How the World
Reached Out to
help Elvis Muhic
When it was shattered by a rifle grenade,
doctors feared a little boy's leg may have
to be amputated. After Berserkistan published a
story about Elvis Muhic, a miracle began to unfold.
By Cynthia Lee
When I first met Elvis Muhic in the children’s wing of the Bihac hospital, he was sitting up in his hospital bed with both of his legs in casts, the result of a tragic accident. On April 25, 1995, Elvis, his brother and their friends found a rifle grenade while at play. It exploded, severely wounding young Elvis.
His shattered right leg was stretched out in front of him and a serious infection of the tissues had set in. His Bosnian doctor told me there was nothing more that could be done because the type of surgery he needed was not available in Bosnia. Without it, Elvis would be lame and there was the possibility the leg would have to be amputated.
Elvis had just turned 11 and his 12-year-old brother had been killed by the same rifle grenade. It was just a few days before Christmas in 1995. Seeing this child struggle against his grief over the loss of his brother, and knowing that he might lose his leg, made Christmas particularly painful.
I've been covering the war in the former Yugoslavia since early in 1993 in conjunction with a documentary I'm producing entitled A Wound To The Soul. The focus of the documentary is on the suffering caused to children from land mines and other anti-personnel weapons. I've spent a great deal of time in field hospitals, often near frontlines, and the frontlines were almost always a village filled with women and children, not a strategic military outpost.
Since the goal of the war was to take land from an unwanted ethnic group, schools and soccer fields were included as targets. There were plenty of war-traumatized children for me to talk to. Some of these kids, like Elvis, were wounded by shrapnel from exploding weapons or shells. Some were the targets of snipers. Others were wounded by land mines and other anti-personnel weapons. Some had legs or arms amputated, or had serious stomach or head injuries. Some kids were war orphans who had witnessed the death of one or both parents. Those who had escaped physical injury suffered from severe psychological trauma which can be just as devastating. The level of suffering among children in Bosnia was often too much for the eyes to take in. There were times I simply couldn't look anymore.
While I've seen many children so traumatized they couldn't speak, I’ve also seen a lot of children who have come through the war with a deep awareness of an inner-self few adults ever find. Something had happened inside these children that had made them stronger. This is one of the things that drew me to Elvis. That, and the fact that I'd come to a place in my own life where it wasn't enough simply to document, with my camera, the violence done to children in war and its aftermath. I was tired of feeling helpless and guilty in the presence of so much suffering. I wanted to do something beyond making a documentary, although I wasn't sure exactly what I could do.
I arranged to meet Elvis and his family in his village after the new year, then went to Sarajevo for Christmas. I've spent the holidays in Bosnia twice -- in 1993 and 1995. Things were a lot quieter in 1995 because the Dayton peace accord had been signed and NATO troops were arriving, including 20,000 Americans. I managed to get an invitation to Christmas dinner with some of the American troops at their compound in Sarajevo. I felt a sense of pride that America had finally intervened in a significant way in Bosnia and was surprised to see that most of the soldiers I talked to felt the same way.
In mid-January of this year I went back to the area in northwest Bosnian known as the Bihac pocket to visit Elvis. I met his eight brothers and sisters, his parents, saw the site in the woods where he'd found the rifle grenade and visited the grave of his brother. The grief of this family was still raw, yet they invited me into their lives and made me feel a part of their family.
Elvis' Mother, Zuhra, cried often in private. She didn't want her other children to be burdened by her depression, something she fought off during the day because there was so much to be done for the other kids. But at night, it was a different story. The memory of finding her dying son covered in blood and worrying about Elvis’ leg kept her awake most nights. Elvis’ father, Ismet, got work as a carpenter in a factory in Slovenia, and because of the long distance he had to travel from his village, he only came home on weekends. It was hard on both of them and the kids.
When Zuhra asked if I could help Elvis, I knew I had to -- but it was a daunting challenge. I had no idea where to begin. All I knew was that he needed surgery to save his leg and that the best option would be in the United States. When I returned to Los Angeles in March, I called several relief agencies, asking if they could arrange medical treatment for Elvis. I got nowhere. I could tell that mounting some kind of campaign to bring him over here was going to be a full-time job and I didn't have the resources to do something like that. I decided to write a story about Elvis and see if I could place it in a magazine. Maybe the publicity would bring in a benefactor.
I mentioned this to a friend, Pippa Scott, who founded the Balkan Archives in Los Angeles and she asked me if I'd ever seen the web site Berserkistan. I hadn't, but I made a phone call to Michael Linder, who together with Jim Bartlett, are the founders of the web site. I told Michael about Elvis and within days we had the story and photos up and running on the Internet. I honestly didn't expect much, but it was at least a beginning, I thought. It turned out to be a miracle in the making.
The story about Elvis, Can This Boy's Leg Be Saved? had been on the Web for about a week when a piece of EMail came in from Peter Mikuliak, a relief worker in Croatia who works for the National Council Of Churches. He told us he knew a part-time medical reporter, Anna Marie Chwastiak, MD, who was also a surgical resident at a hospital in Pennsylvania. Peter wrote that she was looking for a surgical case. She then sent EMail saying she wanted more information about Elvis and that she had spoken to surgeons at Geisinger Childrens' Hospital in Danville, Pennsylvania, who might be willing to provide surgery. I was awestruck by the speed of this response.
From there, the Elvis project took off like lightening. We sent my videotape of Elvis and his injury to Frank Andrews, the news director at WNEP-TV -- the television station where Dr. Chwastiak works part-time. A barrage of phone calls ensued. Frank spent weeks working out the details with the hospital, doctors and local officials while I worked on getting a relief agency to sponsor Elvis and his father. Through the Bosnian embassy, I located Barbara Van Horn of Tressler Lutheran Services in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania and they agreed to be Elvis's sponsor, providing an interpreter and oversight.
Barbara referred me to Haig and Vula Rushdoony of Macedonian Outreach in Danville, California, who agreed to pay the round trip airfare for Elvis and his mother.
Meanwhile, Frank Andrews was working hard at his end, coordinating his TV station's important role with the hospital. Once final approval from Geisinger came through, we knew something wonderful was about to happen. It took about 6 weeks to organize all the details and to get the approvals, including coordination with the American embassy in Zagreb to procure non-immigrant visas for Elvis and his father.
On the Bosnia side of this massive effort, Peter Maxwell, Head Of Mission for Terre des hommes, the Swiss children's charity, coordinated communication between myself and Elvis and his mother (they have no telephone) and he worked with the family to get the necessary documentation they needed to travel to the United States. I had traveled with Terre des hommes in Bosnia many times before and had seen their very impressive relief effort for war-traumatized children. When I met Elvis for the first time, I was with Peter Maxwell and members of the Terre des hommes team. Peter got Elvis a wheelchair after I left Bosnia and with the help of Mike Gillam and Jasmina Suljanovic, both of Terre des hommes, regular updates about Elvis's condition were sent to me in Los Angeles.
Soon after the details began to fall in place, Frank Andrews and WNEP-TV decided to send me over to Bosnia to escort Elvis to America and to cover the story for them.
On July 1, I brought Elvis and his father from Bosnia to Philadelphia and from there to Janet Weis Children's Hospital at Geisinger medical center in Danville, Pennsylvania. Doctors examined Elvis as soon as he arrived, said they were sure they could save the little boy's legs, and scheduled surgery for Friday, July 5th.
This amazing sequence of events, launched by my story at Berserkistan, involves the hard work of caring people in three countries, Bosnia, Croatia and the U.S. When Marshall McLuhan wrote about the global village back in the 1960s, I doubt if even he could have foreseen something like this.
After seeing so much human depravity in Bosnia and feeling angered and frustrated by the inadequate response of the international community, this kind of collective effort can renew faith in the goodness of people. It demonstrates how people can make a difference if they want to. And it validates our own humanity in the face of the inhumanity of war, particularly as it affects children. Elvis is just one little boy among thousands of children of war around the world, but his life will be changed for the better because people who don't even know him or his family, care.
I'm thrilled to be a part of this incredible adventure and grateful to Berserkistan for being the electronic link that made it all possible.
Cynthia Lee is a writer, and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Her film, A Wound To The Soul, deals with the pervasive use of land mines and other anti-personnel weapons, and the suffering these weapons cause children. She has been covering the war in Bosnia since early 1993. To learn more about Cynthia's documentary, or to help her raise finishing funds for the project, leave a voice mail message at (310) 289-7419 or EMail Berserkistan.
Berserkistan, July 7 Surgery Enables Elvis to Walk Again
Berserkistan, July 2 Doctors Say they can Save Elvis' Leg
Berserkistan, Can This Boy's Leg Be Saved? by Cynthia Lee
Berserkistan, Encounter with Fear by Cynthia Lee
Operation Elvis Janet Weis Children's Hospital at Geisinger
WNEP-TV 16 ABC TV for Northeast and Central Pennsylvania
Berserkistan is the world news service of
Pacific Interactive Media Corp.
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