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Brain surgery amid butchery: A doctor’s tale

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
May 29, 1995
BY PETER ARONSON
Democrat-Gazette Staff Writer

Dr. Kenan Arnautovic appreciates the music at his office more than the other doctors do. For two and a half years he listened to gunfire and explosions as he performed surgery in his native Bosnia. It took some time for Arnautovic and his wife, Sanja, both 35, to adjust to life without the sound of exploding shells. Uncertainty defined their lives in their war-torn homeland.

When the Arnautovics and their 4-year-old daughter, Aska, moved into their Little Rock apartment in August, the doctor had to suppress the urge to move the coffee table up against the window to protect against shelling.

“Here, when I go to work every morning, my wife knows I’m coming home,” he said.

In 1994, Dr. Ossama Al-Mefty, a neurosurgeon at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, asked Arnautovic to bring his family to Little Rock and accept a research fellowship in skull-base surgery.

Arnautovic worked as a neurosurgeon in the Sarajevo University Hospital; his wife was a judge. They led normal lives and planned to buy a house.

“Then we found ourselves in horror,” Arnautovic said. In mid-1992, the Serbs attacked Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had declared its independence.

The attacking Serb nationalist forces had been the Yugoslav army under the old communist regime of Josip Tito. The Arnautovics had supported the army with taxes all their working lives.

“From this money, they bought the bombs that fell over our heads,” his said.

“We paid for the army that was killing us,” Sanja Arnautovic added.

‘We paid for the army that was killing us.’In May, a month after the Serbian attack began, Sanja Arnautovic took her 22-month-old daughter, a bag of diapers and some clothes for her daughter and joined a convoy heading for to Zagreb, Croatia. Her husband stayed in Sarajevo to work. Kenan Arnautovic would not see his wife or daughter for two years.

The convoy had only gone as far as a Sarajevo suburb when Serb forces stopped them and took the women and children hostage, holding them for three days along the street where they were captured, he said.

“Those were the hardest days of my life,” Arnautovic recalled.

“I worried they’d kill them, they would rape my woman, my daughter,” he said.

‘I thought we would come back in one month’

For the first day, they were kept out on the street. On the second day, residents of that street took the hostages into their homes, though Serb forces had not yet released them.

After the third day, Sanja Arnautovic and her daughter were allowed to continue on to Croatia for what everyone expected would be a short stay. “When we left Sarajevo, I didn’t think it (the separation) would last three years. I thought we would come back in one month,” she said.

Communication came sporadically. Arnautovic learned that his wife and child were safe, but Sanja Arnautovic didn‘t receive a letter from her husband until four months after her arrival in Zagreb.

Meanwhile, conditions deteriorated inside the country.

Arnautovic read his medical books by candlelight, as the electricity was knocked out. He burned clothing and furniture to keep warm. Food became scarce as the siege of Sarajevo dragged on. The neurosurgeon often went to sleep hungry.

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