The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

Franjo Stvarnik and Anica Pavić knew each other from their small church in Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina in former Yugoslavia, but they certainly didn’t know each other, at least, not to the extent they soon would.

Anica knew Franjo was in school to be an electrical engineer. Franjo knew Anica could play the piano, attended music school and was blind. They didn’t know they would have two children, flee a war-torn country and have a 47-year-and-counting marriage that is every bit endearing as it is unique.

About a year of knowing of each other went by until Franjo saw Anica leaving her music high school on May 16, 1967.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

Anica was headed to her dormitory.

“I can go with you,” he said.

So they began walking and talking. Franjo asked if he could see her again tomorrow and she said yes. Soon, that tomorrow turned into many days of walking and talking, and even sooner the distance between the music school and Anica’s dormitory didn’t quite seem long enough.

They started to walk by the Miljacka river that runs through the middle of the city. They spoke about religion and science and music, but, after 50 years, the details are mostly forgotten.

“It was very, very pleasant to be with her,” Franjo says.

Franjo’s family were more hesitant with the relationship, expressing concerns about Anica’s disability. But all of them changed their minds when they got to know her.

“They just didn’t know,” Anica says.

“Yeah. They didn’t know,” Franjo echoes.

DegreeAnica Stvarnik holds a photobook containing a picture of her university graduation in Sarajevo where she received a bachelor's degree in music. Photo by Amy Simpson.

Franjo was amazed at how Anica lived her life without sight. She did everything by memory. When they went on walks he would try to distract her, but she always knew where they were. One day when they were going down a set of stairs to get to the river she even started walking faster than he could keep up.

“He said to me: ‘It is many stairs, wait!,’” Anica recalls, laughing.

“I never pitied her,” Franjo says. “I never had this feeling at all.”

But it could seem natural to feel that way knowing her story.

Anica was born with fine vision, but fell ill when she was six years old. The sickness caused a high fever, and because it went untreated, it affected her sight. With only a little bit of vision left, she was enrolled in a school for children with visual impairment. The teachers thought an operation could help her sight, but when she went for the operation, the doctors made it worse. She became completely blind at 14 years old.

However, Anica never let it get in the way.

“It wasn’t a big problem,” she says, reflecting on her early days without sight.

Anica had learned braille while in the specialized school and by the first year of high school was back with all the other kids. Anica went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in music and taught in an elementary school for a number of years.

This was a natural progression for Anica, but isn’t as common for others with visual impairment. According to the National Federation of the Blind, in 2015, only 14.9 per cent of Americans with a visual disability received a bachelor’s degree or higher. This percentage is less than half of what the numbers are for the general population. In addition, only 42 per cent were employed.

“I never was depressed,” Anica says.

“I could do many things.”

DishesBODYAnica Stvarnik putting dry dishes back in the cupboards. Although Anica became blind at the age of 14, her visual impairment didn’t stop her from getting married, having two daughters, receiving a university education and working. Photo by Amy Simpson.

Franjo’s understanding of Anica’s ableness grew over time.

“When we got married, I thought I would help her,” Franjo says, recalling their early days of marriage.

He would accidentally put something back in the wrong place and Anica would have to look all over for it. One day, Anica even found the salt in the fridge.  

“Don’t help me!” she would say.

Finally, Franjo retired from trying to help, and other than regular taste-testing and making their morning coffee, has learned to stay out of the kitchen.

For Anica, everything has a place. From the kitchen to the items in their bedroom. Anica will ask him once what colour a piece of clothing is, and after that she will never forget, being able to dress herself with proper colour coordination. She floats around the room, grabbing what she needs; knowing exactly where it is.

“A lot of time I just don’t notice that she is blind,” Franjo says.

Franjo and Anica got married on Dec. 12, 1970, three years after they met and 13 days after Franjo got a job teaching electrical engineering in a high school. The 20 years that followed became a blur of happiness and simplicity.

“There was no problem at all before the war,” Franjo says.

“It was nice living. Easy living. We both worked, and it was peaceful.”

They had their first child, Marijana, in 1971 and then their second, Danijela, eight years after that. Franjo and Anica bounced around apartments in the first years of marriage until they were finally able to purchase their own. The small two-bedroom apartment wasn’t their first choice, or second, but it quickly became home. The view of the mountains was blocked by tall, surrounding buildings, but it was only a short distance from the school. The girls didn’t even have to cross the street.

Anica and MarijanaBODYA photograph of Anica Stvarnik walking with her daughter, Marijana, as a young child. Despite Anica’s visual impairment, she still raised her daughters like any other mother would. Photo by Amy Simpson.

Their apartment was always full of music. Classical compositions floated through the tape player as they sipped their morning coffee, piano keys twinkled melodies as Danijela and Marijana practiced, and often the bedroom the girls shared made room for one more when Anica went to bed early and Franjo stayed up listening to songs through his headphones.

They took family vacations every summer, visiting relatives in the other provinces of former Yugoslavia. Travel was cheap because of Anica’s visual impairment. Anica only paid one fourth of the regular price. Franjo, as her ‘guide,’ was free, and the girls were half price. Taking the bus or train was so affordable that Franjo never even learned to drive.

Everything was ordinary, and Anica’s impairment never seemed to get in the way.

“For the most part it was almost as if she did see,” Danijela says.

Though she recalls noticing it when she would try to hide, and at times felt uncomfortable when kids in her class asked why her mom wore glasses. But for the most part, everything was normal. Anica cooked and cleaned and worked like all the other moms, and all the while she stayed incredibly optimistic.

“She is a role model for me because of that,” Danijela says.

PianoBODYMarijana Stvarnik practices piano in their small apartment in Sarajevo. Music ran in the family. Her mother, Anica, received a degree in music and taught children in an elementary school. Her father, Franjo, was always listening to classical scores at home. Photo by Amy Simpson.

But however pleasant, the years of bliss came to an end as ethnic tensions started to rise across Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia was a federation of six republics brought together after World War II. It consisted of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. In 1991, the republics started to declare their independence, and a series of ethnically-charged wars took place until 2001.

The war was six months in but hadn’t quite hit Sarajevo when Danijela turned 13 in October of 1992. On her birthday she remembers demonstrations in the streets and hearing that school was canceled the next day. She celebrated with a friend, but then school was canceled indefinitely and the happiness quickly wore off. They had to spend most of their time hiding inside, and for a child that can be tough.

“As a kid, you don’t understand. You want to play, you are bored, you want to go outside,” Danijela says.

Sarajevo, as the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina, fell under siege while forces fought over its control. Shells flew through the city and buildings were bombed. Their water and electricity was cut off and they had very little food.

According to the BBC, 10,000 people were killed in Sarajevo during the siege and nowhere was safe. Snipers hiding in the surrounding mountains aimed at innocent civilians. Even funerals were targeted.

The conditions got really bad. Franjo says he walked 2 kms everyday to fill their two, 4L jugs up with water and had to wait in a long line to get a little bit of bread. Occasionally the food lines were bombed.

“We just waited for a time when it would be our turn to be killed,” he says.

“People were killed every day.”

But in the midst of the chaos, Anica and Franjo’s apartment building with the bad view turned out to be a miracle in disguise. Both of the buildings they initially wanted to live in were some of the first destroyed. Franjo says their building was the only one untouched, with all the windows intact.

“We didn’t see mountains, and then war came, and from the mountains they didn’t see us,” Franjo says.

“We just waited for a time when it would be our turn to be killed.” - Franjo Stvarnik

Others were forced to cover their shattered windows with plastic material in order to stay warm. The plastic let light in, but you couldn’t see outside. Franjo says those apartments felt like jail cells.

At the end of November 1992, Anica and Franjo were able to send the girls out with the Slovenian convoy. They thought it would only be a short time until the war ended, but then a few months turned into a few years. Marijana, 21 at the time, took on the role of mother and father for Danijela. The girls lived as refugees in a small town on the coast of Slovenia, only being able to communicate with their parents through mail, which, because of the war, was often very delayed.

Danijela grew depressed and used her love for Bryan Adams to pass the time, writing out song lyrics and drawing pictures of Canada, the country he was from. Marijana met a boy living in the same building who was also a refugee from Sarajevo, and his family took the girls under their wing. The two got married shortly after.

BrailleBODYAnica Stvarnik runs her fingers across a words in Braille that read ‘happy anniversary’ in Bosnian. The words are on the first page of a photobook her daughter, Danijela, gave her and her husband Franjo for their anniversary. Photo by Amy Simpson.

The girls spent two years in Slovenia while they applied to immigrate to other countries. At the time, one of the only countries taking in refugees was Canada. With her love for Bryan Adams and collection of drawings of Canadian provinces, flags and rivers, Danijela made an impression on the lady who worked at the Canadian embassy. In 1994, they were accepted to come to Calgary.

Just before Marijana and Danijela left for Canada, Anica left Sarajevo to see them and say goodbye. The distance from Sarajevo to Lucija, the town they were living in, is only 653 km apart, roughly a seven-and-a-half hour drive, but it took five days because of delays and backtracking. However,she eventually made it.

The time together was a mix of joy and sadness.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” says Danijela.

“I wanted her - well, I wanted my dad to come out too, and for both of them to come with us right now. But it wasn’t possible at the time.”

The visit was short and before they knew it it was time for Anica to leave and go back to Franjo. But going back to Franjo meant going back to the war.

“Where are you going,” she was asked by some men on her way back.

“To Sarajevo,” said Anica.

“But it is hell there,” they replied.

“But Franjo is there,” she said.

ChristmasBODYPhotographs of Franjo Stvarnik with his daughter Danijela during the Christmas season. The pictures are found in a photobook Danijela made for Franjo and his wife Anica for their anniversary. Photo by Amy Simpson.

So despite the warnings and concerns expressed by everyone along the way, Anica went back into the war and stayed with Franjo until he was able to get his papers. The two were finally able to leave Sarajevo later in the year. Taking only what they could carry in their hands, they left behind the apartment, 2,000 books and their cherished piano. They would go back to Sarajevo years later to try and get them back, but without success.

Anica and Franjo lived in Slovenia like their daughters did for a year while applying to Canada. They were eventually accepted and landed in Calgary on June 1, 1995.

There were tears and hugs as the family reunited at the airport.

“We were very happy,” Anica says.

It was as if a weight was lifted.

The government helped them settle into an apartment on 14th Street downtown - the same apartment that their daughters were living in. Their home was furnished. They were given financial support and enrolled in English classes - Anica’s teacher came directly to their apartment.

Anica Holding BabyBODYA photograph of Anica Stvarnik holding her daughter, Danijela, as a baby in their small apartment in Sarajevo. As Danijela reflects on how she was raised, her mom’s strength of character has been a constant role model in her life. Photo by Amy Simpson.

Anica and Franjo arrived on a Thursday, and on that Sunday they walked down the street to First Baptist church, only a few blocks away.

As they walked in they were amazed. The largest church they had seen in Yugoslavia had no more than 60 members - this one had over a thousand. They were seated in the second to last row on the main level. The place was packed.

“I had never saw such a church,” says Franjo.

“I never imagined it could be.”

Although they didn’t know much English, they both recognized the tune of the songs being sung - they sang the same hymns in Yugoslavia, just translated into different words. For a moment it felt like they were back home.

And then it was time for the sermon. The pastor opened the bible to Genesis 28 and spoke of the time God gave a blessing to a man who had just fled for his life. The coincidence was shocking. They felt it was God talking right to them, that he was promising them they would be okay.

And they have been.

Franjo spent three years learning English, and then was hired right away as a program developer at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT). Anica taught piano to children in their church. Danijela became a math teacher, and Marijana pursued electrical engineering like her father.

Their life has returned to one of simplicity and happiness.

KitchenBODYAnica Stvarnik wears a apron she received from her daughter as a gift. The apron reads, “When it comes to cookin’... Mom’s the word.” Photo by Amy Simpson.

They live in another small apartment, but this one has a bit less noise. Their piano is now with Marijana, but Anica is okay with that, enjoying the quiet. They read a lot. Anica, listening to books on tape in Bosnian or books with braille in English. Franjo published a book that compiled all of the bible-believing scientists he found through his research and reading. Franjo sings in a men’s choir, Anica Skypes family and friends back in former Yugoslavia and they speak to their daughters daily. It is a simple life, but it is a good one.

When they go on walks, Anica holds onto Franjo’s arm, but in many ways, he has become just as dependant on her. And for both of them, it all comes down to love.

“We love each other. I loved her. She loved me,” says Franjo.

“If there is love, a love will cover all things.”

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Editor: Alec Warkentin | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

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