How two sisters survived being trapped in a canyon for seven days
TORONTO -- It’s been 35 years since the Culjak sisters experienced the week that changed their lives.
On Jan. 6, 1985, Sima Culjak, 18 years old at the time and her sister Drazenka (Draga) Culjak, 16, embarked on a four-hour trek from their village in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina to the city of Siroki Brijeg.
The sisters were on winter break from school and wanted to spend more time with their mother, so they decided to visit her in the city where she worked as a custodian. Due to a snowstorm, the buses going into the city stopped running, so Sima and Draga decided to walk. To get to the city, they had to cross a hill into a canyon and exit from the opposite end of the hill. It was a crossing they had made many times before.
“When we were in the canyon we got lost, we didn't see the exit to the other side of the hill so we continued walking down the canyon thinking that we [were] still walking the right way, and at some point we found ourselves in a place where we couldn’t go forward or back, we were stuck,” said Sima Culjak to CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview on Jan. 22.
After falling through a pit, the sisters took shelter under a rock that was leaning on the side of the canyon. Neither of them were dressed for the weather; Sima says they were only wearing jeans and a denim jacket. The only way to keep warm was to cover their heads with their jackets and take turns laying on top of each other.
With no food and water taken only from icicles, it was difficult to survive. Sima says they would sing songs and pray to keep them motivated. Above all, their biggest motivation was seeing their mother again.
“We were always talking about our mom. We were trying to live for her because we knew if she [lost] both of us she would not survive,” said Culjak.
During their time in the canyon, their mother thought they were with their father and their father thought they were with their mother. Having fallen on a Sunday, the sisters assumed they would be rescued by Friday when their mother would be home from work and realize they were missing. However, their optimism disappeared when Friday passed and they were still stranded.
“Saturday comes, nobody’s looking for us and on Sunday … that was it for us. We’re losing hope, nobody’s coming for us, no one is going to save us and our bodies are weak. Once you lose hope, that’s it really,” said Culjak.
On that Sunday morning, Sima encouraged Draga to say their last prayer together. Refusing to pray, Draga said to her sister, “I don't want to pray anymore, God is not listening to us.”
With some convincing, Draga agreed to pray and just as they were about to start they heard hunters above the canyon. The sisters shouted for help, telling them they had been trapped for seven days. Not convinced anyone would have survived this, the hunters didn’t believe them and assumed they were teenagers pranking them. As the hunters left so did the sister’s last hope.
“I called all day because that was our last chance to be saved and finally when they went back to the village and told the story of some kids calling out, one lady in the village told them, ‘I heard voices on Wednesday when I went out to the well to get some water.’ Finally they came and pulled us out of the canyon,” said Culjak.
Once the sisters were rescued, Sima says she was unconscious upon arriving to the hospital. When she woke up a few days later, she was a different person. Both sisters had undergone a double amputation below the knees because of the frostbite and gangrene infection in their legs.
“Nobody told me what happened; they should have prepared me psychologically for this but they didn't …almost half of my body is missing and that was the biggest shock of my life,” says Culjak.
Although Culjak said it was difficult to adjust to her changed body, she and her sister found consolation in the support they received across the country. When the local news took interest in their story, the Culjak sisters became a household name. Letters of support came often for the sisters, filled with words of encouragement and appreciation for their courage. They also received donations that they put toward medical attention and an accessible home.
A new life
In 1990, Sima got married and moved to Toronto with her husband. Although grateful to be living in a new country, leaving her job and home in Bosnia made it difficult to start over.
Although determined to make use of her new life, Culjak admits she was afraid she wouldn’t have as many opportunities in Canada because of the language barrier and because of her lost limbs.
“I didn’t want to sit at home idle and do nothing. What am I going to do for a job? Where am I going to find a job being disabled and not knowing the language? It was very stressful and hard for me,” said Culjak.
Culjak’s husband recommended she look for job openings at the War Amps organization. This non-profit organization aids Canadian amputees with financial assistance, education programs and employment opportunities.
After meeting with a War Amps manager, Culjak was hired on the spot and began working sorting mail, flyers, key tags and labels. She is now an assistant supervisor overseeing donation cheques and training employees.
“We encourage each other that there’s no limits to what we can do. By working here and helping other amputees, it’s a very rewarding job in all aspects. The War Amps is my second family because I’m spending more time here than at home and I’ve been working here for almost 30 years,” said Culjak.
After settling in Canada, the Culjak sisters were approached by Bosnian director Tomislav Topic to retell their story through the film Sestre, meaning sister. The film premiered in 2018 at the Sarajevo Film Festival, one of Europe’s largest film festivals. This past Saturday, the sisters had their own screening of the film with their friends and family.
Today, the Culjak sisters live active lifestyles. Draga has competed professionally in para-canoeing and cross-country skiing, while Sima enjoys traveling and scuba diving. Sima says she hopes her story inspires other amputees to challenge themselves.
“Don't limit yourself and go on the internet and find opportunities that you’re able to do,” said Culjak.