Support our Nation today - please donate here
News

Operation Christmas Child pair united after 24 years

25 Dec 2023 4 minute read
Ben and Ilija

Lowri Llewelyn

Back in 1999, school children across Wales would send shoe boxes laden with gifts to their peers in Yugoslavia. Aside from toys, toiletries and warm clothing, a typical box might include a letter and photo of the sender.

One such pupil was Ben Jones from Ysgol Y Borth in Menai Bridge.

In the new year, six year old Ben received a letter from eight year old Ilija Vunić. It read:

Hi Ben,

My name is Ilija and I am from Yugoslavia. I live in small town between Novi Sad and Belgrade. I go to the second class of elementary school. I am an excellent pupil and I would like to be your friend. Please, write me soon. Thank you very much for presents and toys. Thanks for everything. Bye! Write me…

Ilija

This would mark the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

Football

With each letter, the boys learned more about each other’s worlds.

While Ben supported Liverpool FC, Ilija supported the Belgrade Partizans.

Ben tells Ilija that he speaks two languages ‒ English and Welsh ‒ while Ilija tells Ben he gets very good marks at school. Ben’s family friend, Dr Simon, is currently working in Kosovo and receives an invite to stay with Iliya’s family.

Ben’s classmates were equally as thrilled about the correspondence and came together to write a joint letter to Ilija.

Letter

Conflict

On one occasion, Ilija apologises for not having been in touch because of the situation in Yugoslavia ‒ the postal service wasn’t working. He later describes sleeping in a ‘hiding place’ and how glad he is that Ben has kept him in his thoughts.

The conflict between Serbia and Kosovo remains strained to this day, with Human Rights Watch concluding that as many as 527 Yugoslav civilians were killed in the 1999 NATO bombing. Of these, more than 90 were children.

Ilija goes on to describe an end to the bombing and how he’s enjoying his summer holiday, fishing often (and sometimes managing to catch something!) on the Danube with his dad.

Despite the boys eventually losing touch, Ben never forgot his friend in the former Yugoslavia. A few years ago he set out to find Ilija on Facebook ‒ and the friendship picked up exactly where it left off.

Ben and Ilija as young boys

Emotional

More recently, after a correspondence which began 24 years ago, Ben and Ilija finally came face to face for the very first time.

It was an emotional meeting when the pair met in Munich, where Ben now lives and works as a carpenter.

Ben told Nation.Cymru: ‘Back then I didn’t really understand the concept of war or why it was happening. I didn’t know where Yugoslavia was and managed to pinpoint it on a map. When I got the letter I was really pleased to learn there was a person on the other end ‒ someone who was, to tell the truth, still alive.’

Today Iliya is a technical support agent living in Belgrade.

He told us, ‘Back then I didn’t know English at all ‒ when I got the letter, I ran to my sister’s house so she could translate! You never knew when a letter would arrive so it was something to look forward to every day.’

Happenstance

The meeting came about through happenstance when Ben noticed Iliya shared a photo on Instagram of Munich city centre. Iliya, who thought Ben lived in Berlin, hadn’t mentioned being in Germany to his friend.

The pair jumped at the chance to meet.

Ben said, ‘I didn’t know if I’d recognise him, but I heard a voice say “Ben!” and I walked up to him with my arms outstretched. We had a cwtch and my first words were, “I’m so happy to meet you after all these years.” We had a connection from the beginning and it was like meeting a family member you haven’t seen for years.’

For Ilija, it was an equally memorable experience. ‘Meeting Ben after all those years was just fantastic. It was definitely something that brought a lot of happiness into those days, knowing that someone out there was thinking of you and your good health.’

Operation Christmas Child is a project by Samaritan’s Purse. Since 1993, it has distributed upwards of 200 million gift boxes to children across more than 170 countries and territories.


Support our Nation today

For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
1 Comment
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Barbara H.
Barbara H.
1 month ago

Thanks for such a heart warming story this Christmas day.

Our Supporters

All information provided to Nation.Cymru will be handled sensitively and within the boundaries of the Data Protection Act 2018.