Their ships didn't pass in the night: 25 years ago, detention of Yugoslav freighter in Baltimore led to international romance

Abby Scherr didn’t know most of the people at her wedding, and couldn’t understand what was said at the ceremony. Nearby, a war raged on.

“It felt like I was in ‘The Twilight Zone,’” says Scherr, who now lives in New Freedom, Pa., with her husband Neno Uljarevic.

Last week marked 25 years since Scherr, originally from Baltimore, married Uljarevic in his hometown in Montenegro, in the former Yugoslavia.

Their love story never would have happened were it not for an international incident that linked Baltimore to Yugoslavia — and ultimately linked Abby and Neno.

In July 1992, the Durmitor, a 514-foot Yugoslav freighter, was about to leave Dundalk Marine Terminal when U.S. Customs officers came aboard and ordered it detained. The action was the result of an executive order by then-President George Bush freezing the assets of companies believed to be owned by the new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The Durmitor — and its rotating crew — would remain near Dundalk for the next five years.

"What we don't understand is, we didn't cause the war," Capt. Luka Brguljan told The Baltimore Sun in September 1992. "We don't know any reason for the detention of the ship."

On board Uljarevic, the ship’s radio officer, then 29, and other men spent their time playing cards and basketball. Churches and politicians, including Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, sent food. A dinghy was provided the shipmates for brief visits to shore. News organizations came to interview the crew. A headline in The Sun referred to it as a “prison” ship.

“People was thinking we were dying,” Uljarevic recalls with a laugh. But he says the extended stay “was no problem, we had everything that we wanted.”

Except freedom to explore Baltimore, that is. Scherr, who was in her 30s and working as a travel agent, heard about the stranded crew and wanted to help. She volunteered to take them on tours of the city to help them pass the time.

That’s how she first met Uljarevic, who had long, dark curly hair and an earring at the time.

“I thought, ‘This is gonna be trouble,’” Scherr recalled. He was “very, very cute,” she said, with an open and friendly personality.

The attraction was mutual. She was blonde and well-spoken, a “classic American girl,” he recalled.

“Sometimes you got this feeling when you meet somebody,” he said. “I always trusted my gut feeling these first moments.”

They shared their common love of music and culture. She showed him around the city and introduced him to her friends.

Though the Durmitor was detained in Baltimore until June 1997, its crew rotated out. At the airport, as Uljarevic was about to board his flight leaving Baltimore, he asked Scherr if she would marry him.

“I didn’t have to think about it too much, and I said ‘yes,’” she said. “I just didn’t know it was gonna work because the war was still going on.”

Scherr traveled to Budapest. She and her fiance took the bus to Belgrade, then to Herceg Novi, a town in Montenegro on the Adriatic Sea.

In contrast to war-torn Serbia, Montenegro was described in news reports of the 1990s as “an oasis of relative calm.” But to get there, Uljarevic recalls, “You got to pass through hell.”

“It was scary,” Scherr said. Their taxi driver had a gun. “You just saw people that you could tell had been through a hell of a lot.”

In Montenegro, the conflict was evident in the silence of the town. The usual tourist trade was dead. Cuisine was limited to potatoes and fish. Uljarevic’s mother baked bread on the weekends.

Their wedding was simple: Scherr wore a beige blouse and skirt instead of a wedding dress. The ceremony was mostly in Serbo-Croatian. Her sister-in-law baked a cake.

On the bus back to Hungary, Scherr recalled being stopped by an army officer, and was terrified that she would be taken away and interrogated. She made it out safely, and spent some time traveling alone in Budapest in Prague before going back to Maryland.

Uljarevic returned to Baltimore in the winter, and the couple lived in a small apartment in Fells Point. Their early marriage wasn’t exactly a honeymoon; Scherr worked two jobs to support them both while he looked for work in Baltimore.

“I don’t think we realized how hard it was gonna be,” she said.

Uljarevic agreed. Though he had a college degree and a career in Montenegro, arriving in the U.S., he said, “you pretty much start from the zero.”

Not that he has any regrets. “I love the United States always,” he said. “I consider the States the best place to live, still today, without any doubt.”

Their life together improved after Uljarevic found a steady job. Scherr was impressed by his devotion to her and their son, as well as his work ethic.

“He came here with nothing. Nobody helped him at all,” Scherr said.

“Except for me.”

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad