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The Kindness Of Strangers

A knot of people crept from their stifling basement homes in Sarajevo one day last July in search of food. Taking advantage of a lull in sniper fire, they clambered aboard a minibus in the eerily silent road and headed for the market where hardy stallholders sometimes sold bread.

Among the passengers was Fika Hadzovic, a 23-year-old Bosnian Moslem, travelling with a friend. As the bus careered along the rubble strewn street, Fika spoke of her wedding which was to take place in three weeks. Suddenly there was an ear-splitting bang as a grenade hit the bus. Shrapnel showered the survivors who screamed and scrambled to escape. Fika was among them. Her friend was dead.

'I did not realise at the time what had happened,' she recalled. 'I did not think of anything except that I wanted to live. I managed to drag myself out of the bus and saw that people were staring at me in horror.'

She looked down and saw that both her legs had been blown off. All that remained were bloody stumps.

At the height of the chaos another two grenades were lobbed towards the burning bus. The people who were with Fika fled to safety. 'I was left sitting all alone,' she said, 'I remember thinking of my mother, whom I had not seen for nine months.'

Once the shelling stopped, Fika was taken to Sarajevo hospital where she underwent an operation to remove what remained of her legs. She recuperated in the hospital without electricity or light and with very little food for three months. Her fiancé did not visit. The wedding was called off because he could not cope with her disability.

Fika displayed great courage, racing round the hospital in her wheelchair comforting other patients and refusing to dwell on her own predicament.

When a BBC radio reporter, Allan Little, visited the hospital in September, he found Fika resigned to a bleak future. In an interview, she told him her situation was hopeless. She could not walk, a bitter winter was approaching, and the war showed no signs of abating.

More than 1,500 miles away in Borve, on the island of Harris, Robert Sutherland was listening to radio as he ate his lunch. He heard the interview with Fika on the news, and was so moved by her plight that he vowed to help.

'I don't really know what it was about this particular case of all the thousands that made me want to do something. I think it might have been hearing her voice. I just knew that this time, instead of thinking "I must do something to help." then forgetting, I decided I really would help.' he said.

Mr Sutherland, 71, lives in an isolated house on the island's west coast overlooking the Atlantic. His wife, Anne Kate, died 12 years ago and he lives alone. Once every three weeks he makes the 100 mile round trip to Stornoway to go shopping. Otherwise he seldom roams far from home.

A former major in the Indian army, Mr Sutherland has lived in Harris for 20 years. He was born in Nottingham but regards himself as an honorary Scot, priding himself on his fluent Gaelic.

His house became the headquarters of a mission to rescue Fika from her war-ravaged country and help her walk again. Every day he made countless telephone calls to charities involved in getting aid to the former Yugoslavia and prepared to go to Sarajevo himself. He contacted the BBC, the United Nations, and various medical experts; but shortly before he was due to travel, Mr Sutherland heard that a French convoy had left Sarajevo for Split, with Fika on board. The leader of the convoy had been alerted to efforts to get Fika out and was taking her to Quimper, in Brittany, where he lived.

Delighted by this news, Mr Sutherland changed his plans and headed for France. He travelled by bus and took with him a speech of welcome which he had written in Serbo-Croat with the help of a Serbo-Croat dictionary. The pair met in November 1992 in Centre Hospitalier in Quimper. Fika seemed to Mr Sutherland subdued and a little overawed by her surroundings. His faltering attempts to welcome her in her own language failed. She could not understand him, and because he had written his letter phonetically nobody could translate.

Despite the communications breakdown, Mr Sutherland was struck by Fika's spirit. Now that she was safe she was determined to help her mother, Zahida, and sisters Nisveta and Mirzeta who were trapped in Sarajevo. (Her father had died when she was a child.)

Until the day she left the city, Fika had feared for her family's safety. For nine months she had not heard from them; but on the day she was being spirited away in a tarpaulin-covered truck, she caught a glimps of her mother and sister Nisveta watching from a detention camp that the Serbs had established for Bosnian Moslems.

'I did not have a chance to speak to them, but I was overjoyed to see them.' she said.

Once she had arrived in France she badgered members of the French convoy to bring her family out when they went back to Sarajevo. A month later Fika's mother, and sister Nizveta, 27, arrived in Quimper. Mirzeta, 28, who is married with two children had been unable to leave with them.

Fika stayed in hospital for a month, receiving physiotherapy and learning to walk with heavy wooden legs.

In February, Mr Sutherland returned to Quimper to celebrate Fika's 24th birthday. He announced that he had launched an appeal to raise the 60,000 francs (£7,300) needed to buy her more lightweight flexible limbs which would enable her to move freely.

Meanwhile the family moved into a dilapidated house, earmarked for demolition. Having fled Sarajevo with nothing they were wholly dependent on other people for donations of money, furniture and clothing.

When Fika came out of hospital, the family began trying to make a fresh life in Quimper, but they still gather round a black and white television set each day to watch grainy pictures of the continuing conflict in their homeland.

They worry openly about friends and relatives caught up in the fighting, but no-one mentions that there has been no news of Mirzeta since New Year's Day.

Fika clings to a philosophical perspective: at least the family has not received bad news.

She prefers to take a more positive stance:

'When I was in hospital in Sarajevo, I did not cry. I got out of bed as soon as I could. I was ashamed to be lying in bed.

'I told myself that people have two ways of thinking: when we have everything we think one way, and when something happens which changes our lives for ever you see things another way.

'I do not see myself as handicapped because, as yet, I cannot cope with that idea. But I know that is the word for the way I am.'

Inside the two-storey house in the Rue du Moulin Vert, Fika struggles to do things for herself. She bounces up and down the crooked wooden stairs to her bedroom, balancing on her hands, and enjoys cooking traditional Yugoslav meals.

Throughout the house are reminders of the country she has left. A poster of Christmas roses bears the title 'Sarajevo 1992'. A cassette of mournful Yugoslav folk songs plays in the background, conjuring up bittersweet memories for the little family.

It is painful for Fika to recall her life before the accident. Her dark eyes grow distant and her voice is clotted with tears. She grew up in village near Sarajevo and remembers her childhood as being full of laughter. She loved to write and kept a diary.

'I wrote everything down.' she said, 'It broke my heart to have to leave it behind.'

Her other passion was singing and she sang and danced with one of Sarajevo's most popular folk bands. After she left school she worked in a department store in the city. Among her closest friends were Serbs and Croats. It still amazes her that those friendships were severed with the outset of the war.

'I will never go back to Yugoslavia.' she vowed. 'I love my homeland but too much has happened that is terrible there. It would be too difficult.'

She realises that she is one of the lucky ones. 'Sometimes I ask myself, how did I get out? It was so risky to leave Sarajevo. How did I manage while others are still there? I think a lot about the people who are left behind.

'This place is not a palace,' she continued, indicating her sparsely furnished room, 'but at least I am alive.'

Since her arrival in France, Fika has been granted political status, enabling her to stay. She has also been overwhelmed by the kindness shown to her and her family; but the efforts of Mr Sutherland have impressed her above all others.

'There are very few people like Robert.' she said. 'He has been a real friend. It fills my heart up that in this world, with war on one side, there are people like Robert on the other side. He asks nothing of me. He just wants to help.

'It is unbelievable that he comes all the way from Scotland to see me. He has been three times now. I think he is wonderful.'

From time to time Fika's brave exterior crumbles and she reveals the depth of her trauma. 'It is true that I am not always laughing.' she confessed, gently fingering the scars on her neck caused by flying shrapnel. 'In the last month I have been going through a sort of crisis, like delayed shock. I cannot say that I am happy to have lost my legs. Sometimes I ask myself why I ever laugh. 'But if I was always down and crying I would not change my situation. It would be like giving up and would be like saying that the people who did this to me had won. They would have stolen my life as well as my legs.'

Taking sides in the Bosnian war does not interest Fika. She was horrified when friends of hers took up arms and fought their neighbours. 'One of my schoolfriends killed my uncle.' she said. 'Other people who were married were forced apart because the woman was a Serbian and the man a Bosnian. I just do not understand this war in our country where before people lived side by side in peace.'

In Quimper, her closest friend, who also acts as her interpreter, is Anita Nikolic. She is Serbian. For them the ethnic division is irrelevant.

'This above all other wars, shows the stupidity of human beings.' said Ms Nikolic.

It is equally confusing for Mr Sutherland. 'I am not interested in the rights and wrongs of this war. My desire is to see Fika walking again. In the short time I been trying to raise money I have been touched by the response from people. I have letters of support from all over the country.' he said.

If he is successful in his appeal Fika will have legs made out of carbon fibre. These will be fitted at the Kerpape hospital in Lorient. Her wooden legs are painful to use as well as heavy to man›uvre. The weight she has lost means they no longer fit. They stand, sporting a pair of jeans and trainers in a corner of the room while Fika deftly negotiates narrow doorways in her wheelchair.

Ms Nikolic believes that the carbon fibre legs would give her friend a huge psychological boost. 'They would help her a lot.' she said. 'For a woman, legs are very important. Without them Fika does not feel like a real woman. She has been tremendously brave - she is an amazing person - but there are times when it all gets to her and she breaks down.'

When Mr Sutherland said goodbye to Fika after his most recent visit, he promised her: 'Don't worry. You will get your legs. I'll see you walking this summer, I'm sure.'

His optimism buoys Fika's flagging spirits. She said: 'It is the hope that other people have in me which keeps me going. I know things are never going to be the same as they were before but I still have hope for tomorrow.'

This article was first published in The Scotsman Weekend on Saturday 10th April 1993, pp 18--19. It is reprinted here by permission of the editor of The Scotsman.
Copyright © The Scotsman 1993.

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