My sister and I nestled into our mother’s arms as we sat in the dark, musty cellar, listening to the piercing wail of air raid sirens followed by the harrowing thump of explosions as our home of Sarajevo fell under siege.
That is one of my earliest memories.
It was April, 1992. I was five years old.
When the civil war in Bosnia broke out, the three of us took shelter in our neighbour’s cellar while my father, a doctor, continued to work at a local hospital as wounded civilians started pouring in.
Life as we knew it was over. In what felt like a split second, our stable, seemingly innocuous world had imploded.
A soldier works in a damaged building riddled with bullet holes with a sign on the wall saying welcome to Sarajevo.
We sat in that basement for days on end — trapped, relentlessly bombarded and unsure whether we would make it out alive.
The Bosnian War was Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II, with around 100,000 people killed and more than two million displaced.
It was a complex, intense and ugly civil war which saw the quaint, ethnically diverse city of Sarajevo — adorned with mosques, synagogues, Catholic and Orthodox churches — besieged for almost four years, its water, power and food supplies cut off, its residents left traumatised.
We were among the lucky ones.
A gamble that paid off
Just months into the conflict my mother took the biggest gamble of her life, fleeing under fire with the two of us children in tow.
She boarded a bus bound for Serbia’s capital Belgrade where we sought refuge, leaving behind my father who followed some time later.
An old family photo of two girls with their father posing for a photo outside with mountains in the background.
Irena Ceranic (left) and her sister Sara on a family outing with their father Bogdan, a doctor, near Sarajevo before the war began. (ABC News: Irena Ceranic)
The gamble paid off.
We were out of Sarajevo, but Serbia itself was in turmoil, its economy floundering under tough sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council, which propelled the rise of black market profiteers but precluded my parents from finding any work despite their qualifications and experience.
After two years of struggling to stay afloat, in a stroke of luck, we were given a lifeline in the form of a refugee visa from Australia.
Ticket to a new life
There are two things I remember about that day.
The first is my father saying: “Kids, we’re moving to a continent in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s hot and starts with A.”
“AFRICA!” my sister and I chimed with excitement, thinking of all the pet zebras we could adopt.
The second is the sheer look of relief on my parents’ faces.
Irena Ceranic is the ABC’s television weather presenter in Western Australia. (ABC News: James Carmody)
With a lot of optimism, few expectations and a complete lack of fluency in the English language, we packed two small suitcases and hopped on a bus to Hungary (due to the suspension of air traffic in Belgrade), where we boarded our first overseas flight bound for Perth.
My parents, then aged in their late 30s, left behind their family and all they had ever known, to start a new life in a foreign country without a dollar to their name.
The warmest of welcomes
The horror of the war has stayed with us but, equally, we will never forget the open arms that welcomed us to Australia — the refugee support workers who rallied to ensure we had a roof over our heads, food to eat and clothes to wear.
It was an unparalleled generosity and human spirit the likes of which we had not experienced before.
I was seven years old when we arrived here in 1994, having never stepped foot in an educational setting. After six months of attending an English learning school, I was parachuted straight into Year 2 at a mainstream primary school.
The road for my parents, however, was tougher.
In Sarajevo my mother was a newspaper editor and my father was a doctor, but that meant little when language was such a huge barrier.
A family surround a smiling little boy in front of a table with a birthday cake on it.
Irena Ceranic’s family — (l-r) Irena, Zeljka (mother), Marko (brother), Bogdan (dad) Sara (sister) — celebrate Marko’s first birthday at their new home in Australia. (ABC News: Irena Ceranic)
They both attended English lessons and my father drove a taxi to get us by, while studying medicine all over again.
While his degree was recognised here, he needed to pass a range of exams to become qualified.
And he did just that.
We were some of the lucky ones
Today my parents live a comfortable life; my father works in the field of psychiatry, my mother gave birth to my younger brother here and up until a few years ago worked for an organisation which helped to settle refugees.
Our story is not unique and we consider ourselves extremely fortunate given the enormous number of people around the world who find themselves stuck in a turbulent limbo, unable to go back to their own countries or find settlement in others.
In our comfy lives here in Australia, it’s too easy to forget the world is a vastly different place when viewed through the prism of war and displacement.