Stuck in Serbia

Zoltan was one of five passengers on the flight from Paris to Doha.

By Mitchell Clarke

An Officer grandfather feared he was going to die in Serbia, trapped and alone in a small town as the Covid-19 pandemic intensified.

Zoltan, surname withheld, left Australia in September last year to travel through Hungary, Italy and Serbia, but was forced to cut his travels early by about five months.

The 63-year-old told the Gazette he had been staying in an apartment in the town of Vrsac, about 90 kilometres from the Serbian capital Belgrade, when the pandemic took hold.

“It was very scary because at the time it was so bad with all the people dying, I kept hearing the ambulances going from Vrsac to Belgrade transporting the sick and deceased,” he explained.

“The hospitals and the health system in Serbia is not as good as in Australia, so I really thought that if I got sick, I was going to die there.”

His worried daughter, Melissa, said the “very stressful” ordeal was made more difficult by the rapidly evolving situation.

“Everything was changing everyday and it was just getting worse,” she said.

“We just had to take it one step at a time.”

In a bid to get him home as soon as possible, Melissa booked a flight out of Belgrade in March through Flight Centre.

“When the government said to come home, I called him and told him to leave,” she said.

“When he was on his way to the airport, he was told the airport was closed. Flight Centre said to call the consulate, who told us there’s nothing much to do except to listen for local authorities.”

Zoltan’s journey home was put in jeopardy after Serbia closed its airport with no notice, leaving him with the prospect of being confined to a small apartment for the foreseeable future.

“I thought I would never see my family again,” he said.

With some luck, the embassy was able to organise a flight to Paris in late April, but there was no guarantee it would leave as scheduled.

As all borders and villages were closed, Zoltan was warned he wouldn’t be able to return to his safe haven in Vrsac, if his flight in Belgrade was cancelled.

He faced the prospect of being stranded at the Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport until restrictions eased.

“The apartment was his safe place so this was a real gamble. If he lost his internet connection or phone, that would have been the end of my communication with him,” Melissa said.

“Luckily the flight to Paris went ahead or else he would still be there because there hasn’t been a flight out since.”

The journey home took over 50 hours. From Paris, Zoltan was one of just five passengers to fly to Doha, Qatar. He spent 21 hours sitting in an airport before boarding his final flight home.

He arrived in Melbourne in late April and begun two weeks of forced hotel quarantine in a hotel before returning to his relieved family in Officer on 7 May.

“It was a really good feeling to come home. This was a very scary experience so I’m definitely happy to be home in Australia,” he said.

“It’s good to be back, I’m very thankful. Now I’m just waiting for this virus to go away and for everything to be back to normal because I love travelling.

“Thank you to the Australian Government and Jason Wood’s office for bringing me home to my family, I am very appreciative and relieved to be back in the ‘lucky country’.”

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