When Clare Findlay saw horrific images on the news of children sheltering from gunfire in wartorn Bosnia, she knew she had to help.
The mum of five answered a newspaper ad from a charity seeking British foster parents to take in child refugees.
Clare and husband Andrew agreed to take two.
And days later they arrived… accompanied by a further 23 desperate refugees.
The tearful party of 21 children and four mothers were still shaken up from a seven-hour flight on a single-engined, seatless aircraft from Split, Croatia – followed by a 12-hour coach journey from Gatwick.
It was 1992 and they had fled a civil war which displaced thousands of children.
Many had trekked 15 miles to escape their homes, walking past a bloodied river laden with the bodies of slaughtered friends and relatives.
But in order to be evacuated, charity BP Health Care Foundation needed to register a UK address for the refugees.
They put down Clare’s home in Elgin, in northern Scotland.
And by the time she agreed, the coachload of refugees was on its way.
Now, nearly 30 years on, Clare has been reunited with some of them, along with former local pupil Petra Lovrekovic.
Petra spoke Serbo-Croat and helped reunite children with parents who had been left behind in Bosnia.
The remarkable tale is told in Thursday’s episode of BBC2’s Saved by a Stranger, presented by Anita Rani.
Clare, now 79, recalls: “Any wars are horrific, but seeing what was happening in Bosnia was absolutely barbaric.
“Our youngest, John, was still at home but we had lots of space – this huge, empty house, seven bedrooms.
“So when the charity asked if we could house 25 of the refugees, we thought it was only for the weekend. We didn’t have a proper plan, we just took it bit by bit. When they got off that bus, they had tears in their eyes and they just hugged me.
“The children witnessed the most ghastly things, it was just written on their faces. We had to do everything we could to make it a stable environment for them. And I just remember thinking, ‘Thank God I have taken them in’.”
The Balkans conflict, which led to the eventual break-up of the former Yugoslavia, ended in 1995, with 100,000 dead and two million displaced.
Clare, who now lives in Devon, recalls the early days after the refugees arrived – and quickly dubbed her Mama Clare. She says: “In the first week, I went round the bathrooms and I saw the carpet was quite wet so I called the plumber. He said: ‘There isn’t a leak – it’s more someone’s not aiming properly’!
“They were children and, frankly, life is never perfect with children, but you make it as good as you can.
“From that moment, they were part of my family.”
In the show, Clare meets up with several refugees, including Smail and Nurfeta Saracevic – who married – Adis Delic, and Emina Arifovic, who still lives in Elgin. Grateful Emina says: “Clare had this beautiful big smile… she was basically a second mum to us.”
In order to house 21 children, the entire community rallied around to help Clare and Andrew – who died five years ago – by donating food, toys, clothes and sleeping bags.
The plan was for the children to go to foster homes.
Fourteen were assumed to be orphans. But boarding school pupil Petra, then 16, discovered all of the children had been separated from their families.
Over the next four months their parents were tracked down and flown to Elgin, taking the number of refugees now at the Findlays’ country home to 36.
One by one, they were found homes. Most now still live in Scotland or Dewsbury, West Yorks. And the reunion gave Clare yet further proof that her kindness – and the efforts with Petra years ago – were worth it.
She adds: “I was overjoyed to see Petra. I knew we were meant to meet again, she completely changed their lives.”
Tearful Petra tells Clare: “You were so kind to help those people. The world needs more people like you.”
- Saved by a Stranger is on BBC2 at 9pm on Thursday