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Hope for change seen amid tale of tragedy

Sead Bekric was just 14 when his sight became a casualty of war in Bosnia. Now at Eckerd College, he works toward justice.

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 29, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- The sun shone in a clear blue sky, and the shelling had stopped. The day was perfect for soccer. Fourteen-year-old Sead Bekric and a crowd of others headed to the schoolyard in Srebrenica, a small village in Bosnia.

Mortar fire again exploded.

"The ground was soaked with blood and covered with bodies," Bekric said Friday at Eckerd College.

He ran toward the massacre, which took place on April 13, 1993.

"I cannot say it was heroism on my part to run to them," Bekric said, "rather human instinct to reach out to the bleeding, suffering in their cries."

It was the last thing he would ever see.

"The second volley of mortar fire hit me as I ran to help. . . . Battered, bleeding, blinded -- my eyes blown out, the left side of my face destroyed and my nose shattered into tiny bone fragments into my tissue and brain. I lay in semiconsciousness for hours, left for dead.

"As I was finally lifted from the field, a hand touched me and felt my heart."

Medical transport took him to a hospital in Tuzla. CNN broadcast images of the boy throughout the world.

One who saw Bekric on the news was Claire Halasz. Today, she lives in Palm Harbor, but she was a California resident then, a longtime political activist with AmeriCares, which delivers emergency humanitarian relief and some long-term help to victims of natural and manmade disasters.

For three months, she had been on a news fast. The stories were too troubling. "Stop watching," her friends had told her. "There's nothing you can do."

She turned on her TV the day Bekric's shattered face appeared on the news, and she called AmeriCares. From Tuzla, he was flown to Amsterdam, then to a hospital at the University of California at Los Angeles. Halasz has been Bekric's advocate ever since. When she retired to Florida, he accompanied her and then enrolled at Eckerd.

Bekric's talk at Eckerd was part of a presentation on justice given to freshmen studying Western heritage in a global context. Bill Felice, an associate professor of political science, applied numerous political theories to the war in the former Yugoslavia and to the current discussions on invading Iraq.

Bekric, 24, is a sophomore studying international relations and foreign affairs at the college. He hopes to earn his U.S. citizenship next year.

"I'm part of this country," he said in an interview, accompanied by his guide dog, an English Labrador named Baba, and Halasz. He volunteered with the American Red Cross after the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995; and he grieved after the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001.

He mourns other tragedies less well known in this country.

His father was one of thousands of Muslim men and boys executed July 11, 1995, in Srebrenica, which had been declared a safe haven by the United Nations. They were buried in a mass grave, then exhumed, then put in body bags. They have yet to be identified; there is no money to do so.

In his speech at Eckerd, Bekric said he chose his field of study hoping to answer these questions:

"Does the world have a conscience, and if not, can I help in the future that it might have? Is the world a civilized place, and if not, can I help that it might be? Is there justice in human affairs, and if not, can I make it happen?"

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