'94 WINTER OLYMPICS / Lillehammer : Few Know Troubles He's Seen

No other ninth-graders at Anaheim Unified have been where he has been, seen what he has seen. One minute, he was playing soccer with his friends. Next, he was a boy with no face. What grotesquely remained of it was on CNN and on the cover of Newsweek, painted crimson with blood. Weeks later he was 8,000 miles from home and his life had been saved. His vision had not.

Classmates have scant awareness of what it must be like to be Sead Bekric, a war's most innocent bystander. His face is fresh and handsome as before, with few discernible scars. He is making friends. His English is improving daily. He takes math classes, typing, computer science. He is studying Braille. He can ride a bike. He plays basketball with a sonar device affixed to the ball, so he can hear where it is.

And at night, Sead Bekric returns to Anaheim Hills, to his mother, older sister, younger brother and the American family with whom they now dwell. How horrifying to be 16 years old and a war refugee, to be a casualty, a living symbol of a nation divided. Sead can see nothing now. But already he has seen so much.

Sead has been flown here to participate in tonight's closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics. With him is Anthony Maglica, 63, the California businessman who paid for Sead's airlift from Bosnia and for his surgery at UCLA, who for the last 10 months has given sanctuary to four people he had not previously known. Tony Maglica owns a firm in Ontario, Calif., that manufactures flashlights. Forty thousand of those flashlights will be illuminated at the climax of tonight's ceremony, as gestures of hope, candles of peace.

Each one bears an inscription:

REMEMBER SARAJEVO

Sead remembers. He will never forget.

He says, "If people learn, if they realize what is happening there, perhaps it will stop."

Sead's father, older brother and two other sisters are still in Bosnia, staying alive, staying low. The family had already been uprooted by the conflict that had turned Yugoslavs savagely against one another. Their home was burned. Expelled from their native village during an "ethnic cleansing," the Bekrics, Muslims fleeing Serbs, moved from town to town. They were making the best of a very bad situation when on April 16, 1993, without warning or even hint of imminent danger, Sead was passing time on a schoolyard in Srebrenica with other boys his age, kicking a ball.

There came an unforgettable, ear-splitting noise. A blast. Then cries for help.

A soccer ball rolled away. Schoolboys lay in the dirt, screaming. They--not professional soldiers, but youthful innocents--had been deliberately targeted by Serbian artillery fire from the hills. When the dust around him cleared, Sead Bekric could see many of his new friends sprawled around the playground. Some of them were dead. He ran to one seriously wounded boy's side. Sead was kneeling beside him when there came one more tremendous explosion. That was his last conscious memory.

At a clinic in the city of Tuzla where he awakened, to which he and other Muslim refugees had been evacuated with the insistence of the United Nations, doctors toiled day and night to dislodge the shrapnel from Sead's eyes and disfigured features. It was more than merely a boy's face. It was a fright mask. And it was photogenically irresistible, this stricken youth on a stretcher, hands folded behind the head, that maimed grimace, that blood-caked turban of bandage. It was the gut-splitting image of this war. It was evocative of Vietnam and a photographer's vivid image of a helpless child, wailing amid the carnage.

Sead's was a face that bespoke everything that was happening in his homeland, particularly once the CNN International television network flashed it around the world. The cover of the May 10, 1993, Newsweek printed one large, self-explanatory word across Sead Bekric's injured chest: "Bosnia."

By then, Tony Maglica already was involved.

He couldn't get the scene out of his head. And he had never forgotten what had happened to his own family in Croatia, more than 60 years before.

The Depression had overwhelmed Tony's mother in the hard times of 1932 New York. A struggling Croatian immigrant, she was homesick and broke. So, bundling up her 2-year-old son, she returned overseas to the family farm. But once their village in Croatia was overrun by fascist troops, the Maglicas were forbidden to leave. They were trapped there until the end of World War II, and it wasn't until 1950 that Tony Maglica finally returned to the nation of his birth and got a job in California as a machinist.

Five years later, operating out of a garage, he began his own business. The one-man machine shop evolved into what is now the 600-employee, multimillion-dollar Mag Instrument, Inc., maker of a line of flashlights called the Mag-Lite. When war erupted in Bosnia, Maglica made sure shipments of 50,000 of his six-inch black flashlights were hurried there to help those who had no electricity.

Maglica said, "I had to do something. I couldn't just sit there."

What he did was set into motion an exhaustive effort to find Sead Bekric, the boy on TV, and fly him to America. With considerable assistance from a Connecticut relief organization called Ameri-Cares, the injured teen-ager was located and prepared to be evacuated. Maglica financed the airlift from Croatia and passage all the way to Los Angeles, 8,000 miles away. He volunteered his company's funds to cover countless hours of surgery at the Jules Stein Eye Institute on the campus of UCLA, where facilities were far superior to those Sead had known until then. Back in Tuzla, medics had to treat their patients without antibiotics, without anesthesia.

The first time he saw Sead in person, Maglica said, "He was so thin, I could pick him up with one hand."

Sead held that hand.

"Sead wouldn't let my hand go. I had to stay right by his hospital bed," Maglica said. "And yet he was so calm. His wounds were horrible, but his brother was there and he was taking care of his little brother, who was crying and absolutely terrified. Sead kept telling him, 'Don't worry, I'll be all right. Everything will be all right.'

"What a wonderful boy he is. And today, 16, he is almost like a man."

Sead's sight was too far gone to save. His blindness will endure. But the surgeons at UCLA did remarkable things, nonetheless. They helped Sead survive a massive infection that was threatening his life. They also worked diligently on his features, to the point that now his scars are few, his face restored. He looks like any other Orange County teen-ager now. He is one.

For one more day, though--this day--Sead Bekric is back in Europe to embody wartime and its consequences, to shine a flashlight in its eye.

He says, "People must see and they must help. It's the only hope we have."

He is symbolic of his people's grief. He is also symbolic of their salvation.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°