From the War Cries of Croatia to Peace at Peacehaven Village: Linda Soper's ‘odd’ life

By Suzanne McKenzie | Posted: Monday November 25, 2019

Medical guinea pig, political activist, gang-prospects’ street mother, military purveyor, interpreter and evidence-gatherer for ‘The-Hague’ – Most people would say Linda Soper has led a colourful life.

According to the feisty 63-year-old, it’s just been “odd”.

One thing’s for certain, it’s a far cry from the quiet and peaceful surrounds and lifestyle Linda now enjoys at Enliven Peacehaven Village, in Invercargill.

Born in the Falkland Islands in 1955, Linda recalls few childhood or early teenage memories outside of “lengthy hospital stays” and being teased and tormented about the outward appearance of her severe psoriasis.

While some relief was found when the young teen medically-trialled the immunosuppressive drug - methotrexate - Linda believes her hallmark ‘championing of the underdog’ and fighting spirit is rooted in living with this, sometimes debilitating, life-long illness.

Linda’s family immigrated to Auckland New Zealand in 1969, leaving behind protracted pre-war hostilities - the likes of the dramatic 1966 hijacking of Aerolíneas Argentinas Flight 648.

It is against this backdrop, Linda says, that she inherited some of her father’s activist qualities, which would later play out in her voluntary work as “street mother” to Auckland drug addicts and gang-prospect street kids and in her active participation in women’s rights, pro-choice, anti-communism and anti-apartheid protests and demonstrations.

Linda’s political activism revved up a notch or two after she married Frank - a zealous Croatian nationalist – as she embraced her husband’s desire to see Croatia secede from enforced communist rule under the (former) Yugoslavia Federation and become, again, an independent and autonomous nation.

When their only son Jadran turned five, Linda and Frank made the move back to Croatia amidst sporadic fighting and tensions embroiled by discordant ethnic groups and clashing political ideologies.

Thereafter Linda became the activist that Frank - because he was under close and constant state scrutiny - could not be.

By the time full-scale fighting had broken out in 1991, Linda was already a member of the Croatian underground – a revolutionary insurgent group dedicated to the cause Frank and Linda whole-heartily believed in.

Linda’s first role involved covertly picking up Croatian papers from over the border in Reka and disseminating the information back into Croatia, down the Dalmatian coast. Linda was never once detained because she was seen only as a foreign ‘European woman’ on a New Zealand passport, “doing some shopping with a girlfriend.”

Indeed, Linda’s New Zealand passport and ethnicity were conducive to another key role she played in the Croatian wars. Linda’s strong procurement, logistical and networking capacities were used to source and supply all manners of food, clothing, military materials and equipment for the Pro-Croatian cause – often having to circumvent law enforcement authorities to do so.

There were plenty of harrowing times to come in the following months for Linda and her Croatian family as deep-seated ethnic and nationalist rivalries played out in, perhaps, the bloodiest conflict in European history since World War Two. When the Serbs had taken the closeby village of Ston, Linda - with the help of two of her brothers from New Zealand and a letter from the British Embassy in Duvrovnik - got Jadran out and, eventually, back to Linda’s parents in New Zealand.

Linda’s involvement with war-torn Croatia didn’t end with the peace settlement of 1995. She continued to help the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons and refugees, interpreting and documenting evidential accounts or statements of war events and atrocities for Marie Stopes International - on behalf of the United Nations.

The evidence Linda gathered, along with others, fed into the UN-backed ‘The Hague’ War Crimes Tribunal which ultimately delivered 161 high-profile indictments and saw ninety individuals sentenced for genocide and other crimes against humanity.

Returning to New Zealand and the support of her family in 1996, Linda’s life CV is marked by jobs and vocations that have put to (good) use her oddball, but well-honed, mix of procurement, advocacy, networking and negotiating skills.

The health and disability issues that hurried along Linda’s retirement move to an independent flat in Enliven Peacehaven Village, have done little to quell her zest for life. These days she just expresses it a little differently - making room for her creative side to shine through with the likes of painting and card-making.

That’s not to say Linda’s not up for a game or two of cards on a Wednesday afternoon – Bridge, Canasta and 500 are amongst the favourites. She says they are great for intellectual stimulation and she loves the social interaction.

Linda figures Peacehaven Village will likely be her “last stop”. She’s ok with that because she likes living at Peacehaven, a lot.

That being said, if there’s something in her life she doesn’t like, Linda still firmly believes it’s up to her to do something positive to change it, for the better.

This belief has seen Linda advocate to ensure activities are mind-stimulating and meaningful to all residents and she has worked collaboratively with Peacehaven management to establish a dedicated ‘resident’s lounge’ at Peacehaven – an accessible space outside of a resident’s room or flat - which they can choose to use in any way they see fit.

At any given time of the day, Linda says, you’ll find the light and airy room filled with a number of residents engaged in conversation, or healthy debate; or they may be sharing a skill or craft with others or a group could be workshopping up something creative; or you might find residents listening to and asking questions of a guest speaker or community group member who has been invited along to talk to, and with, residents on a menagerie of topics they have come up with.

Linda says these ‘talkfests’ are simply an open invitation for anyone that wants to, to engage in “meaningful conversations about deeper things that matter to them”. Linda believes they not only provide residents with knowledge, they engage residents in social interaction, offer them useful connections to the community and help alleviate fears around the likes of ageing, disability and dying.

And, “if you time it just right,” you’ll happen upon a lively resident-hosted ‘Happy Hour’ where
“lots of laughter and banter is shared ... and the odd story or two gets a tad taller!”

Linda believes she has mellowed with the years.

Now, when advocating for herself or on behalf of friends and fellow residents, she can pick her battles and let some things go.

But get her started on topics such as voluntary euthanasia, medical marijuana, pro-choice, disability rights and mental health … the world might find there’s a lot of life left in her yet!