Bosnian girl comes to Md. for new leg Wounded children airlifted to U.S.

September 12, 1993|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

CUMBERLAND -- Maja Kazazic has had a summer to forget.

The 16-year-old girl's hometown in eastern Bosnia was ripped apart in battle. Her father was shot. She was struck by shrapnel from a mortar round that landed amid a dozen children outside her apartment. As a result, her left leg had to be amputated -- without anesthesia.

After a month in a Bosnian medical facility, she was taken to Germany and then last week to Memorial Hospital and Medical Center here for treatment.

The Muslim teen-ager has not seen her parents in weeks; with no mail service or telephones in her embattled hometown, her parents don't even know she is in the United States.

Maja, a pale, thin girl whose leg was amputated below the knee in a makeshift tent hospital, was one of three children airlifted from the Balkan war zone bound for the United States last week.

They are the first of many children expected to be brought to the United States -- an effort marked by community-based caring in places such as Cumberland so far removed from the Balkan battlefields.

Dubbed the Wounded Children Rescue Project, the undertaking sponsored by Veterans for Peace, a nonprofit, humanitarian group in Portland, Maine, and the International Organization for Migration in Geneva.

A few other wounded Bosnian children have been treated in the United States, but Maja and the others are believed to be the first brought here as part of a major project, state and national hospital officials said. Bosnian soldiers have been brought to the United States for treatment for months.

Veterans for Peace initiated the program months ago, but its efforts to bring children to the United States have been delayed because of problems in evacuating the wounded.

Memorial Hospital and Medical Center and Sacred Heart Hospital in Cumberland have volunteered their services to the war victims. About 30 hospitals across the United States are participating. The Cumberland hospitals expect to receive seven more children.

Allegany County veterans spearheaded efforts here, securing host families for children and their relatives and trying to see that health care workers gained some capability with the Serbo-Croatian language.

"We've been waiting for them for months," said Bill Holbrook, a volunteer who lives in nearby Short Gap, W.Va. "Maja is the first to come. This is a total community effort. You can hardly touch a part of the community that hasn't had a hand in it."

Maja arrived in Cumberland Wednesday night with her aunt, Majda Paunovic after landing at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C. They were driven to Cumberland in an ambulance.

The other two children, a 17-year-old boy with head injuries and a 13-year-old girl with hand wounds, were transported to hospitals in Portland, Maine.

"We want these children here," said Mr. Holbrook, noting that West Virginia and Maryland communities have joined in the effort. "We have facilities for them. We can care for them. The community is backing us 100 percent. We're committed."

Maja, who speaks little English, was greeted by welcoming signs in Serbo-Croatian, her native language. She is being cared for by nurses who can ask questions such as "Where does it hurt?" and "What would you like to eat?" in Serbo-Croatian. The orthopedic surgeon who is treating her, Dr. Robert Cendo, also can speak with her. He is a native of Slovenia who moved to this country when he was 6.

In addition to the wound that led to the amputation of part of her left leg, Maja suffered wounds in her right leg and nerves in her left hand have been damaged. She was selected for evacuation to the West because of severely infected wounds.

"There were other children who were more seriously wounded," Dr. Cendo said. "But Maja's infections needed immediate attention. I don't think she would have been able to keep her right leg or her stump without treatment."

Bosnian hospitals have run out of antibiotics and other medication, Dr. Cendo said. Many children and other wounded who have undergone amputations in recent weeks have done so not only without anesthesia but also without painkillers. Maja did receive painkillers.

Maja underwent surgery yesterday to remove dead bone and shrapnel from her left leg and to close wounds, Dr. Cendo said.

She will receive an artificial limb and training in how to use it by the staff at Memorial Hospital and Medical Center.

"Our main objective is to clean out the infections, get the wounds healed and rehabilitate her," Dr. Cendo said. "She seems to be doing very well and has accepted her condition well. I wouldn't say she is happy, but she is not in a deep depression either."

The day before surgery, Maja, who likes to play basketball and soccer, flipped through cable TV channels, ate french fries and turkey, and spoke about her family.

She has not seen her parents and her 13-year-old brother in two months. They had expected her to be transported to an American medical facility in Zagreb, not to the United States.

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