Striking a balance between her right leg and the prosthesis on her left, Emina Uzicanin, a five-year-old medical refugee from Sarajevo, stared blankly at an electrical switch on a table in front of her. Flanked by her older sister, their mother, and various other adults, she was poised to light a towering Christmas tree in the lobby of Chicago's Swissotel. A small audience watched as a photographer, battery packs dangling from her Chanel fanny pack, fired a burst of flashes at the child. Pop, pop, pop-pop. Emina flinched, then flicked the switch.
While the audience clapped, Emina glared at the tree sparkling with golden bulbs. Lighting Christmas trees is not part of this Bosnian girl's heritage. She's a Muslim. But in Chicago, blond, blue-eyed Emina took on another identity--ad hoc poster child for the U.S. Committee for UNICEF/Chicago. It was the relief agency's Christmas reception last year and they'd trotted her out to meet their board of directors.
Now we have a name and a face for the good that UNICEF is doing in the Balkans, Miroslav Kovacevic was explaining. To be truthful, Kovacevic, a pediatrician, played a bigger role than UNICEF in bringing Emina to America. UNICEF helped Kovacevic evacuate Emina to Chicago last November, along with her 14-year-old sister Fahira, who's a diabetic, and five other sick and injured kids from Sarajevo.
Like most of us, Kovacevic had seen countless television and magazine images of wounded and dying children in Bosnia. Unlike most of us, he refused to become a passive accomplice to the tragedy. To act on impulse is his second nature. Two years ago Kovacevic was driving south on Lake Shore Drive with his friend George Hlavac. According to Hlavac, Kovacevic spotted a woman holding a bleeding baby next to a wrecked car in a northbound lane. He veered his white Range Rover across several lanes and the median strip and jumped out to attend to the baby. When the ambulance arrived, Kovacevic climbed back into his car and left.
Kovacevic, a native of Croatia, became possessed with the idea of saving the children of Sarajevo after watching a CNN report on Irma, a wounded Sarajevo girl evacuated to a hospital in England.
Kovacevic's quest began easily enough. He received promises of free medical and hospital care from the Loyola Medical Center, the University of Chicago Medical Center, and Children's Memorial Hospital. Sponsorship for refugee visas came from a local group of Bosnian emigres.
Last August he approached the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)--the two agencies coordinating medical evacuations out of Sarajevo. "I asked them if they would be kind enough to put us on the list to treat the next sick or injured children to come out of Sarajevo," Kovacevic says. "One week passes, two week passes, and no one returns my calls."
Frustrated now, Kovacevic stopped waiting. He called Kosovo Hospital in Sarajevo, tracked down its director of public health, and asked for names of children who needed to be evacuated. "Three days later he [the director] gives me a list of 36 children," Kovacevic says proudly. "With that in hand, I again go to the UNHCR and say, 'Here are the children who need to be evacuated. We already have beds. Let's do it.' They said, 'It's not so simple.'"
It wasn't. Before Emina could come to America, Kovacevic battled UN bureaucrats and made two harrowing trips to Sarajevo. His wife was warned that he would not leave that city alive.
But defiance was something he learned early in life. Born in 1944 in Osijek, a small town southeast of Zagreb, Kovacevic grew up under Tito. His parents were Roman Catholics who rarely went to mass. "But in my house, certain principles were stressed," Kovacevic says. "My father's answer to Communism was never letting me go to school on Christmas."
When Miroslav was seven his parents separated. His father moved to Germany, and his mother took Miroslav and his younger brother Vladimir to Zagreb, where she found secretarial work. Miroslav spent most summers in Frankfurt with his father, but the two weren't close. His father was a happy-go-lucky furrier who spoke Hungarian, Croatian, and German and loved to read. Miroslav found him "open but superficial." He had a quirky fashion sense. "While cooking the lunch he wore a white shirt and black tie, but would dress more casually when he went to meetings." Like father, like son. Today, Miroslav wears faded blue jeans when treating patients.
Kovacevic followed his father's lead in rejecting the Communist Party. "I stayed apolitical and considered people who belonged to the youth movement just second-grade spies," he says. In high school Miroslav steered clear of the Communist Youth League and pulled straight A's. He excelled in mathematics, but rejected it as a career choice. "With math in Yugoslavia, all you could do was teach. To be a teacher, you had to be a member of the Communist Party," he explains. Instead, Kovacevic used his skills to "screw up the system." In one math exam, he solved the problems in 15 minutes and passed around the answers to classmates. He was caught and almost expelled. He would pick fights, skip classes, and hang out sipping coffee in outdoor cafes. His mother worried. But "what are you going to do to a guy who never had a B in his life?" Kovacevic says.
Miroslav studied medicine at the University of Zagreb but chose not to practice in Yugoslavia. "Where you have a socialist medicine, an awful thing happens," he says. "You are paid a meager salary and a lot of doctors take gifts and stuff from patients under the table." He applied for a residency in Germany, but the success of his brother Vladimir and his own taste for competition redirected his fate. Vladimir, today an anesthesiologist in Milwaukee, "was always measured, organized, and socially responsible," says Miroslav. "His behavior was just about perfect." Other than medicine, the brothers, 18 months apart in age, had little in common.
In the early 1970s Vladimir landed a residency at a Milwaukee hospital. Miroslav's wife, Visnja, then a chemical engineer, taunted her husband, saying he couldn't get a job in the United States if he tried. "It was more of a joke. At that time, I didn't speak a word of English. But I said to Visnja, 'Let me prove you darling wrong.'" Within six months Kovacevic had landed a pediatric internship at South Baltimore General Hospital, now called Harbor Hospital Center. "If you know Miro, there's nothing he wouldn't do," says Visnja. "He always took big challenges in anything. In every step in our life. He was never mediocre. He always had very defined ideas--'That's what I'm going to do'--and there was no obstacle."
Pediatrics was the only area of medicine Kovacevic had any interest in. "I cannot stand adults. God forbid! Examining them would be a nightmare," he says. "I feel more comfortable with the kids, because they are honest."
In 1972 Miroslav and Visnja moved to Chicago, where he did his residency at Loyola Medical Center. Twenty-two years later he teaches at Loyola's medical school. He also operates a private practice with offices in Hinsdale and Lisle, is on staff at Hinsdale Hospital and Good Samaritan, in Downers Grove, and does pro bono work at a clinic in Elmhurst.
Kovacevic takes calls from his patients' parents "at any time of the day, no matter what," says one of his nurses. "He answers every call." To give the kids a break, he introduces himself to them as Dr. K.
Kovacevic used to smoke about a pack of Rothmans a day. He turned to acupuncture last month to help him quit. When not puffing, the wiry doctor fidgets, shakes his legs, and rips the paper off his Rothmans boxes. As if fashioning a cigarette, he rolls the paper into a very thin tube, licks it, and sticks it in his mouth. Then he jumps up and brews himself a demitasse of espresso, sweetened with a half teaspoon of sugar.
He speaks with a choppy cadence. When sharing his ideas, he pulls out a stack of notes typed on rice paper bought in Japan. The Kovacevics are well traveled, with homes in Switzerland and the Caribbean. They live with their dog--a bichon frise named Palmer--in Hunter Trails, a tony Oak Brook development where guests are announced at a guardhouse. The Kovacevics' chalet-style split-level is flanked by a clay tennis court, a black-bottom pool, and Visnja's English perennial garden. The Range Rover usually sits in the cobblestone driveway, while the BMW lives in the garage next to a tarp-draped Rolls-Royce. Their front door sports a metal plate etched to announce "villa zagreb." Granite from upstate New York covers the home's exterior, while the inside is paneled with California redwood. The house is decorated with oil paintings, Asian rugs, African artifacts, and animal skins. A daughter just graduated from college. A son is in college now.
In the early 1980s Miroslav decided to become a big-game hunter. He traveled to Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. "Normal people go and shoot a bird to see how it feels to be a hunter," says Visnja. "My husband packs his bags, goes to Africa, and shoots a buffalo."
Two leopards are perched on branches that hang above the fireplace in the den. Below them stands a lion. A zebra pelt serves as the area rug. Like an arch, a pair of elephant tusks frame the fireplace in the living room. George Hlavac, a hunting partner, says the buffalo, leopard, lion, and elephant are four of the "big five" trophies that every hunter seeks.
Kovacevic tracked the elephant for three days in civil-war-torn Mozambique. Hlavac was hunting an elephant of his own. Much of the land was mined, and in the Cabora Bassa Basin they camped out on an island surrounded by crocodiles. For fun, Kovacevic says they would paddle out onto the river at night and catch crocodiles by their tails.
Kovacevic found something in Africa he could not bring back. "There is about 30 seconds time that it's almost like eternity. It's the time from the moment the sun touches the horizon at sundown and stays there for 30 seconds and just drops. It's not the picture. It is the sound. For these 30 seconds it's absolute silence. It's a deafening silence. At that moment it's so beautiful. It's worth experiencing it over and over again. It's a timeless time. It is that quick peek into the God, heaven, into something beyond us. That's the only thing I can really recall to be something extraordinary." After that divine interlude, all hell breaks loose. "The animals go berserk," he says.
The last of the big five trophies is the rhinoceros. Kovacevic still has not tracked a rhino and says he may never. "The last few trips, I never shot anything. I just would go for a kick," he says. "I don't particularly enjoy killing. For me it's more interesting to photograph. That's what I basically do most of the time, just shoot photographs."
Now he has moved on to a different sort of quarry, the child victims of the Balkan wars.
When Croatian refugees fleeing the Serbian army poured into unoccupied Croatia in 1991, Chicago-area Croatians started a Christmas gift drive. Visnja bought an outfit for a little boy and sent it along with a card signed in her son's name. Several months later the mother of the boy who received it wrote back. "Ohhh! I started crying. I was so touched," says Visnja. In later letters, the mother revealed her story. "Her husband and brother got killed by the same bomb. Later on, her dad got killed in front of the house. So she's left with her mother and her son and total devastation. I'm so protected here. Some personal tragedy like that really got me going." Visnja wondered what help she could give the mother and son and the others like them.
Her husband was already involved. He was brokering a million dollars in donations of baby formula, electrolytic fluids, and surgical supplies from their manufacturers to AmeriCares, a relief agency based in Connecticut. In January 1992 AmeriCares flew the 65,000-pound load to Croatia, and Miroslav tagged along.
In Zagreb he met with an old friend, a dean at the university's medical school. Ljiljana Kostovic Knezevic asked Kovacevic for help. The university hospital wanted to raise money to buy incubators by selling cards and drawings made by local children. Miroslav brought a batch home and Visnja sold them to friends, raising $3,000, enough for an incubator.
Visnja says, "I was in contact with Ljiljana on account of the cards and she told me about the city of Vukovar, a beautiful old part of Croatia, about the terrible tragedy. She had a list of 200 kids whose families were left with nothing and these were well-to-do people two months before. I said, 'Why not send me those names?'"
The Kovacevics quickly raised $30,000 for these children--most of it from Croatian doctors around the United States--and Ljiljana looked for a bank in Zagreb to distribute the money to them. "No one wanted to do it," Visnja says. Finally, Ljiljana bumped into a high school classmate who was now a banker at the Privredna Banka in Zagreb. He offered to help.
In Chicago the Kovacevics founded Save the Children of Croatia--which had no connection to the familiar charity Save the Children--and obtained not-for-profit status through the Saint Jerome Croatian Church. "You see, we were real smart," gloats Miroslav. "Anytime you have direct contact with the money there is always possibility that somebody can attach something to you. So we let the church control it. We had nothing to do with the money. We just administrated it."
But Croatian politicos almost killed the fund. Officials from the social services ministry in Croatia denounced Ljiljana for disseminating the names of orphaned children abroad. Visnja remembers, "Miro said, 'It's a new government. They're paranoid. They're in a war. Why don't we ask Mrs. Tudjman [the Croatian first lady] to become honorary chair? The little guys are going to stop giving Ljiljana trouble, and she is going to sleep in peace.'" Ankica Tudjman accepted the post after numerous appeals via fax. "From that point on, nobody touched us," says Visnja. "A few people from the government tried to ask Dr. Kostovic what she was doing. She would say, 'Why not ask Mrs. Tudjman?' It didn't go any further."
Sponsors could donate $50 a month for one child. Others gave money for the church to use as it saw fit. The money was deposited in a savings account at Bell Federal Savings, and beginning in April 1992, 50 U.S. dollars for each child was wired each month to Zagreb. Excess funds remained in the Bell Federal account collecting interest. The Kovacevics covered all administrative costs incurred in the United States.
Within two years the couple had raised $1.6 million dollars for more than 3,000 children who had lost one or both parents in the war. Columnists Jack Anderson and Michael Binstein lauded the venture as a "mini-Marshall Plan." Sponsors included individuals and companies in the United States and in other countries such as Austria, Bolivia, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Singapore, Switzerland, and Taiwan. (Foreign sponsors wired money directly to the fund's account in Zagreb.) An Argentinean donated $30,000.
Another sponsor, the architect who'd designed the Kovacevics' house, mentioned the fund to an ABC producer during a dinner party in New York. "Suddenly I'm getting the telephone call from the gentleman from Peter Jennings's show," says Kovacevic. A few days later a crew from World News Tonight showed up at Kovacevic's house. "I thought they were going to come in, I would bullshit for five minutes, and everything is done. Are you kidding! They were with me for three days--I survived that one!"
Kovacevic became an ABC "Person of the Week" in July 1992. That night his answering service paged him. "They said, 'We've got a problem--we're getting a call every minute about some television show,'" says Kovacevic. "They took over the weekend 100 messages; and Monday it just went totally berserk."
Oddly, as the list of donors lengthened the number of names of needy children in Croatia being made available to the Kovacevics began to dwindle. On a trip to Zagreb in the summer of 1992, Visnja was introduced by Ljiljana to Ankica Tudjman. Over tea and sweets, Visnja found herself being pressured by the president's wife to transfer the money in the Bell Federal account to Zagreb. Visnja objected, claiming that it was safer in Chicago. Visnja returned to Chicago, and a few weeks later the Zagreb office surprised her with news that Croatian companies would begin sponsoring children. These firms would deposit Croatian dinars directly into the fund's Zagreb account. Save the Children of Croatia's Zagreb office would match the Croatian sponsors with children, and each month the bank would fax Visnja a detailed record of the transactions.
Initially Visnja "thought that was really cute. We were talking at the beginning 50 kids, and I didn't have any reason to suspect anything." By October donations from Croatian firms "were coming like crazy. A hundred by this company. Two hundred by another. I said, 'This is Balkanization of my program.'"
Visiting Zagreb again in October 1992, Visnja spoke with a social worker from INA, a petroleum company sponsoring 32 children. INA was strapped for cash, the social worker told her, and could no longer sponsor any children. But two weeks later she received a fax indicating that INA would take on 200 kids. "Something was wrong there, right?" says Miroslav, who became suspicious of INA's sudden reversal of fortune. "We didn't know if the kids were real or the money was real," Visnja says. The Kovacevics suspect, but cannot prove, that U.S. dollars from Save the Children of Croatia's Zagreb account were somehow winding up in the hands of Croatian companies. "What other reason could they have sponsoring the kids? Croatian companies were not doing so well in the midst of the war," says Visnja.
Acting on their suspicions, the Kovacevics instructed Privredna Banka to open a second account strictly for dinar donations made by Croatian companies. Miroslav says that in November 1992 Ankica Tudjman seized control of Save the Children of Croatia, making herself president and one of her associates signatory of both accounts.
Miroslav says the letter he received from Mrs. Tudjman said, in effect, "From now on, one of the ministries of the Croatian government is going to be telling us who we can and cannot help."
The Kovacevics protested to the Croatian embassy in Washington, and pleaded with Mrs. Tudjman to back down. "First of all, it's illegal. The church is the one collecting the money, and the headquarters has to stay in the United States in order for the fund to be deductible," says Miroslav. "Number two, we have to be outside the political arena. The whole problem started because of these international hatreds. What is the ministry going to give me, anybody's name? No! Only good boys who are listening to the president."
Fighting back, he and Visnja refused to forward to Zagreb the January 1993 donations from American donors. Furious, the mothers and guardians who'd been expecting this money for their children flooded the bank and Ankica Tudjman's office with complaints. Visnja says, "It got so bad the banker went on holiday for a week." Mrs. Tudjman took action, borrowing close to $100,000 from Privredna Banka in the name of St. Jerome's to cover the January stipends. "But the church had not OK'd the loan," says Miroslav, who disavowed responsibility for the debt.
In one of his many faxes to Ankica Tudjman, Miroslav threatened to turn the children against her by telling them this: "Now it's time you did something about it, because if you don't all the money we were able to collect and send to you is going to have to be sent back to the people who wanted so wholeheartedly to help you. If you don't know how to write . . . or are too little . . . ask your moms or have relatives write a letter in your name. . . . All you have to write is 'President of the Republic of Croatia.'. . . Also, go and visit the uncles who are working in the political institutions in your cities. . . . Tell them Mrs. Tudjman is not letting you get help from new friends in the world. Believe me, if you do that Mrs. Tudjman is going to have to leave your lives and your lives are going to become the fairy tale with the true happy ending. Your uncle Miro from Chicago."
Ankica Tudjman struck preemptively. She denounced the Kovacevics in a form letter sent to nearly 2,000 American sponsors. "Since Dr. Kovacevic last sent the money for 'Your' children in December 1992 and has stopped sending help without any reason, the Board of Action [Mrs. Tudjman and others] decided to take a loan at the Privredna Banka in the value of 97,350 USD [U.S. dollars] in Croatian dinars. . . . We were convinced that he would reimburse the bank, as he had taken the obligation to send the money every month. In our opinion, the money was not his, but the sponsors' and he only acted as their plenipotentiary for the transfer of money from the account of St. Jerome's to the account of Privredna Banka in Zagreb. He failed to do so, despite our and The Bank's asking."
St. Jerome's pastor, Matthew Ruyechan, says the church never received a letter from Zagreb requesting reimbursement for the loan.
The kids came out of this all right. "Not only were the Tudjmans out $100,000, our kids got 50 bucks each, courtesy of the Croatian government," says Miroslav. "Are you gonna now go to the kids and say, 'Return my 50 bucks?' You can't do that, can you? They're simply out $100,000 and it went for a good cause. Since then I'm not on the top favorite list of the Croatian government, but that is no big deal." He laughs. "My diplomacy has a lot to be desired."
To make sure the U.S.-sponsored children would continue getting their money, Miroslav went to Croatia and opened 1,940 separate bank accounts in the children's names at 18 banks around the country.
New names of orphans were obtained from sources other than the Save the Children of Croatia office in Zagreb. Caritas, an international Catholic relief organization, supplied the names of 300 children, of whom 180 eventually were sponsored; Biser, a German group based in Zagreb, provided the names of 80 children more.
Miroslav Kovacevic came to the attention of the Chicago UNICEF committee in February 1993, during a black-tie fund-raiser hosted by the actor Roger Moore. UNICEF officials, Moore, and Kovacevic spoke briefly, and Karen Kancius, director of the U.S. Committee for UNICEF/Chicago, came away impressed. (Kovacevic did not mention his troubles with Ankica Tudjman.) While Kovacevic's homespun effort with Save the Children of Croatia raised about a million dollars within its first year, it had taken seven UNICEF offices throughout the U.S. to raise as much for Balkan projects in the same period. Hoping Kovacevic could work his miracles for UNICEF, that spring the agency appointed him a medical adviser.
Last August Kovacevic began his campaign to evacuate children from Sarajevo. The Bosnian emigres he recruited here to act as sponsors signed up on the assumption that Illinois Public Aid would provide financial aid and social services to the children once they arrived. That assumption turned out not to be a safe one.
After getting nowhere with the office of the high commissioner for refugees, Kovacevic obtained the backing of the consul general of the Bosnian mission to the United Nations. This official granted Kovacevic temporary custody of refugee children in order to evacuate them for treatment in the United States. Kovacevic then returned to the UNHCR. "I've got news for you--they are my kids now! Do you have anything to say?' They replied: "We have a complicated system. It's going to take a while to work."'
Fed up, Kovacevic told his lawyers to threaten suit against the UNHCR for blocking the custody decree. He also played a bargaining chip with UNICEF. "They're asking me to do them a favor [by fund-raising]. I'm going to ask them to do me a favor back."
It worked. UNICEF obtained a UNHCR pass that would allow Kovacevic to enter Sarajevo. The pass put him on a UN cargo flight from Zagreb via Split--one of only a handful of air routes into or out of the besieged Bosnian capital. He went there in September 1993 and found it to be "a huge concentration camp surrounded on all sides by Serbian forces. Nobody goes in and nobody gets out except by special permission."
Kovacevic's hunting buddy, George Hlavac, tried to stop him from making the trip. "There are a lot of people here that need help also. I said, 'Miro, you're risking your life. You've got a wife and two kids. You're going to go over there and get your ass shot off.' Then Miro gets a little excited. 'I know what I'm doing. Some of those kids, they got no legs and arms.'"
Sarajevo was a holiday in hell. "The first thing that pissed me off was--I flew into Zagreb and I'm accustomed to doing things my way. I wanted to go to a hotel, drop off to UNICEF to get my pass, fly into Split, sleep over, and take the early morning flight to Sarajevo. There was a guy waiting for me at the Zagreb airport with a big sign. So I got in his car and was taken to UNICEF headquarters. I'm coming in with blue jeans, a jacket, and a small bag. Everybody was looking behind me, wondering where is the doctor? They had a list of meetings I had to have with them. Then they came in and wanted to show me a movie about Sarajevo. I said, 'If I want to see a movie, I'll go to a movie house. I want my pass and to get the hell out of here!'"
Kovacevic did not fly to Split until the next afternoon. When he got there, he checked his flight to Sarajevo and was told that UNICEF had put him on an 11 AM plane the next day and scheduled his return flight four and a half hours later. Kovacevic suspects that UNICEF "thought that for me to get the kids out was an excuse for something. My purpose was not to inspect or check anybody. My purpose there was simply to get the kids out. I wanted to do it with as little mess as possible." That meant ditching his handlers.
Without telling UNICEF, Kovacevic reserved a seat on the next morning's 5:30 flight and booked himself into the Sarajevo Holiday Inn. In Split, Kovacevic dined with a UNICEF official who had flown in from Sarajevo to escort him there. The official assumed that they'd be traveling together in the morning. "I said sure, and got up at four," says Kovacevic. "I'm finding out later that the guy gets up at 7 AM to wake me up, finds the room has been paid for, and I left." The official alerted his counterpart in Sarajevo. "I'm leaving the plane and entering the holding area at the Sarajevo airport and a guy from UNICEF is red in the face looking for me to take me to the UNICEF headquarters."
An ABC crew also had been waiting for Kovacevic at the Sarajevo airport. The network was working on a Turning Point report on Bosnia, and decided to feature Kovacevic after hearing about his threat to sue the United Nations. (ABC plans to air the piece this fall.)
UNICEF's head of operations in the Balkans, Thomas McDermott, says no one told him ABC would be following Kovacevic around Sarajevo. "We had offered to bring Dr. Kovacevic in to see the situation--not for the film crew. That was not what we expected. It changes the complexion of everything when you come in with a film crew."
Discovering the ABC crew at the airport, the local UNICEF official failed miserably at damage control. Although he told the TV crew that Kovacevic was not on the incoming flight, the crew stuck around and pointed out the AWOL pediatrician as Kovacevic stepped off the plane.
"When I first came into Sarajevo, there were mushroom explosions. One would expect something big is going to come to your mind, like, 'Abandon all your hope you who enter here.' You know, Dante's hell," says Kovacevic. "All I could say was, 'Oh shit! What am I doing here?'"
Chunks of the hotel were lost to shelling. Electricity and hot water were intermittent at best. "At night snipers shoot at the hotel. It disturbs your sleep a great deal. After a while you get used to it. You go out of your hotel on the first day and the driver pulls you back in and tells you, 'Stupid! You're running right into the snipers.' So you learn how to enter the car. You learn where you can and cannot walk."
His car was outfitted with steel plates and bulletproof glass. Like an anthropologist going native, Kovacevic sacrificed the bulletproof vest he could have worn. "How can those people feel that you really care for them if you come in like a Martian? You are trying to tell them you're going to help them and they are looking at you saying, 'What the hell are you doing here?'" The locals didn't wear the vests because they were unavailable, Kovacevic explains.
Kovacevic had trouble adapting to so much death. While touring Kosovo Hospital he recoiled when a nurse nonchalantly briefed the chief pediatric surgeon on the casualties of a mortar attack. "She said they got a new load of wounded from a shell explosion. She said not to worry--the mother just had a scrape, the child is fine. But I had heard about two children. The nurse said the second one was dead. To me it was such an acceptance of the horror. 'The other one is dead!' That scared the hell out of me. I realized they live on a totally different plane."
Kovacevic tuned into a phenomenon as otherworldly as Africa's 30-second sunset. "In the 60s we liked to watch the movies of the cowboys shooting at each other, and the people would fall dead in very sophisticated ways. But that was boring. So then we started to put on the screen where the bullet actually enters, and you see the piece of skull flowing out. But that got booooring," he says. "Now Sarajevo is the real thing. It's like a theater alive. We have reached really what we are looking for."
Kovacevic recalls a story he once read. He cannot remember the author or title, but it is almost certainly Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game." "The guy hunted all his life, starting with the little birds. Then he went to the deer. Then to the leopards, lions, elephants. Then he decided that was nothing good enough. So what he would do, he would hijack the people, would put them on his island, and then would hunt them."
Sarajevo probably ruined Kovacevic for more big game. "It made him think of hunting in a different way," George Hlavac says. "When you get shot at you're risking your life."
Kovacevic got a taste of that on his visits to Kosovo Hospital and to the homes of children on the evacuation list given him by the hospital's director of public health. One of his first stops was to meet Emina and Fahira Uzicanin. Their two-bedroom apartment was located on a heavily shelled street known as "sniper alley."
As Kovacevic and his driver pulled up to the apartment block, "bodies were being stuffed into a VW and the brain of a little girl was spilling all over." Five minutes earlier a shell had exploded, killing the little girl and injuring her mother. "Most of the time you don't know what happens. They just seem like movies going by," says Kovacevic. But this time he saw the ending. By chance, a CNN crew was filming the hospital's emergency room when the mother and daughter were brought in. On videotape Kovacevic watched "the mother gasping and dying right there in the emergency room."
Kovacevic walked three flights of stairs to the Uzicanins' bombed-out apartment. The ABC News crew had already arrived. They found sheets of plastic covering glassless windows. In the midst of the war zone, the "most remarkable thing about the apartment was that it was clean," says the crew's producer. A family of five lived here. But the father, a lawyer, and the son, a soldier, were not at home.
The girls' mother Vasvija ushered Kovacevic into the living room. "Then she disappeared and came back with Emina in her hands," Kovacevic says. "It was like everybody just looked at each other. In the most horrific ugliness you can imagine you suddenly see the real flower. Under those circumstances she looked like an angel who has descended. That impression never left anyone who was there."
On May 31, 1992, Emina had been playing outside with her cousin's rabbit. A grenade exploded, ripping off her left leg and rupturing her liver, bowels, and heart. At the hospital, Emina had been left for dead, but an observant medic noticed her eyelids flutter. Her coma lasted two weeks. She was hospitalized for months.
Fahira Uzicanin was 13 then. She says today that after the siege of Sarajevo began in 1992, her family was issued a ration card and survived on flour, spaghetti, and sugar--plus rain and snow for water. Electricity came on just four times within one three-month period, and only for an hour each time. They fashioned candles by dipping a rag in oil and water.
Kovacevic added Emina and Fahira's names to the list he was compiling for immediate evacuation. One of Kovacevic's criteria was that the children be able to survive the trip from Frankfurt to Chicago. He believed Emina could endure it.
But the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration bristled at Kovacevic's list. The agencies' Special Medical Program for Victims of War From the Former Yugoslavia (or Medical Evacuation Program, or Medevac) had its own protocols. Only officially sanctioned doctors could screen evacuees, and the UNHCR, not Kovacevic, would dictate which children received medical care and in which countries. (Since December 1992 the evacuation program has sent more than 300 men, women, and children to the United States and about 1,000 to 25 other countries.)
Clarissa Azkoul, the IOM's operations officer in Washington, says Kovacevic "did not play by the rules" and caused problems. "Dr. Kovacevic just wanted to pick these kids up himself. No one can go in and take out Bosnians. They need passports and exit visas," says Azkoul. "Dr. Kovacevic is an example of a very determined person who wanted to cut across bureaucratic paperwork. In a way the program is set up not to have people like him. Although his intentions were wonderful, if we have individuals like him going to Sarajevo and trying to act on their own it creates a lot of confusion, which is exactly what he did--created a lot of confusion. . . . One wonders if there wasn't some other motive, like getting himself important or to prove he could do it."
Kovacevic leveled the playing field by using the ABC News crew for leverage. During a heated meeting with UNHCR and IOM officials, he warned, "You can go against me or you can go with me. If you go against me, you've got a problem, because all of this is monitored."
UNICEF's Thomas McDermott says the "feeling of everybody at the time was it was going to come across [on television] as the bureaucracy killing off private initiative. I think that would be a pity, not because some of that's not true, but the story is more complicated than that. You have to try not to oversimplify these stories. It's important that people in donor nations try to get a hold on just how complicated it is. It is not a question of taking everybody out of the city, but a problem of letting them live and work in the city."
He continues, "The whole question of taking children out of a war zone has been a controversial one. Early on in this war kids were carted out to Libya, Egypt, Russia, and the United States." No one logged the children's movements, he says. They were put on boats and buses and shipped off.
According to McDermott, Kovacevic was not the only person trying to help the kids. But he was the one shaking up the system. "What he did was push the system along," says McDermott. "We have to maintain contacts with the Dr. Kovacevics of the world and make them understand the complexity of it."
McDermott's discontent with Kovacevic did not spring simply from the doctor's pushiness. "We would have liked to see him move over squarely to the area of raising funds, having seen how bad the situation is," McDermott says. Kovacevic did not do so, even though UNICEF thought he had signed on as a fund-raiser. He remained obsessed with bringing back the children.
Kovacevic stayed two days in Sarajevo. He left with no kids, but he believed he now had a guarantee from the UNHCR and the IOM that their Medevac program would convene in a few days to consider evacuating eight of the kids on Kovacevic's list. The other 28 did not meet the evacuation program's criteria.
Along with Emina and Fahira Uzicanin there were Aldin Music, Melisa Barinac, Nazila and Nazil Sisic, Nermin Hajro, and Belma Karkelja, a little girl with a spinal injury. Fahira was diabetic, Aldin severely malnourished. Low blood sugar had damaged Melisa's brain. Nazila was partially paralyzed and her left leg maimed by a grenade explosion, and her cousin Nazil had been wounded in the head by the same blast. Nermin's jaundice had turned his skin green and his hair purple.
Back in Chicago, Kovacevic pursued the children with telephone calls and letters. "After a week, I was getting nervous. I realized that all of the deals that we had simply did not hold," he says. A UNHCR official in Geneva called to say Emina and Fahira were now going to Poland. Miroslasv went nuts. Visnja says he was "yelling back at him, 'Emina is not going to Poland. I'm her legal custodian and you are not going to take her to Poland.'"
Miroslav took it personally. "They wanted to show me that they are bosses and are going to do what they please," he says.
Kovacevic sent a scathing letter, dated September 23, 1993, to Nidia Foley of the International Organization for Migration and Barbara Francis of the UNHCR. Both are high Medevac officials. He accused the agencies of negligence and unprofessionalism.
"It would be an understatement to describe your telephone reports as disappointing. A deep moral and professional outrage would be, indeed, a more befitting term," Kovacevic began. "It's time for all of the parties involved in the evacuation of these eight children to take a long, hard look at their own conduct in this matter. This outrageous charade of bureaucratic incompetence, misplaced and misdirected priorities, ill-timed political illiteracy, poor, bordering on negligent, medical decisions and judgments, only further compounded by complete absence of a common human compassion, understanding and concern for the most innocent victims of the conflict in Bosnia, signifies, without a doubt a darkest moment in the history of the United Nations and its agencies."
He concluded with a threat. "Finally, I will prevent at any cost the use of these unfortunate children and their broken childhoods by the United Nations and/or its agencies in furthering their own political games and goals or covering their own failures and mistakes."
Nidia Foley says Kovacevic's anger should have been directed solely toward the United Nations, because the UN, not the International Organization for Migration, had final say on who got into and out of Sarajevo. The IOM is independent of the UN. Barbara Francis declined comment.
Kovacevic went back to Sarajevo in early October. "This time I spent six days there and probably made an enemy out of every person. I just lost my cool and started yelling at people," he says.
On the fourth day of his second trip a UNHCR representative told Kovacevic that the Serbs would not allow the children to leave Sarajevo. So Kovacevic arranged a summit with the Serbian commander. By chance, a Sarajevo-based pediatrician working with UNICEF had treated the Serb commander's children before the war. The doctor was Muslim. Kovacevic says, "Now obviously they're on opposite sides. So I'm asking him, 'Can you talk to this guy?' We placed a telephone call to him and the guy agrees to get together."
They met in no-man's-land at the edge of the airport. After a lengthy discussion that ABC could not attend, the commander agreed to support Kovacevic. "We go back to the UNHCR and say we have the permission. They say, 'That's dandy, but we don't have a plane. It has to be a Medevac plane.' I said, 'You have six or seven cargo planes leaving Sarajevo every day. Can't they go on a cargo plane? I'll take care of the medical problems.' They said no!"
The situation spiraled into a catch-22. "I called the U.S. embassy in Zagreb. I said, 'I have these kids. Can you issue them visas?' They said, "If you bring them to the embassy, we'll consider issuing them visas.' Then I go back to the UNHCR and say, 'If we take them out and bring them to Zagreb we're going to issue them a visa.' They said, 'They cannot leave Sarajevo until they have a visa.' After this I realized this is the merry-go-round that I was on continuously--they were shoving me again from one to another."
"Dead hungry and tired like a dog," Kovacevic left Sarajevo after six days, again with no children. Visnja thought he was still in Sarajevo when she received a phone call from a woman, whom she refuses to name, in California. The woman said that Miroslav "is not going to make it alive out of Sarajevo. They are sick of him and his ABC. He's going to ruin all further evacuations. There are Muslims that are hanging Croatians, and he is Croatian, isn't he?"
But by then Miroslav was already back in Zagreb. He returned home unharmed, down but not out. Clarissa Azkoul at the IOM says Kovacevic "barked orders" and sent "very strong" letters to her agency. He claims to have petitioned Senator Alfonse D'Amato, Congressman Christopher Smith, and even Bianca Jagger to intercede. "Everyone was writing nasty letters to the UN," he says. "That scared them even more, because they couldn't figure out how the little pediatrician could have so many friends."
Unceremoniously and anticlimactically, seven of the eight children and their mothers were evacuated on a cargo plane three weeks after Kovacevic returned to Chicago. (Belma Karkelja was held in Sarajevo, to the dismay of Kovacevic, who believed her daily trips to the hospital for treatment placed her in unnecessary danger.) "I was the last one to know the kids were coming," says Kovacevic wryly. "I got it from Sarajevo by satellite telephone. I knew exactly when they left." Kovacevic greeted Emina and Fahira, Nazil, 6, and Nazila, 10, at O'Hare. Emina and Fahira were treated at Loyola Medical Center, the cousins at Children's Memorial Hospital. The other three children arrived from Frankfurt a few weeks later.
Kovacevic wears the UN's badge of disapproval with pride. He says that when people ask him, "Listen Dr. K, aren't you bothered that so many people in the UN dislike you?" he answers, "Hey, I'm not running for Miss UN, so who cares?"
In fact, he's going global in his condemnation of the United Nations. Last spring, during a speech in Turkey before a Bosnia solidarity group, Kovacevic blamed the UN for bolstering the Serbs. His notes for that speech read in part: "With faltering of Communism and the break-up of Eastern Bloc, the United Nations found itself in a role of dinosaurs of the 20th century. Too big to feed, too slow to react, too ancient to learn new tricks. But it didn't want to die. So, when the little maniac in Serbia started the havoc, the world considered it for nothing more than a minor annoyance. The decision was made to let the United Nations handle it. And dinosaurs jumped on this opportunity. Here was the chance to prove its importance. To create necessity for its existence and to assure its own survival. Unfortunately, however, by creating the aura of importance for itself, the United Nations has granted the recognition and importance to the little maniac and so has created the true monster."
Despite UNICEF's reservations about Kovacevic, UNICEF alone is spared the doctor's ire. Kovacevic draws a distinction between his dealings with the UN's nefarious high commissioner for refugees and its good-hearted children's fund. "I'm on the top list of the United Nations' hated persons, but UNICEF is fine. I want them to be separated from the rest of the garbage. It was really a continuous struggle with everybody, but UNICEF came through. They decided to stand on the side of the issue--that is the right side--that the children should leave and not be bargaining chips."
The medical refugees have paid a price for freedom and so has Chicago's Bosnian community. The mothers arrived unable to work here legally because of a deal they'd struck with the UN back in Sarajevo. They agreed not to apply for political refugee status. When they arrived at Andrews Air Force Base in Bethesda their papers and passports were confiscated, and once their children had received the medical attention they came for, the families were going to be flown back home.
Edwin Silverman, refugee coordinator for the state of Illinois, calls the Medevac program an anomaly. Unlike political refugees, the Bosnian medical refugees were given six-month tourist visas, B-2 visas. Silverman says these "entitled them to absolutely no support services from federal and state governments." And they denied the mothers permission to work.
Becir Tanovic, primary sponsor of the seven children, bristled at their predicament. Tanovic runs the Bosnian Information Center on the northwest side. When he originally agreed to organize a group of sponsors he thought their services would be needed briefly. "It turned out it was a long, long, long period." He also assumed the children and their mothers could tap into public aid. Instead, Tanovic's organization found itself spending more than $10,000 for food, rent, and utilities for the refugees during their first few months here. The money had been raised to open the information center.
The Kovacevics pitched in with $5,000 from unrestricted donations to Save the Children of Croatia. Medical care was given by doctors other than Kovacevic.
"Their basic needs are met--they are eating well and housed well. In fact, they are living better than when I came to the United States to become a student," Kovacevic says. "We lived for three or four years in an apartment that had one shelf and one sofa and a frame bed, because I was a resident making $3,000 a year."
(Emina, her sister, and their mother moved into a studio with a kitchenette, a fold-out couch, and a floor large enough to put down a mattress for Emina. They have since moved, but into another studio.)
The International Organization for Migration began hearing from sponsors around the country who, like Tanovic, felt hamstrung by the restrictions of the B-2 visas. Because the war continued in Sarajevo, no one was eager to return the children. But the sponsors' pockets weren't bottomless. The IOM's Clarissa Azkoul appealed to the State Department for help.
Silverman says he began his own battle with the State Department 19 months ago to abolish issuance of B-2 visas to medical evacuees. He says he made three visits to Washington, wrote several letters, and placed dozens of phone calls. The practice was finally ended this spring. The kids and their mothers then applied for political asylum and were granted it.
"Everybody's asking me, 'What are you getting out of it?' OK, well, the explanation is very simple. One day when I have my grandchildren on my lap, and they ask me, 'Grandpa Miro, what did you do when things were happening in Bosnia?' I'm going to say, hey, at least I didn't stand on the sidelines. I have to be honest with you, I have been paid. When I saw Emina walking. When I saw this little Aldin, the malnourished kid, getting fat. I really don't care are they going to remember me. I'm going to remember them."
Just as Emina puts a name and a face on UNICEF's aid to the former Yugoslavia, Kovacevic uses Emina and the other children to personify the problem of child-killing violence around the world. "It is important that the fate of the children of Sarajevo does not spill over into this country. We have gotten accustomed, immune, to the violence in Cabrini-Green, Horner's, etcetera. We as a society have accepted it as a necessary aberration of our social behavior. To break that acceptance is very hard, but when you have an example it's even more vivid.
"If I can make just a little notch in the problem it's better than doing nothing. There is no pretense that I want to solve the problems of the world, but somebody has got to do something."
Lately Kovacevic has become consumed with tracking the effects of violence on children in the United States and other countries. "What I'm figuring out is the following: Why are the children today so violent? Why do we have so much trouble in our countries?" Kovacevic formulated some ideas in a letter to former Soviet dissident Yuri Orlov, founder of Helsinki Watch.
"As a pediatrician, I have realized a long time ago, that the world is committing a mortal, unforgivable sin: it's devouring its own children. Today, more children perish from violence and its consequences than from all the known and unknown diseases. Millions of innocent children are suffering and dying in front of our eyes today and every day. Their basic human rights, the right to live, right to grow, right to dream have been shamelessly violated, but not only by some 'backward' country, but by the most developed countries in the world. While the world's New Order is being hailed as the giant step toward the final, ultimate and universal peace on earth, the same world is continuing to rise one-after-the-other new generation in violence and hatred."
Kovacevic is talking to Loyola Medical Center officials about creating a violence-awareness program that consists of seminars and discussion groups. Later this month he plans to go to the West Bank to conduct a survey that will chart how children there have been affected by the intifada. "Those kids are accustomed to being patted on the back if they are behaving violently," says Kovacevic. "They have to be taught that violent behavior is not good."
A questionnaire asking about the children's hopes and dreams will be passed out to more than a thousand West Bank parents and guardians. Kovacevic's hypothesis is that "violence and oppression break the parents and render them helpless. It is conveyed to the children who feel lost and try to reclaim some powers normally gotten through the parents by turning to violent acts. We would do a better job strengthening the parents' human dignity rather than trying to convince the children that society cares for them."
Kovacevic will assess the West Bank's medical needs for an Arab American consortium consisting of Al Baraka, a private investment firm based in Saudi Arabia, and Interfoods Holding, Inc., a trading company based in Jordan. Both companies have offices in Oakbrook Terrace. Chari Aweidah, senior vice president at Al Baraka, says the Welfare Association, a Palestinian aid organization based in Geneva, will set Kovacevic up with doctors, hospitals, and medical centers in the West Bank.
These investors want to pump aid into the region, but prefer to do so directly, bypassing the bureaucracies of international relief agencies. For a guide through that jungle, they need look no further.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.