street through the help of a few good Samaritans. He also began trying out at different football clubs, travelling as far as Sweden which was offering help to people affected by the Bosnian War.
His desperate situation fuelled his determination – "I was fighting for my contract, for my life" – and he managed to get a place in a big Hungarian club called FC Szeged. Emotionally though, Aleks admits it was an extremely difficult time. "There was no news at all about my family. I didn't know if they were alive. You can't show emotion to [your teammates]. You train, you go home. You close the door, you turn on the TV and watch the news, and you cry. People used to ask me, “What are you? Made of iron?”
In 1992, Aleks received a call from the Bosnian Olympic Committee asking him to kayak for Bosnia. With the country still at war, Aleks was torn about whether he should take up the offer. He eventually did so, though there were people who threatened to destroy his home in Doboj because he was "representing the enemy".
Getting to the Olympics was to prove an adventure in itself, since he was without passport and funding. Armed only with a letter from the Sarajevo Olympic Federation confirming his status as an Olympian, Aleks travelled from country to country, explaining his situation over and over. "It took me two days, hitchhiking, to get to Barcelona. One bus, one truck and a couple of cars. I remember at the Austrian immigration, they thought I was lying. They asked their friends to come in and see me, and nobody believed me."
In Barcelona, Aleks made history as a member of Bosnia's first-ever Olympics team. He was the only kayaker on the team and had done no training. Still, the ongoing conflict in Bosnia made them the focus of media attention. "When we came out in the Olympic stadium, everybody stood up and applauded. Every country gets 30 seconds. We were the only country that got another 30 seconds. It was really exciting and emotional."
With his kayaking competition over in two days (he didn’t win a medal), he spent the remaining days catching Olympic football action, and meeting "famous people like Carl Lewis, Boris Becker, (Olympic President) Samaranch, Julio Inglesias, and Johann Cruyff. The Olympic Village was amazing. People only dream of this."
Death of his mother
Back in Hungary, Aleks was already well-known in Szeged, then Hungary's third biggest town. It was during this time that Aleks was also able to reconnect with his family through amateur radio. The emotion of that first conversation over the airwaves was overwhelming – "Crying. Happiness. Joy and relief,” described Aleks. “We were screaming. I was watching TV and there was so much killing and religious fighting. But I heard that everyone was fine."
Though unable to see them, Aleks was able to speak to his family every week or two except when fighting intensified. Through a network of friends, he also sent home kerosene, sugar, cooking oil and other necessities.
The uneasy equilibrium was not to last. On August 9th, 1993, three days before Aleks' birthday, his mother was killed in an artillery attack. A truce was declared but it proved untrue and his mother was in the garden of her house when the artillery shelling started suddenly and they were caught out in the open. His father was injured but recovered.
Aleks went to the United Nations in Budapest to see if he could arrange to go home for the funeral but was told such arrangements for civilians were not possible. "I didn't see her, didn't get to say goodbye," remembers Aleks. "You start thinking about how many mothers have died. You feel angry for everybody. What is all this killing? One moment I was thinking of revenge. But you realise you can't. What to take revenge on?"
"I didn't have many people to talk to. For months after that I was down. Every day I cried. But soccer was a distraction. Once you step out on the field, no more crying. You are here, and that's your job."
Aleks: “Mum on left could be 40 years old, on right side maybe 30+. My dad on left in the army, 20 years maybe, on right side maybe around 50 years.” (Photo © Aleksandar Duric)
Part 1 – “Sometimes we played with no shoes…”
Part 2 – “If your brother is killed, at least I have you.”
Part 4 – “Are you sure they play football in Singapore?”
Part 5 – "No drinking, no alcohol, no smoking, no late nights"