Nikola Kokorus tells of life after landmine injury
Throwing “what looked like a shiny metal toy” against the front steps of his house, three year old Nikola Kokorus watched “beautiful sparks fly.” He had found it rummaging in a nearby garbage heap. Suddenly the toy exploded, blowing three fingers off Nikola’s right hand. His mother, washing the laundry in the yard, came running and fainted at the sight of his mutilated hand. Nikola’s deadly toy was a landmine detonator discarded by a nearby factory that was stockpiling mines.
It was 1993, at the height of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and there was fighting around his mountainous village of Drinic, near Bosanski Petrovac, northwestern Bosnia. Nikola was rushed to the hospital. Afraid the tiny metal fragments in his hand would become dangerously infected, the doctors amputated his whole right hand – what would have been his writing hand, a hand needed to help his father, a farmer, raise cattle. As Nikola grew up he found that even though the pain of the injury subsided, he still faced difficulties created by the society around him. War forced his family from its home two years after the accident. His village burned and his family had to flee to a strange new place, the northern city of Derventa, for four years. Unlike in his home village, people in the city did not know him and did not care for his welfare. People on the street made cruel remarks about his missing hand. To discourage this, Nikola insisted his mother walk him to school and fend off insensitive comments.
Nikola is now 14 and the war has been over for 10 years. His family returned to Drinic, where he says, “people accept me as I am.” In ninth grade at his primary school of 80 students, he is a very good soccer player and sings folk music in a group with three of his friends. He still cannot help his father with farming, but he helps with collecting firewood in the forest and wants to become a car mechanic when he finishes school. “I don’t know how life would have been different if I had never touched that explosive,” he said. “I know it would have been easier – not just for me, but for my mother and father too.” Several years ago, Nikola grew out of his prosthetic hand, but his parents, without health insurance, cannot afford to have it replaced. Despite this, and all his difficulties, Nikola remain humbly reticent about his injury. “"I consider myself one of the lucky ones, I merely lost a hand,” he said. “I know of many children who have been killed by landmines."I know of many children whose parents were killed by landmines. I don’t know how I could have survived losing my mother or father.” It is because of stories like these that UNICEF considers mines and unexploded ordnance as a major threat to children’s “inherent right to life” enshrined in the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Children.
“Children should never be punished, as I was, by their curiosity and innocent desire to play,” Nikola said. “The presence of landmines means that children are constantly in danger.” Nikola is one of 4,800 casualties, many of them children, claimed by the estimated 750,000 landmines and unexploded ordnance that have contaminated the country since the 1992-1995 war. As a result, UNICEF has funded a wide range of mine risk education activities in Bosnia. Nikola is one of almost 100,000 Bosnian children who have seen UNICEF-sponsored puppet plays, warning children of the danger of landmines, performed in schools by local nonprofit, the Genesis Project. “UNICEF is a leader in teaching children about landmines and how to protect themselves,” said Nikola. “This is important, because 85 per cent of the child victims of landmines die before reaching hospital.” In 2004 Nikola was asked by UNICEF to address the world leaders from over 140 countries, meeting in Kenya for the Nairobi Summit on a Mine Free World, which reviewed progress on implementing the 1999 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty.
Though he was very nervous and knew little English, Nikola bravely accepted the challenge. He worked very hard with an English language tutor in the months preceding the summit and practiced his speech many times. “His school, the principal and his fellow students were very supportive – they all helped him prepare,” said Dijana Pejic, program manager of the Genesis Project, who traveled to Kenya with Nikola. “They wanted him not only to represent Bosnia and Herzegovina but all mine victims in the world.” Standing on the podium alongside UNICEF’s executive director Carol Bellamy, and in front of TV cameras and over 1000 leaders and mine action experts, Nikola told them about his life as a landmine survivor. “My message is simple,” he said as he drew his speech to a close. “Do whatever is in your power to stop the use of landmines and to prevent children and adults from being injured and killed by mines. Stop the violence caused by landmines. Allow all children in the world to live free and carefree lives.” Afterwards he gave a press conference and answered the many questions asked by journalists in English without any problems. “He was amazing. He didn’t make a single mistake,” said Pejic. Nikola’s trip to Kenya has had a significant impact on his life. He was able to visit a new continent, meet people from all over the world and improve his ability to speak in public. All this has done wonders to his self-esteem. “Traveling with an airplane, traveling to Africa – that was like traveling to the moon for him,” said Pejic. “But he was very brave and I admire him enormously for that. I think that will remain a beautiful memory for the rest of his life.”
Matthew Bolton for UNICEF BIH