Kosovo boy with no face en route for California surgery
July 1, 1999
PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (CNN) -- He strokes his hair from crown to ear, the small, worn brush digging slowly through his thick, black hair. It is time to go, time to leave the hospital Besart Ahmetaj has called home for more than a month. And after all, a young boy must look his best to say goodbye.
Besart struggles to straighten an unruly wave atop his head. The brush isn't working. A nurse lends him a hand, freeing Besart to gaze into the mirror.
The face staring back at him is not his own. It is a face he saw for the first time only a few days ago, a visage almost entirely covered in bandages. Only the tears he sees flowing from a single exposed eye tell him the strange face belongs to him.
Besart lost his face on May 14, when a NATO bomb exploded in the town of Korisa, in western Kosovo, killing dozens of ethnic Albanians, including his mother and two other family members. The blast also maimed his sister, Lulietu, who is waiting for Besart in her hospital bed.
Besart still asks to see his mother. No one has the courage to tell him she is dead.
Besart's injuries are so severe that no surgeon in Kosovo can repair his face. His hospital lacks medicines; there is no food for the patients. Most of the skilled doctors in Pristina before the war were Serbs. They have gone.
Like thousands of other wounded Kosovars, Besart would likely have to let nature take its course, hoping his face would somehow correct itself to a glimmer of its former self. But Besart has won a savior -- several saviors, in fact.
A group of doctors in Santa Barbara, California, was touched by news of Besart's plight and offered to provide free reconstructive surgery. When they were told of the generous proposal, the family begged the doctors to treat Lulietu as well.
Now, Besart and Lulietu begin the first leg of their around-the-world journey. A British helicopter waits for them outside the hospital, ready to fly them to the Macedonian capital of Skopje. From there they will head to the United States.
Besart gives his father a last hug. Dad tells him not to worry, he'll be sure to visit. But he knows it will take time for Besart to heal.
With Lulietu carefully strapped into a gurney, Besart and his sister board the giant chopper -- a craft belonging to the same alliance that dropped bombs from the sky.
Besart watches the ground disappear below him, his family fading into the landscape. By the time he returns, he should have a new face. His ravaged homeland, his fellow countrymen hope, will too.
Correspondents Richard Blystone and Nic Robertson contributed to this report, written by Steve Nettleton.
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