Amid War, Bosnia Honors Its Heroes; Nurse Wounded 5 Times Crisscrossing the Front

The Washington Post
February 27, 1993

SARAJEVO, Feb. 26 – Muamera Puska is the queen of purple hearts.

Puska figured it was just bad luck when a piece of shrapnel ripped open her thigh last April, only days after the Bosnian war began. As a frontline nurse, she expected something like that might happen.

But a month later it happened again. Puska, 22, was darting through a frontline neighborhood to visit a sick old man, and a Serb sniper shot her in the right arm. She ducked under a stairwell, wrapped a bandage around her arm, and continued on her hazardous way.

She was beginning to get a reputation among the troops as either the unluckiest nurse in Sarajevo or, viewed from another perspective, the luckiest one, given the fact that she was still alive.

In August, she was injured for a third time when a bullet ricocheted into her shin. In November, injury number four happened as she ran through a no-man’s land and a piece of shrapnel tore into her knee. In December, she was fetching desperately-needed medicine when a tank shell landed next to her. It sliced open her heel. Injury number five.

Puska is still recovering from this last brush with martyrdom — a bandage is wrapped around her heel — but she nonetheless scurries to the frontline almost every day. The only thing that scares her, she says, is defeat.

“I am not exceptional. I just love Bosnia” she explained, shrugging her shoulders. “When a tank shell falls two feet away from you and you survive, you do have to feel happy and protected.”

Puska is a mixture of a Florence Nightingale and a Joan of Arc. She rescues wounded soldiers and somehow (she is not much over five feet tall and weighs all of 105 pounds) carries them on her back. She sneaks into shattered frontline buildings in search of useful medicines that fleeing people might have left behind in their bathrooms.

For all of this, she was honored yesterday as the “Most Human Person” in Sarajevo, in an Academy Awards-style ceremony at the battered Holiday Inn. Everybody who is anybody in Sarajevo was at the ceremony — the firemen who saved this city from burning, the soldiers who saved it from falling and the black marketeers who saved it from being without cigarettes.

The award of “Most Human Person” is really an award for bravery, and in a city that is besieged and shelled daily, the competition was tough. The special jury that chose the winner included an actor who lost both legs in a mortar blast and an old pensioner who donated blood 202 times.

Before the award was announced, Sarajevo’s grandest diva hobbled to the podium with a leg in a cast and a mink coat on her shoulders and sang a patriotic ballad. Then a smartly-dressed emcee opened a crisp envelope and announced the winner.

Puska stepped to the podium in her jeans and cream-colored blouse to receive a commemorative platter and a tape recorder. In a short speech, she admitted that what she really needs is a pair of running shoes.

The war has done strange things to ordinary Bosnians, turning some of them into heroes, others into cowards, most into survivors. Puska owned a jewelry shop in the southern town of Herceg-Novi before the war, and she was visiting her parents here when the fighting started.

She had taken a first-aid course during high school, and so she figured she could help out by being a nurse. She went to the military headquarters in Dobrinja, the frontline neighborhood where she was living with her parents, and volunteered for medical duty.

Puska needs about an hour to recount what happened next in her life. Her dialogue is interrupted as she rolls up sleeves and trouser legs to show her battle scars.

Puska first drew notice in Dobrinja, a neighborhood where Serbs and Muslims battle from one building to another, when she went to rescue a soldier who had been shot in the stomach and was trapped for two days under fire in his apartment with his family. The local Bosnian commander was appealing over the radio for someone to evacuate the soldier, named Nedim.

“I went to the headquarters and asked for help, but nobody wanted to go,” Puska said. “They told me not to go because it was too dangerous. I was afraid and I cried a little bit, but I thought I should go.”

She dodged sniper fire as she ran there, and at one point jumped for cover into a building that, she suddenly realized, was held by the Serbs. She saw them at the end of a hallway, but they did not see her. She jumped back into the battlezone and finally arrived at the apartment.

“Nedim was in a bad state,” she recalled. “His wife and children were crying. I told them to pack their things. We would all go together.”

Puska heaved Nedim onto her back and told his family to run ahead. She went as fast as she could, but with a bleeding soldier nearly twice her size slung over her back, it was slow going. She fell several times. Finally, she got back to headquarters and dropped him on the floor. Then she fainted.

On at least one occasion, she said, she was helped by the fact that she is a woman. A Bosnian soldier was wounded in a no man’s land, 10 feet away from Serb trenches. Puska went to the scene and realized that she could not get to the soldier and lift him up without the Serbs seeing her.

She stood up and faced them.

“I told them that we would be turning our backs to them and that they could shoot us if they wanted, because that’s all they do, shoot people in the back,” Puska recalled. “It was funny to them. They thought I was crazy.”

Puska suffered her most recent injury on her last mission. She was dispatched across Serb lines and into Muslim-held territory outside Sarajevo to get some medicine from better equipped Bosnian villages nearby. Just before she arrived at her destination, a tank shell landed near her and shrapnel tore into her foot. It was a bad injury that prevented her from walking on the foot. With the aid of crutches, she started hobbling back to the frontline, the medicine slung over her back.

After painfully sliding in and out of abandoned trenches and crawling through barbed wire, she and the medicine reached Bosnian lines. She was taken to the hospital, and was kept there for 10 days.

Puska finishes her story. She is asked the natural question: what do you want to do when the war finishes? Go back to owning a jewelry shop?

“I want to paint,” she smiles. “I want to forget the darkness.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.