The face of war

One night in Pristina this man lost two of his friends and half of his jaw. But, in what passes for luck in Kosovo, Muhamet Bici was lucky. For the men who shot him were British paratroopers. So it was British specialists who put his face back together and gave him back a life nobody thought possible when he was stretchered away (right) 10 months ago. Now, on a Leeds council estate, he can open his mouth enough to speak. And the talk is of miracles, and of justice...
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The Independent Online

Muhamet Bici never heard the gunshot that blew away half his jaw. He felt something hit his face and then a searing pain took hold of him. He thought he was certain to die. As he lay covered in his own blood, his dying cousin next to him, all he could think of was his seven-month-old baby. "I thought about my daughter and how she would be without a father," he said. "I could not breathe. There was a pain in my face. I had never felt anything like it."

Muhamet's instincts were probably correct. At the filthy, ill-equipped hospital in Kosovo's capital Pristina, where he was taken, doctors were not optimistic. They told his family that although they were doing their best, their son was unlikely to survive.

So the family went home and prepared to bury Muhamet - yet another victim of a war which had claimed thousands of lives. His father, Sabit, could not even bring himself to look at what had been done to his eldest son by a bullet travelling at almost 1,000 metres a second.

And so it might have been but for one crucial detail: unlike so many other Kosovar Albanians, 23-year-old Muhamet was not the victim of a Serb gunman. Indeed, he was shot a month after Nato had liberated Kosovo. The soldier who shot Muhamet on the night of 2 July last year, as an electrified Pristina celebrated Republic Day, was a British paratrooper. The 5.56mm high-velocity bullet that had destroyed his jaw and left him fighting for his life was standard Nato issue.

Ten months later, and in a spotless front room on a decaying Leeds council estate, the talk is of something approaching a miracle. After more than 28 hours of surgery carried out by British specialists, Muhamet has been handed back his life. Though he will be scarred for ever - failing what his doctors call the "Sainsbury's test" (meaning that people he might encounter in the supermarket are likely to look twice) - his face has been rebuilt.

"I don't think (my face) will ever be the same again," Muhamet told me, as he hugged his daughter, Urtina, now a lively, inquisitive 16 months' old. But he added: "I never thought I would survive and neither did the doctors. The only thing that kept me going was the thought of my family."

Whatever it was that kept Muhamet alive - both in that crucial first hour and then the subsequent days after the car in which he and six others were travelling was sprayed by the paratroopers' SA80 semi-automatic weapons - he owes his rehabilitation to the expertise and dedication of a team of British surgeons.

The team's work began when Richard Loukota, consultant maxilla-facial surgeon at Leeds General Infirmary, received a call late in the evening of 20 July last year. A patient with a gunshot wound to the lower jaw was arriving at Leeds-Bradford airport and he was asked if his department would take on the case? Two days later Muhamet underwent the first of five operations.

At this stage, Muhamet's face was not in a good state. Given the limited facilities available in Kosovo, all the medics had been able to do was sew together the gaping hole by pulling together whatever flesh was left. By the time Muhamet arrived in Britain the injury had become severely infected. "It was horribly contaminated. There were lots of bits and pieces in there," said Mr Loukota. "Bone, dead bone, dead teeth. There were pieces of dead teeth embedded in his neck."

The first operation lasted eight hours. After a debridement procedure to clean out the wound, the team of Mr Loukota, David Mitchell and Mike Corrigan inserted a perforated titanium splint to hold together the remaining pieces of Muhamet's jaw. The insertion of the splint - which on Muhamet's X-rays looks almost like a necklace that has been inadvertently swallowed - gave the surgeons time to consider how best to rebuild his face.

In this, the patient himself was of little help. Although another cousin, Skender, who was also in the car when the three paratroopers opened fire, had travelled to Leeds to support him, Muhamet was still in deep shock, and suffering regular nightmares about his experience. He was only told of the deaths of his cousin Fahri and his friend Avni, in September when his wife, Nazime, came to join him in Britain. The news affected him deeply. In addition, his injuries were so severe that for three months after the shooting he was unable to speak a single word.

But the surgeons pressed on. On 16 September the team started the second operation which took 13 hours. A piece of bone was taken from Muhamet's hip and grafted on to his jaw. A large piece of muscle tissue, also from the hip, was attached beneath it. A piece of skin was taken from his left inner forearm to line his mouth. "The problem was the lack of tissue around the mouth," said Mr Loukota, explaining the third operation they then had to perform. "We had no lip. We had to build a lip by bringing up the tongue and bringing the parts around."

A further two operations have been carried out. One was to repair his shattered teeth, the other was to reduce the excess flesh that had been grafted beneath his jaw. Muhamet is likely to undergo several more operations before he can return to Pristina with his daughter and Nazime and resume normal life working in his father's butcher's shop.

However, Muhamet's recovery and the marvellous work of his doctors is only part of this story. Muhamet can now speak, he no longer has to be fed by a tube inserted through his nose and he can once again kiss his precious daughter. Of the seven people in the car the night he was shot not one of them escaped unscathed.

In their first-storey flat close to Pristina Hospital, the family of Fahri Bici sadly pass round pictures of a handsome young man, heavily armed and dressed in the uniform of a KLA fighter. For 18 months Fahri, 20, a cousin of Muhamet, had fought with the guerrilla soldiers in their backwoods campaign against the Serb army and paramilitaries.

He had been back in Pristina for just four days when he and the others went out in jubilant mood to celebrate Republic Day, the anniversary of the day in 1990 when thousands of Kosovan Albanians declared their refusal to acknowledge the authority of Serbia. "I don't remember anyone giving a sign to stop," said Fahri's brother, Naser, in whose car the young men were touring the thronging streets of Pristina that evening. "The next thing was the sound of gunfire."

Naser admits that Fahri and his friend Avni Dudi, another KLA fighter, had been firing their guns in the air that night in typical Balkan celebration and like scores of others in the city. But he insists, contrary to some eyewitness reports, that as they passed along the dual carriageway close to the old Serb government offices they had put away their guns. "The soldiers shot at the car, they shot at it more and they fired at the tyres. Then they took us out of the car," he said.

At the time of the incident, a statement issued by K-for (Nato's Kosovo force) said that the soldiers "believing their lives to be in danger, fired aimed shots at the vehicle". Just how many bullets were fired by the soldiers is part of an ongoing murder inquiry by the Army's Special Investigations Branch. The results of the gunfire, however, needed little investigation.

Fahri, sitting on the roof of the white Opel Kadett next to Muhamet, was killed almost instantly, apparently hit by a number of rounds. Avni died soon afterwards at Pristina Hospital. Isak Berisha, another of Muhamet's cousins, aged just 17, was hit six times as he sat in the back seat - three bullets passed through his leg, one through his arm and two hit him in the back.

The three young men who were not hit by bullets - Naser, Skender and Muhamet's 17-year-old brother Driton - have all been left traumatised by their experience. Skender, who is now living in Leeds close to Muhamet, cannot speak about the event and sleeps for just two hours a night. He is due to be examined by psychiatrists next month. Driton, who also works for his father, can still not be left in a room by himself, while Naser is still suffering from nightmares sparked by the incident.

Despite all of this, none of the men or their families has received a single word of apology or explanation from Nato, K-for or the Ministry of Defence. "No, they never came. That is what hurts the most," said Naser. Fahri's mother, Gjezide, sad eyes sunk into her face, added: "You should know how I feel. He fought the war for freedom and then he got killed in freedom. I do not want anyone's sons condemned, but when it comes to your own son..."

Within the coming days, solicitor's acting for Muhamet and Skender are to start legal proceedings against the MoD to seek compensation for the injury and trauma they suffered. However, there is little talk of revenge among the families and they are aware of the irony of a situation in which a group of young men who struggled to be free were shot by young men from a different country who themselves risked their lives to assist that struggle.

They do, however, demand justice."On a legal basis, things should happen," said Muhamet's father, standing in the doorway of the family business, the shop window hung with carcasses and stiff loops of blood sausage. "If I make a mistake I answer for my mistake. This should not have happened."

The legal process is understood to be reaching a conclusion, though the MoD has repeatedly refused to comment on whether there will a court martial. For the families, this is the one hope of seeing the matter settled.

Aware of the recovery being made by Muhamet, his friends and relatives are hugely impressed by the efforts of Britain's doctors. They are now placing their faith in Britain's system of law.

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