A friendship born out of warfare

By Richard SmithFOR more than 700 days Tanja Krivic hid with her frightened family in a basement while fighting erupted above their heads in war-torn Croatia.

By Richard Smith

FOR more than 700 days Tanja Krivic hid with her frightened family in a basement while fighting erupted above their heads in war-torn Croatia.

The teenager only surfaced for an hour every few days to catch some fresh air before hiding underground again.

She spent endless hours learning English surrounded by her family and neighbours in the one room - and today she is putting the language into practice for the first time after arriving in Suffolk to thank a family who helped her survive some bleak years.

When German-born Tanja was finally able to leave the tiny basement she moved into a refugee camp in Osijek, where she started receiving Christmas shoeboxes filled with presents sent by the Abbey School in Woodbridge.

Tanja was then aged 20 with a husband Darko and an 18-month-old son Dino. They were surrounded by hundreds of other homeless people whose properties had been razed to the ground. The chocolate bars and toys were luxuries for the family and they had been sent by seven-year-old Milly Dawson, from Pettistree, near Woodbridge.

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Now 10 years later, after the exchange of numerous letters and presents over the years, the two pen-pals have met for the first time, and Tanja's excellent grasp of the English language has helped her to win new friends and feel almost at home in Suffolk.

The visit was an ideal birthday present for Milly, a pupil at Woodbridge School who celebrated her 17th birthday on Friday.

"I sent a letter with my Christmas shoebox, but I did not know where it would end up, and the friendship has just grown from there. It is strange, but it is nice to meet a person who you have been writing to for 10 years," she said.

Tanja, 30, added: "The Christmas shoeboxes made people happy during Christmas. We did not have anything during that time and it was a hard time for us.

"Before then my town had been hit by grenades and the home where I had grown up had been crushed. We lived for two years in a basement, it was a horrible experience and people were very frightened.

"There was bombing going on all around us and we had to stick together, myself, my parents, brothers and sisters, grandmother and neighbours. Every two or three days I would go out for an hour or so, but I could not go far, and I was learning English a little bit at a time."

Tanja moved out of the refugee camp when her house was rebuilt, but the quality of life was still poor in Croatia and there was little prospect of work for many people.

Milly's grandfather, Michael Spear, from Little Bealings, has acted as a sponsor for Tanja. "It was difficult for her to get a visa and that is why her family could not come over here," he said.

"I have known Tanja for eight out of the 10 years, but she was a name until this week and now she is here."

richard.smith@eadt.co.uk

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