Saving lives, but starving

“Sometimes I would operate all night and then I would ask a nurse, ‘Do you have anything to eat?’ and she would say, ‘l’m sorry doctor, there is nothing left.’ The bread had to go to the patients first and then to people’s families,” Arnautovic recalled.

Sanja Arnautovic occasionally sent packages of food to her husband through humanitarian organizations. Some arrived. When they did, Kenan Arnautovic rejoiced.

“You cannot imagine…,” he said, trailing off, choked up. “It was always a surprise to us and a beautiful experience to receive a new package.”

Once, after not having eaten any meat or fish for a year, Arnautovic fell ill from the shock of having the food. At work each day, he took great pride in saving people’s lives, but seeing a young child shot in the face by a sniper filled him with rage.

“I always wondered, ‘Who is looking through the rifle and targeting the head of a kid?’”

Conditions in and around University Hospital worsened. Arnautovic lost two of his nurses, killed at the hospital.

“And one day there was a sound. I went into the room next door,” he said. Two colleagues, neurosurgeons, were dead. “They were in pieces,” he remembered. “The head was over there.”

“So many such experiences,” Arnautovic sighed. “Too much for one brain.”

Before the war, Arnautovic attended a conference on neurosurgery in Hanover, Germany, where he met Al-Mefty, the UAMS neurosurgeon. The two began corresponding. They kept in contact throughout the war.

In 1994, Al-Mefty, worried about his Bosnian colleague’s well-being, arranged for Arnautovic to bring his family to Little Rock.

Warm welcome in U.S.

While Arnautovic works at UAMS, his wife studies English. She hopes to find a job related to law, though she knows she will not be able to practice here.

The couple say the state’s similarity to Bosnia surprised them. Both countries have large nature areas and have cultural and ethnic diversity. And people in Bosnia and Arkansas always look well-groomed, he said.

Sanja Arnautovic didn’t know what to expect in the United States, but she didn’t expect the warm response people have given her family — helping out with their daughter — and the adjustment to life in Arkansas.

“People are so nice to us,” she said.

If they decide to stay in this country longer, Arnautovic may study to practice medicine here. For now, though, they are content with the life they are living.

“This is a beautiful experience in our lives,” Arnautovic said.

Still, they think of home. When Arnautovic sees a light bulb on in his apartment, he remembers having to read by candlelight and appreciates the “miracle” of electricity. When they cook an egg, they make sure not to leave anything inside the shell. Nothing goes to waste.

“Always in my mind is Bosnia,” Arnautovic said. The international community needs to do more, the couple said.

“I am not a politician,” Arnautovic noted. “I am a neurosurgeon, and all of what I am speaking is as a normal citizen of Sarajevo.” But, he said, “The situation in Bosnia could be resolved in one day. Bosnia could be defended as Kuwait was in the (Persian) Gulf War, through military intervention or by lifting the unjustified arms embargo of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is tying our hands.”

“Justice is on the side of Bosnia,” he said. Then, after a sigh, added, “Of course, justice doesn’t always win.”

2009 UPDATE: Kenan and Sanja Arnautovic continued on in the United States. They now live in Memphis, Tennessee, where Dr. Arnautovic practices neurosurgery at the Semmes-Murphy Neurologic & Spine Institute and serves as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Neurosurgery, University of Tennessee in Memphis. They now have a second daughter, Alisa.

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