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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When Russia is a haven from war

The first time Ydranka Tolshich was in Russia she was here by choice. This time she is nearly penniless and a refugee from the war in fractured Yugoslavia.


"I lived in one of the most dangerous areas of Sarajevo", Tolshich, 36, said at the dingy hotel 80 kilometers from Moscow that she now calls home. "After several bombs fell down near my house and my husband was shot at, I decided it was time to leave. I had to save my children".


Tolshich, her two sons and daughter, along with five other women and 15 children, put their lives on hold when they fled Sarajevo for Serpukhov shortly after the Bosnian capital came under fire two months ago in Yugoslavia's civil war. Leaving behind their homes and husbands, as men are barred from exiting, the women sought safety where they could find it. Even if it meant heading East.


"I would rather have gone to Italy or France", said Danica Simic-Smrzlic, who fled Sarajevo on a moment's notice. "But somewhere else was not possible".


Over the last year, Russia has sent shipments of humanitarian aid to Yugoslavia, despite its own fragile economic status. and in an ironic twist of fate, Russia -- the land that thousands sought to escape for the West -- is fast becoming a safe haven for fleeing Yugoslavs.


"The only organizations offering to organize and pay our way out were based in Moscow", said Zdravka Mijovic. "There was little other choice. The only important thing was to go from Sarajevo".


As war continues to ravage the republics formerly linked as Yugoslavia, more and more of its citizens want out. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported last month that there were 1. 7 million Yugoslav refugees -- out of 17 "million refugees throughout the globe. But U. N. sanctions against Yugoslavia have shut down airports and border crossings, enabling only 375, 000 of the refugees actually to escape to other lands.


Bojan Sarkic, second secretary of the Yugoslav Embassy in Moscow, said he could not specify exactly how many have made Russia home since the war broke out.


"But we do know that over the last seven months there has been an increase of people coming to the former Soviet Union", he said.


Moscow's tight-knit Yugoslav community of about 15, 000, at last year's count, has galvanized itself -- extending invitations to relatives and friends and collecting money to subsidize those without contacts here. A Moscow-based Yugoslav journalist, Vlastimir Mijovic, has helped raise $5, 000 over the last few months specifically to help Europe's newest batch of homeless.


Given official refugee status by the United Nations, Tolshich, the five other women and the 18 children were among the first beneficiaries of the donations.


They fled to Russia with the help of Mijovic and the Children Embassy's, a Yugoslav nonprofit organization with ties to official Russian organizations, like the State Committee on Disasters. As gunfire began pounding away at home, the Children's Embassy ran advertisements on Sarajevo's airwaves for those wanting to seek refuge in Moscow.


Hundreds applied. But the first 24 were also the last to get out, since transport was quickly cut off. The new extended family embarked May 5 on a six-hour bus odyssey through sniper territory from Sarajevo to Belgrade, where a plane was waiting to airlift the refugees out. Though fighting forces gave assurances that they would not shoot at the bus, the promises did not alleviate the fear.


"On the bus I was so scared", said Vladimir Tolshich, 13, whose mother said his nightmares about war wake him nightly. "But here it is peaceful. I'm not afraid".


Vladimir is one of the 18 children who romp around the bucolic grounds of the Hotel Avant Garde. A simple playground with a tattered volleyball net is across the way from the hotel. A few meters further on lies a lake, where the children swim every day. In the grounds, few sounds are heard other than birds and the children's laughter.


"I want my children to rest and forget about the war", Tolshich said. "There is good nature here. They can play".


"We try to make them feel like it's a holiday", Mijovic said. "But it is hard".


The refugees occupy the top floor of the hotel, which also hosts a sprinkling of Russian tourists. Room and board costs 186 rubles a day per head, and is paid for by funds raised by Moscow's Yugoslav community. The new tenants have little other money, as most of their assets are frozen in banks back home.


"We have some money to buy the children chocolate", said Tolshich. "But when it is finished, it will be a bad time for us". The refugee's home is clean, simple and depressing. A color television set tuned to Super Channel is perpetually on in the communal living area. The rooms have two single beds and a night table, and no personality.


"I have these pens and my brother has his toy car", said Sanya Simic-Smrzlic, 12, as she gave a quick tour of her room. "I could not bring a lot with me. There was not time. The bus was leaving".


Sanya's mother said her exodus had been spontaneous - and traumatic.


"A bomb fell near my house one night and I decided I must go with my children", she said, fighting back tears. She left with one suitcase and four children, two of whom belonged to friends.


Wearing a pink sweat suit, 13-year-old Sabena quietly slumps next to her surrogate mother as tears stream into her lap.


"These conversations are very upsetting", said Mijovic, jumping into the discussion. The two women moved protectively toward the adolescent.


The mothers come from different backgrounds. Tolshich was a successful businesswoman. Miyovic was an accomplished computer programmer. Simic-Smrzlic taught young children. Jasmina Fazlic is a homemaker, whose husband has lived in Moscow for the last three years, working in construction and sporadically trekking back to Sarajevo to visit his wife. The couple, who have two children including 3-month-old Jasmin, still live apart.


But now the women share common ground. They spend their days hoping and waiting.


"Every day we wait for news about home", Mijovic said. "But there are only one or two lines on the news. I can live one, two, or three months like this, but not longer. I need to work".


Job prospects are bleak. Mijovic does not speak Russian. Except for Tolshich, who worked for a Yugoslav firm in Moscow for four years, neither do the others.


School for the children will be another problem. There is none in the hamlet of Serpukhov, and local authorities say that the small group of school-aged children are not enough to start one.


Coming out of shock from their recent flight, the women are slowly realizing that they might be in Russia more than just a few months.


"The first two weeks I was here I was very depressed", Tolshich said. "The only thought I had was about going home. Now I hope I can rebuild my life".


Simic-Smrzlic feels it is too painful to think about what she left behind. "We don't have anything in our past", she said. "And now we have to construct a new life in the future. But when I think about the future, all I can do is cry".


"We cry one at a time", said Mijovic. "Then we help each other. It is like a big family".