Meeting Oggi Tomic, Cambridge and London based filmmaker, makes you wonder about what is ordinary and what is extraordinary. “I always wanted to be extraordinary, to be different,” he says of his boyhood. And here he is, in his nice flat in Cambridge with a lovely wife and a good job; shaking his head and saying, “Oh, my God” in mock despair when my request for decaf coffee has him rummaging in a cupboard. It is an ordinary scene in middle England. He is, however, exactly what he wanted to be: totally, staggeringly extraordinary.
Let me list the ways in which Tomic was not meant to end up here. I am going to summarise, in case Steven Spielberg happens to be reading and this can stand as a Hollywood elevator pitch. Thirty years ago, in the former Yugoslavia, Tomic was abandoned at birth by his mother. He spent his first five years in an orphanage for the mentally ill, sleeping 10 to a room with very sick children even though he was healthy. When he was five he was rehoused, becoming the youngest inmate of a brutal institution where punishment beatings were the norm.
After two years he ran away, with nothing. He walked for weeks along a railway track, begging for food, until he finally reached Sarajevo — just as one of Europe’s bloodiest civil wars erupted. He found shelter in the city’s central orphanage, which was pounded by Serbian shell fire day and night. The orphanage staff abandoned its wreckage. If this pitifully skinny boy was to live through years of bombardment it was on his wits alone.
Tomic found himself useful: a tiny helper to the Bosnian soldiers, transporting food to their frontline; a tiny helper to the babies in the orphanage, whom he would move from room to room to avoid shelling, stealing food for them. The Times war correspondent Janine di Giovanni visited the orphanage and was shocked by the conditions Tomic and his tribe of lost children were living in. She declared it “the worst place in Sarajevo, aside from the morgue”.
Nearly all Tomic’s friends died or became drug addicts. When he, in adulthood, returned to trace his biological mother, he found she was a Serb whose family fought the war on the other side, part of the Serbian army surrounding Sarajevo in the siege. His own uncle had unwittingly fired at Tomic in the orphanage. This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Dayton Agreement that ended the Bosnian war and Tomic seems a kind of symbol of it.
Before this extraordinary story distracts us too much, let’s remember the most fundamental way in which Tomic has beaten the odds. Despite the war, the single biggest threat to him was his institutionalisation as a baby. We know from research on eastern European orphans that bringing up children in these sub-Dickensian institutions inflicts permanent damage on their brains.
These children don’t usually get to tell their story: they are not able to. When I finish the interview and Tomic gives me a lift to the station in his car. He chats about getting his camera gear repaired — he is a BAFTA award-winning filmmaker — and I just shake my head. Why were you the one to survive?
“Could I have dreamt I would one day be driving a VW in the middle of Cambridge? No,” he says. “But I was a rebel. I always wanted to be different, I just wouldn’t let myself give in.”
He says he had “a lot of luck”, which is true, but with Tomic, his worst luck was also his best. There is pleasure in his voice when he talks about the war in the Balkans: “I’m not joking, I enjoyed it. I had an amazing time. Looking back, I can’t believe I survived.”
Your life, I say, was so messed up, that an abandoned orphanage in the siege of Sarajevo was the happy ending. “It was the happy ending. People think I’m crazy when I say that, but it was. After the beatings and bullying of the other orphanages, the war meant freedom. It was a chance to do things my way.”
The other stroke of luck was being wrongly assigned as a baby to the orphanage for the mentally disabled. Because he could walk and talk when 500 other children were immobilised in cots, Tomic was the darling of the staff. He thought one nurse was his mother, and she didn’t have the heart to clear up the confusion. This pale shadow of parenting may have been enough to protect his brain.
Tomic remembers arriving in Sarajevo and stumbling into the bus station, where buses were piled up as barricades, gunfire around his head. In the orphanage he found a family of sorts, a 120-strong band of brothers, freed from institutional cruelty. Compared with that the war was “the least of our worries”. War correspondents took an interest in the place. ITV journalist Mike Nicholson filmed an emotive report there and personally evacuated a girl called Natasha, whom he adopted. Their story became the basis of the film Welcome to Sarajevo.
Mark Cook was a colonel in the Gurkhas. He had just stepped down as commander of the British contingent of the UN protection force in the former Yugoslavia when he heard Nicholson’s story. “I had a night where I couldn’t sleep,” Cook says. “I was gripped by this powerful conviction that I had to get to Sarajevo to see what happened to these children.”
Cook contacted Nicholson, who smuggled him into Sarajevo. This was 1994, the war was at its height. When Cook arrived at the building he was “immediately surrounded by these feral children”. Tomic was nine and he and his gang were living in rooms with shattered windows covered by UN tarpaulins, sleeping on filthy mattresses. Stairwells were black with smoke from fires that Tomic built from broken furniture. “It was horrendous. There was shelling and sniping,” says Cook. “Life for everyone was absolutely grim. The boys got injured; nobody cared for them. But Oggi had this tremendous survival instinct. So many didn’t survive.”
Cook returned to England and founded a charity, Hope and Homes for Children. Cook thought he knew what was needed: nicer orphanages. He now is appalled at his naivety. “I asked those orphans what they wanted. They didn’t want a nicer orphanage. They looked at me as if I was an idiot. ‘We want a family and a home,’ they said.” Hope and Homes for Children is now the only charity working to get rid of orphanages the world over.
Around this time the medical consensus became clear: scans show that institutions stunt young brain development. Every three months spent in an orphanage before age three retards a child’s development by one month. These orphanages were vastly more expensive than the foster-style care that now is the model in the West, but eight million children languish in orphanages in the poorest parts of the world. Hope and Homes for Children is committed to getting them out.
Tomic has become something of a patron of Hope and Homes for Children. His meeting with Cook changed his life yet again. Tomic had an aptitude for English, which he was picking up by his work guiding British war correspondents through landmines. He also loved photography. Two individuals connected to the charity, a Scottish filmmaker and the owner of an English-language school in Cambridge, helped Tomic with both. He now regards them as his unofficial adoptive brother and mother. Aged 10 at the end of the war, he stayed in the orphanage into his teens. British friends helped him move to the UK at 18.
Tomic is not unscarred — he bears physical marks from the beatings — but for such a gentle presence he says he is quick to anger. “I have a bad temper, and the next minute I will be so sorry. I hate myself for it. I can only blame the orphanage system. The beatings I got when I was a little child who didn’t do anything to deserve it. It’s injustice that upsets me the most, and the orphanage system is definitely unjust.”
Then, “Have I told you I can’t read stories? I can read, yes, I taught myself by looking at car numberplates, but I’m furious I wasn’t taught how to enjoy a story. I love stories — my life now is dedicated to documenting other people’s — but no one ever has time to tell one in an orphanage.
“I have that missing; that was never built. Even now, foreign donors think they’re doing a good thing donating to orphanages, and leave all these books. They just get chucked away.”
Asked if he would like to have children, he says: “I would love to, but I couldn’t watch them struggle.” I look around his cosy home. They won’t struggle, I tell him.
Finding Family documentary can be purchased directly from the Apple iTunes store here.