“I didn’t know how much a human can take”.

JOURNEY: Adem Ferkatovich had been on a horrific journey before finding love with Elizabeth at the Caledonian Dance Hall many years ago. PHOTO: GEOFF SLOAN

Sixty years ago, Adem Ferkatovich married the girl he spotted across the room at a Christchurch dance hall.

But if Mr Ferkatovich had not been able to overcome his shyness, it may never have happened.

Because it was a nervous young Adem who simply couldn’t ask Elizabeth, 16, to dance when he saw her at Kilmore St’s Caledonian Dance Hall.

But as she and her friend put on their coats to leave, he plucked up the courage to say: “Can I help you ladies?”

“And he’s been helping me ever since,” Elizabeth said.

YOUNG LOVE: Adem and Elizabeth Ferkatovich.
YOUNG LOVE: Adem and Elizabeth Ferkatovich.

It was a milestone Mr Ferkatovich, now 86, didn’t think he’d reach. He has just written a book that explains why.

More than five years earlier, he escaped the Croatian Communist Army and fled to Greece.

His father, Ibrahim, was killed in World War 2. His brother, Salko, was murdered by the resistance army. And his mother, Majrem, died shortly after from a “broken heart.”

He never saw his older sisters, Aica and Zuleyha, again after he was forced to join the army in 1951. He doesn’t know if they are still alive.

Mr Ferkatovich was born in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Yugoslavia, in a little village called Kazits.

His parents wanted him to become a Muslim priest, but when he was 10, World War 2 broke out.

The Germans did not invade Yugoslavia until 1941, however, there were two resistance movements – the Communist Partisan Army and the Chetniks.

“They were all just like butchers, they would kill each other,” he said.

School was closed and it was too dangerous to stay in their home during the night, so they had to sleep in the bushes.

Mr Ferkatovich’s older brother Salko carried a gun and protected the family.

But one night the 17-year-old was captured.

Three days later a parcel arrived at their home.

“No one should have to see what was in that parcel,” Mr Ferkatovich said.

It was Salko’s head. He still had his red scarf tied around his neck. It broke his mother.

Mr Ferkatovich’s uncle looked after him and his sisters after the rest of the family died.

In 1949 Mr Ferkatovich joined the army at 17, where he was to remain for three years.

But 13 months later he fled. He wanted to escape communism and felt he was a puppet of Communist Partisan Army leader Josip Broz Tito.

His army unit was based at Bitola, Macedonia – 15km from the Greek border. He was second in charge and did guard duties and went out on training exercises.

That gave him the chance to plot his escape.

“It took me months to find out if I could get out.”

At 8.30pm the last guard changed. He had only 30mins to get away before roll call.

He ran towards Greece, initially along the road, then across the more discrete plough fields.

When daylight came, he lay on the ground with his machine gun on his chest and covered himself with soil.

Army officers came looking for him, and at one stage were about 4m from where he lay.

He would rather have shot himself than be caught.

“I didn’t know how much a human can take. Two days and two nights I didn’t eat and not a second did I think I’m hungry or thirsty.”

After two days and nights, he crossed the border into Greece where he was picked up by Greek officers.

They took him to their quarters, fed him and gave him a place to sleep, before dropping him at a police station in a small village where he stayed in a cell for 22 days.

Then he was driven to Salonik to a refugee camp for immigrants, and for 33 days, he was questioned to make sure he was not a spy.

From there he was taken to a refugee camp in Lavrio, near Athens for 14 months.

He feared he’d be sent back to Yugoslavia, until he was handed some brochures advertising Brazil, Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand.

Because he was a soldier, he was allowed to choose where he could immigrate to.

New Zealand was the farthest away from his troubles.

He boarded the Goya in Naples, Italy, with 900 others.

They sailed for 45 days before arriving in Wellington.

“I said to myself, just paradise.”

He was sent to help build Roxburgh Hydro Scheme for 16 months, and eventually got a job at Christchurch’s Firestone Rubber Company where he made tyres.

HARD WORKING: When Adem (left) arrived in New Zealand he helped build the Roxburgh Hydro Scheme.
HARD WORKING: When Adem (left) arrived in New Zealand he helped build the Roxburgh Hydro Scheme.

They were supposed to build 36 tyres a day – but he built 120 in seven hours and 15 minutes – a record he says still stands today.

“I tried my best to put it [the war] behind me to start my new life and start a family.”

He and Elizabeth married in St John’s in Latimer Square on December 1, 1956, and they later put a deposit on a poultry farm on Woolridge Rd.

MARRIAGE: Adem and Elizabeth on their wedding day.
MARRIAGE: Adem and Elizabeth on their wedding day.

After selling the farm they bought a coffee lounge on High St in 1958.

They transformed it into a popular restaurant and nightclub known as The Copper Cat.

However, when the 10pm closing policy was introduced nine years later, they thought it would impact business, and sold.

Hotel Russley was Mr Ferkatovich’s next job, where he worked as a bartender for 25 years. A year after retiring, Lion Breweries decided to sell the hotel, and the Ferkatovich’s bought it.

AT WORK: Adem at Hotel Russley, where he worked for 25 years before buying it.
AT WORK: Adem at Hotel Russley, where he worked for 25 years before buying it.

Nowadays Mr Ferkatovich likes spending time in their award-winning garden, and playing golf at Russley.

He has written a book, Adem’s Escape, so his three children and five grandchildren know where he came from.

They ordered 100 copies, and were selling them at Russley Golf Club, but the majority have sold out.

Mr Ferkatovich doesn’t want to go back to Yugoslavia. New Zealand is his home now.

“There’s nothing there for me now.”

If anyone asks, Adem jokes he was “born in Whakatane and educated in Rotorua”, although his accent gives it away.

He’s a Canterbury and Crusaders fan – he used to serve former All Black and Canterbury coach Alex Wyllie at Hotel Russley.

He returned to Europe for the first time in 2006 but the closest they got to his home was Dubrovnik, Croatia.

He doesn’t even like seeing it on the news.

“It always will be war.”

– Adem’s Escape is being sold at Valentino’s Hair Design, Bishopdale.