Unable to return, the Bekric family eventually walked about six miles to Srebrenica, a small zinc mining town that had, until recently, been full of cafes, shops, and boutiques. The found buildings incinerated, windows blown out, stores and warehouses looted. They saw only a few people in the entire three-mile stretch of the town.
Sead, his parents, younger brother, and an unmarried sister, settled into an abandoned house that a Bosnian Serb family had vacated. It was a small, two-bedroom place with a living room and a kitchen. At first they shared it with another family. Everyday more refugees rolled into the town, hauling bags and carrying their wounded. The siege of Srebrenica became a tedious struggle for survival. By the time he was injured, at least 10 families were living in the house, all without plumbing or electricity. With the overcrowding came lice, illness, and lawlessness. Sead's unmarried sister was gang raped inside the house, and later outside in separate attacks by at least two men the family knew.
His mother, Mulija, wore a scarf around her head and her weathered face bespoke a lifetime of field labor and the exhaustion of the ongoing conflict. Her eyes had absorbed every torment. "We have been under siege for more than a year. There is no food or water, and the Serbs shell every day," she said.
"Our loved ones will never be returned to us"
During the day, the family took cover indoors from the onslaught of mortars and sniper fire outside. Although the United Nations tried to deliver food to the enclave of villages that made up the Srebrenica area, the Bosnian Serb soldiers frequently blocked the trucks. At night, the refugees went into the wilderness to forage for food, raiding nearby villages held by the Bosnian Serbs for anything they could find.
Sead's older brother-in-law, Mevludin Oric, routinely carried a gun into the forest as one of the Srebrenica fighters. A distant cousin to the commander of Srebrenica's army, Naser Oric, Mevludin lived on the hill above the center of town with his wife Hadzira, Sead's older sister, and their children.
Srebrenica had what could barely be described as a hospital. Patients there were given homemade brandy before operations for want of anesthesia. One man awakened from his drunken stupor on the operating table, screaming from the pain of the sight of a surgeon sawing off his leg. There was no chance that the doctors in the hospital, with their blunt instruments, could save Sead.
International outrage over the shelling of the schoolyard enabled the UN to pressure the Bosnian Serb military into allowing the wounded to be taken overland to a better hospital in Tuzla, about 65 miles north. By the time Sead and the other children arrived there, that hospital too was in short supply, and unable to help Sead.
The charity group Americares, based in Connecticut, flew medical supplies and a surgeon toward Tuzla. All the warring factions -- the Serbs, the Croats, and the Muslims -- had to agree to let the plane fly over the land they controlled. But the Bosnia Serb military, led by Mladic, refused, denying the injured people of Eastern Bosnia desperately needed medical supplies. Instead, the gleaming white cargo plane -- a Russian Antonov, the largest in the world, filled with thousands of medicines and bandages -- was diverted to an airport in Venice, Italy.
Claire Halasz, an American of Croatian heritage, saw a British news report on Sead and worked through Americares to bring him to the U.S. After the Antonov was stranded, General Philippe Morillon, the leader of the UN's army in Bosnia, put Sead on his helicopter. The boy lay unconscious for most of the journey, waking only when he felt the chopper rising or falling, banking right or left to avoid ground fire that sprayed toward it. His mother and little brother, Enver, 10, followed in another helicopter behind. It was the first leg of the family's journey to Los Angeles for treatment in a dramatic effort to save Sead's sight.