Dejan Lovren: ‘Give refugees a chance, I know what they’re going through’
Liverpool defender and family were forced to flee the Balkans War with just one bag
Dejan Lovren and his famioly were forced to flee the Balkans War before being moved out of Germany and settling in Croatia. Photo: Getty Images
There is only one moment, recounting the horrors that shaped his childhood and life as a refugee from the Bosnian war, when it all seems like it might be too difficult for Dejan Lovren to continue.
Lovren is telling the story of how he and his family had to flee their home in Kraljeva Sutjeska, the village where he grew up outside Zenica, and what happened to those who were left behind. “Zenica was attacked because it was a bigger city,” the Liverpool player explains, “but it was in these small villages where the most horrific things happened …people being brutally killed. My uncle’s brother was killed in front of other people with a knife. I never talk about my uncle because it’s quite a tough thing to talk about, but he lost his brother, one of my family members. Difficult …”
It is a remarkable piece of television, courtesy of LFC TV, and rare to see a Premier League footballer speak of such jarring memories on a club’s own TV channel. Lovren was only three years old when the civil war broke out that finished with more than 100,000 deaths. “We had everything, to be honest,” he says of their life before that point. “We never had problems. Everything went well with the neighbours – with the Muslims, with the Serbs, everyone was talking very well between each other and enjoying the life, everything was how they wanted. And then it [the war]happened.
“I wish I could explain everything but nobody knows the real truth. It just happened. It just changed through the night – war between everyone, three different cultures. People just changed. I just remember the sirens went on. I was so scared because I was thinking “bombs”. I remember my mum took me and we went to the basement, I don’t know how long we’d been sitting there, I think it was until the sirens went off. Afterwards, I remember mum, my uncle, my uncle’s wife, we took the car and then we were driving to Germany. We left everything – the house, the little shop with the food they had, they left it. They took one bag and ‘let’s go to Germany’.”
His family have since told him the 500-mile journey to Munich took 17 hours, not least because of all the security stops. “We had luck. Me and my family, we had luck. Our grandad was working in Germany and because of that he had the papers. If not, I don’t know what we could have done. Maybe I could see my parents and me under the ground. I don’t know what could’ve happened. One of my best friends in my high school – his dad was a soldier – and I remember he was crying every day. I was thinking: ‘Why?’ And he said: ‘My dad died.’ So, you know, it could have been my dad.”
In the documentary, Lovren – My Life as a Refugee, he goes on to recall how after seven years in Germany his family was told they had to leave the country they had come to think of as home. “My mum and dad were asking for permission to stay more but every six months it was declined. The authorities said: ‘When the war is over, then you can go back.’ So every six months my mum and dad had their bags packed to go back. It was quite tough – you never had a future in Germany.
“Then that day came and they said: ‘You have two months to prepare your bags and go back.’ For me it was difficult because I had all of my friends in Germany, my life had started there. I had everything, I was happy, I was playing in a little club, my father was the coach – it was just beautiful. My mum said: ‘Germany is our second home’ and it’s true. Germany gave us their open hands. I don’t know which country could have done that, at that time, to welcome refugees from Bosnia.”
The Lovren family moved to Croatia where a boy with a German accent was picked on at school and the parents struggled for money. “My mum was working in Walmart for €350 per month, about £280. My father was working as a house painter. We had a difficult situation with money. My mum said: ‘We cannot pay the bills for electricity, for everything,’ and for a week we didn’t have money.
“I remember my dad took my ice skates. One day I asked my mum: ‘Where are my ice skates?’ because I loved to skate in the winter. And she said through tears: ‘Dad is selling them now … we don’t have money for this week.’ I swear this is the point in my life that I said: ‘I don’t want to hear this any more.’ He sold them for 350 Kuna, it’s about £40. My ice-skates: sold. It was a tough time for my parents.”
Speaking about these years is not easy, especially when Lovren’s own family do not always wish for it to be discussed. “It’s like the war happened yesterday. It’s quite a sensitive thing to talk about, so people still avoid talking about it – it’s sad. Mum said to me [before the documentary]: ‘Don’t tell them,’ and I said: ‘I will tell them.’ And she was crying again. It’s always sensitive to speak about. She remembers everything.
“I hope for the next generation that it’ll be much easier, for my daughter and my son, maybe they’ll forget it and move on. I don’t know if they’ll ever understand my life or my situation, what I’ve been through, because they live in totally different worlds. If my little girl wants a toy, sometimes I say: ‘I don’t have the money.’ It’s quite difficult to understand why I’m saying that but she needs to understand that nothing comes easy. I’m working hard for her so she needs to understand you don’t need 20 toys, sometimes you need just one or two and you’re still happy – it’s about other things.
“When I see what’s happening today [with refugees]I just remember my thing, my family and how people don’t want you in their country. I understand people want to protect themselves, but people don’t have homes. It’s not their fault; they’re fighting for their lives just to save their kids. They want a secure place for their kids and their futures. I went through all this and I know what some families are going through. Give them a chance, give them a chance. You can see who the good people are and who are not.”