PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — Sead Bekric was just 14 when he was blinded by artillery fire on a schoolyard nearly 20 years ago during the Bosnian war. The graphic photo of his bloody, maimed face helped introduce the world to some of the atrocities blamed on former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic.
Bekric, now 32 and living in Florida, told The Associated Press that he was shocked but satisfied to hear of Mladic's recent arrest on charges of orchestrating the bloodshed that wounded him and killed thousands of his countrymen.
"Years have passed by. We have lost our loved ones and they will never return to us," said Bekric, whose father was killed during the war and whose sister was gang-raped. "When you go through the horror that we went through and losing our loved ones through horrible crimes, you'll never have closure."
Mladic, who was captured May 26 after 16 years as a fugitive, faces charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for a war that left about 100,000 people dead and forced 1.8 million to flee their homes.
In 1993, Bekric was kicking a soccer ball with his friends when he heard an explosion nearby. After he ran toward a friend who had been injured, he said, his left eye was "blown out of my head." His right eye was crushed like a grape and his nose was shattered.
In the days after the attack, he languished in a filthy hospital in Bosnia with other wounded children. Doctors pulled shrapnel from his face with no antibiotics or anesthesia.
A photo of Bekric made the cover of Newsweek in May 1993. He was also on TV newscasts around the world.
An American woman, Claire Halasz, was so moved by Bekric she worked with a group called AmeriCares to bring him to her home in California. There, he endured more than a dozen surgical operations. Doctors were able to reconstruct his face but not his sight.
Bekric remained in the U.S. after that but faced tough obstacles. He didn't know English and couldn't read Braille.
"I was 14 years old, but mentally, I was a 20-year-old," he said. "I had learned to run from gunfire, I learned to survive. And when I came here, all those things were in me."
He attended high school in the Los Angeles area, and when Halasz moved to Florida, he went with her. She encouraged him to go to college and speak out about the atrocities in his country.
"He's brought joy into my life," she said. "And that joy is based on everyday experience. He is full of life, full of spirit. Sead didn't become what he is because he's blind. That spirit came with him."
Bekric earned a degree in international relations and is working on a master's in political science. He has owned a business that sold magnifying products for the visually impaired, as well as a cafe featuring foods from his home country.
He now lives with his fiancee and has two young sons in a town near Tampa.
"When they get older, I will sit them down and explain what has happened to me," he said. "As far as right now, it's time for them to enjoy their lives and not to be bothered in their young minds how I was shot and what kind of war I lived in and my horrible life in Bosnia."
Bekric has now lived in the U.S. longer than he did in Bosnia, and been blind longer than he could see. He still remembers the good moments of his boyhood — like riding horses across lush farmland — and the years prior to Bosnia's 1992-1995 war.
He is involved with organizations for the blind and is active in Tampa's large Bosnian community. He has returned to Bosnia several times in recent years — his mother moved back in 2003 — and participates in events for war survivors there.
It's possible that Bekric could testify in The Hague during Mladic's trial. He has testified there before in other cases.
"I would absolutely testify," he said. "I would testify not for or against Mladic but for the truth and for what I saw with my own eyes in Bosnia."
Reach Tamara Lush at www.twitter.com/tamaralush