In the late 1940s, Yugoslav leader Marshal Tito appealed to expatriates to return to build a united, communist Yugoslavia. Around 290 answered the call. One was 17-year-old Aucklander Gordon Sunde. On arrival in the port of Split he was overwhelmed by the ethnic divisions and devastation – ‘the people … had killed more of their own than the Germans.’ 1
Sunde voluntarily laboured on motorway construction. Because he spoke English, he was questioned by secret police. Visiting a Dalmatian village he saw ‘the poverty of the place. It was sheer rock, and I understood why people had to leave’. Like many, he returned to New Zealand, disillusioned by the atmosphere of partisanship and mistrust.
Others were getting out. In the 1950s people displaced by war began arriving in New Zealand, including former prisoners of war interned in Germany and Italy. Around 18% of New Zealand’s post-war Yugoslav immigrants were displaced persons. Typically they were married with dependants.
Refugees, another new group, made up 16% of the inflow to New Zealand. Many had risked their lives escaping from communist Yugoslavia into Austria and Italy in the 1950s, for political or religious reasons.
Halid Alic arrived in New Zealand in 1993 to escape the Balkans wars. As he reflected, ‘the trouble started in Slovenia, in Croatia, and then in Bosnia – in Sarajevo. Sarajevo is 150 kilometres from my home town, and it was too close. I expected [the war] to be even longer, because after the Second World War we had the longest period of peace – 50 years. We always had wars – always problems between nationalities. It just needed a good opportunity to burst out. [It was] always underneath – like Ireland.’ 2
As the Yugoslavian regime became more liberal, emigration was allowed. In the late 1960s, 238 skilled workers came to New Zealand, recruited for Northland’s Marsden Point power station and Southland’s Manapōuri hydroelectric scheme. Young men in this group tended to settle, while those with families returned. Many later arrivals could not comprehend the pride early migrants took in their ‘Yugoslav heritage’. Having lived in Tito’s Yugoslavia they did not support a united Slavic state.
During the 1990s more than 4,500 people from the former Yugoslavia were approved as permanent residents. Many had fled the wars in the Balkans.