For Kenan Malkic, the Bosnian war really began the day a hand grenade blew up in his face.
He was 12 years old playing soccer in a field by his parents’ house in Maglaj, Bosnia, when an explosion ripped his body apart and changed his life forever. He lost both arms, his left leg, suffered a lacerated cheek, temporary loss of vision and was in a coma for two weeks at a hospital that was in short supply of just about everything.
“It was a beautiful day,” he says. “Soccer was very popular in Bosnia and we always played, even during the war. That day we went out to the usual spot. Unfortunately, I got hurt.”
Today, the 28-year-old has three prosthetic limbs and leads a relatively normal life in New York with his girlfriend. He graduated from the College of Staten Island in 2009 with a degree in computer science and works in IT. He fishes in his downtime.
Mr. Malkic will not be commemorating the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Bosnian war this weekend. Nor does he want to reflect on life there. However, as horrific as the attack against him was, he believes that because of it he has seen opportunities he otherwise wouldn’t. The first and perhaps most important came when his mother’s plea for help was answered by a cousin in Toronto, whom he had never met.
It would be weeks before Mr. Malkic realized the extent of his injuries.
“I woke up in a hospital bed with bandages over my eyes. No one told me what happened,” he said. “It was quite a shock when I realized. I was in disbelief. I cried all the time and felt like ‘What's the sense of continuing?’ I was only a kid, but to be honest, I became a very mature young man after that.”
When the war erupted in April, 1992, his mother, Aida, was pregnant. The baby was born prematurely and died shortly after because there was no electricity to power an incubator.
Desperate to get her only son the treatment Bosnian hospitals couldn’t provide, Aida scribbled the phone number of a cousin in Toronto on a piece of paper and gave it to a truck driver heading for Germany, where the phone lines worked, asking him to call it and explain her son needed help. The driver arrived in Germany three days later and phoned Canada.
Safiya Adelman remembers answering the call. The half-Turkish, half-Bosnian was living with her husband and 14-year-old daughter in Toronto, where she ran a successful travel agency.
“He’s family. Of course I was going to help,” she said.
Through a family connection she was able to speak with a Turkish army commander and asked for assistance extracting the child. “The next day I got a call from Ankara saying they’d found Kenan and that they’d be doing daily visits and examining his wounds until they’d be able to get him out.”
In addition to hours co-ordinating between the UN, the Canadian consul for the Balkans in Vienna, International Red Cross and the Canadian Forces, getting Mr. Malkic out safely was also about careful timing.
“It was literally a matter of them saying, ‘We can’t leave Bosnia now, the area is unstable and helicopters are getting shot down’,” she says. “Even getting him out of Zenica was dangerous because it was completely surrounded by Serb territory.”
When the moment finally arrived, Mr. Malkic felt equally sad and hopeful.
“It was overwhelming,” he said. “I was excited, but I was also leaving my dad behind in a war zone.”
He arrived with his mother at the Trenton air force base on Dec. 21, 1994. Immediately he noticed a conspicuous silence outside.
“There was no shooting,” he says.
His time in Toronto was some of the happiest in his life, Mr. Malkic says. He was spoiled by Canadian relatives and touched by the compassion of Torontonians, who heard his story through media reports and sent gifts and letters of support. A favourite memory is throwing the first pitch at a Blue Jays game at the SkyDome, as it was then called.
He underwent facial reconstruction surgery and extremely painful therapy before getting prosthetics. Complicating matters, he was growing rapidly; every time a set of limbs was ready he would have grown and need to be refitted.
Against the calm of Toronto, the magnitude of atrocities in Bosnia began to sink in. He dreaded the quiet moments alone with his thoughts.
“He’d wake up in the middle of the night screaming,” Ms. Adelman says. “Kids cry when they’re hungry, tired, but this was different. Kenan was crying from the inside.”
English came quickly and within two months of getting new limbs, Mr. Malkic walked well. He wanted to help with chores, go fishing, play sports again.
“I loved Toronto because no one cared that I had no hands,” he said. “People were nice to me.”
Returning to Bosnia a year and a half later, he had grown about one foot taller, four shoe sizes, was mobile and dextrous.
“When the war officially ended I had to go back to Bosnia, but by then I was used to life in Toronto. I’m lucky for my time there but it wasn’t easy; not for me and not for my family. When I got back to Bosnia there was destruction everywhere. When you’re present during a war you don’t notice it as much. But to come back to it, oh my God, I couldn’t image how these things could have happened.”
And yet, Mr. Malkic harbours no anger. He admits he could be angry at politicians, but chooses not to be. Nor is he angry at the Serbs; in fact, his best friend is one.
He spends time with children and youth injured in war, through the Global Medical Relief Fund, a charity he has been involved with since 1997. His story had been featured on U.S. television, on 60 Minutes and CBS.
He says he feels Bosnian but he doesn’t want to live there, not now anyway.
“At this point I’ve been living outside Bosnia more than I was living there,” he says. “People don’t believe me when I say this but I believe I have accomplished more in my life than I would have if none of this would have happened. So no, I have no hard feelings toward anything. I am in a good place now.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
Sarajevo by the numbers
11,541 Chairs on a main street in Sarajevo commemorating the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian war.
The chairs represent every man, woman and child killed in the 44-month siege of the city, the longest in modern history.
April 6, 1992 Date when some 40,000 people from all over the country – Muslim Bosnians, Christian Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats – poured into the square to demand peace from their quarrelling nationalist politicians.
50% of GDP The cost for the impoverished nation’s bureaucracy, which includes five presidents (three rotating at the state level), 13 prime ministers, more than 130 ministers, more than 760 lawmakers and 148 municipalities.