A long, perilous road from Croatia to Idaho
By NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS
Associated Press Writer
May 17, 2002
MOSCOW, Idaho (AP) -- When Zeljka Vidic is handed her diploma, she will have taken one more step on what has been a long and perilous road.
She endured war and exile, illness and poverty. Her family barely escaped ``ethnic cleansing'' in Croatia. Half a world away, she became a tennis player at Idaho, and will graduate Saturday.
``In 16 years I've had some extraordinary people play for me,'' tennis coach Greg South said. ``She is head and shoulders above the rest.''
On Sept. 11, tennis practice at Idaho was canceled after the terrorist attacks. Vidic showed up the next day wearing a big blue ribbon, South recalled. She told her teammates how she had survived war with her humanity intact.
``I chose not to hate,'' South recalled Vidic saying. ``Instead, I chose to fight back for freedom and a better life.''
Vidic, known as Z around campus, was born in Vukovar, in eastern Croatia, in 1979. Her parents and older brother had a comfortable life there until 1991.
Then an invading Yugoslav army laid a three-month siege and began indiscriminate shelling of the city. About 1,700 Croats were killed when the invaders and local Serbs overwhelmed the city.
About 22,000 Croats, including Vidic and her family, were expelled in late 1991 by the new rulers. Her family spent seven years as refugees in Zagreb, struggling with poverty and the memories of the brutality they witnessed.
In 1995, the U.N. war crimes tribunal indicted three former Yugoslav army officers for crimes against humanity during the siege of Vukovar. The trial of one is under way in The Hague, Netherlands. Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic also is on trial for alleged war crimes committed by Serb forces in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Vidic grows quiet and uncomfortable when asked about the siege of Vukovar, which often pitted Croats against Serbian neighbors.
``Somebody wanted to hurt my family,'' she said. ``We assumed it was a neighbor.''
There was an attempt to bomb the family's home.
``People were just crazy,'' she said. ``Everybody would just hate everybody.''
In Zagreb, Vidic earned a spot in a tennis club with a coach. She was the only tennis player in her family. She finished high school in 1997 and wanted to play in the United States. South learned of Vidic from friends in Europe, and watched a videotape.
``It was obvious there was a huge talent there,'' South said.
But over time, he came to respect her even more for her character and attitude.
``She went through some very difficult things,'' South said. ``I believe tennis helped her survive.''
Just before she left for Idaho in 1998, her father, Stjepan, had a stroke. Vidic did not want to leave, but her father urged her to take her scholarship and head overseas.
``It was not easy to leave him,'' she said.
The wheat fields, wide-open spaces and natural beauty of Idaho immediately appealed to Vidic. She also reveled in the chance to get an education and play tennis at the same time.
``We traveled a lot and I saw a lot of things in the U.S.,'' Vidic said. She enjoyed trips to California and to Seattle, but ``I really like Hawaii.''
She also loved playing with a team, but she understood what was required of her.
``You have to win,'' she said.
Win she did. As a junior, she led the Vandals with a 15-4 record. After recovering from knee surgery in January, Vidic was 16-10 in singles and 20-10 in doubles during her senior season.
``She has the best backhand of anybody who ever played for me,'' South said.
Even at Idaho she could not escape her past.
During one of her first matches, she was nervous at playing a woman from Yugoslavia, South said. When he asked her why, Vidic replied that the woman was a cousin of a Serbian boy who had terrorized her old neighborhood in Vukovar after the invasion. But both players came off the court laughing.
Vidic finished her career with 41 victories in singles and a school record 41 wins in doubles, despite missing nearly all of her sophomore season with torn knee ligaments from a skiing accident. That injury led to three knee operations.
This month, Vidic was chosen as the northwest winner of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's Arthur Ashe Sportsmanship award. Only eight of the 4,000 women playing Division I tennis win the award.
In April, Vidic was among 174 athletes around the country who won an NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship Award. It provides a $6,000 scholarship next year as she pursues a master's degree in sports and recreation management at the university.
The 23-year-old Vidic graduates with a degree in finance, and would like to become a U.S. citizen. This summer she plans to teach tennis and is looking for other work.
``I like Moscow in the summer. It's like a little oasis for me,'' she said. ``I feel at peace here.''
Her family has returned to its home in Vukovar, but the situation there is still tense, Vidic said. Croatians and Serbs live largely separate lives in the city now.
``We are trying to forgive,'' she said. ``But we will not forget.''