Travels with Diana: A Land-Mine Survivor's Tale
Just three weeks ago I was feeling startled and privileged to be sitting in a white minivan touring the back roads of Bosnia with "the most photographed woman in the world," Diana, Princess of Wales.
My colleague, Ken Rutherford, and I were surprised that, against the advice of the British Red Cross, Diana had chosen, at some political and physical risk, our fledgling organization of land-mine survivors to host her three-day house-to-house visit of Bos-nian mine victims and their families.
Traveling with Diana on this remarkable trip, I repeatedly witnessed the princess's genuinely caring, almost magical way with everyone she met - from a 15-year-old girl, Mirzeta Gablic, wounded by a land mine this year in Sarajevo, to a grieving young Muslim widow whose husband was killed in May, leaving her alone to raise their two young children.
On each visit, Diana reached out, not only emotionally, but physically as well, holding a hand, stroking a back, caressing a child's face, all the while easing their pain and suffering.
In one tiny home on a hillside overlooking Sarajevo, Diana noticed a small girl curled up under a blanket in a dimly lit room. She crossed the room, picked up the girl in her arms, gently stroked the child's thin, dangling legs and asked quietly who was able to care for the girl suffering from cerebral palsy. Like most of her visits, this was done privately with great sensitivity.
As a survivor of a land-mine blast, I'm not exaggerating to say the princess's touch was healing to those who met her.
Over and over I watched her focus her unique light on those who had been most directly devastated by the scourge of land mines.Her celebrity gave her the access, but her generous spirit gave her the determination to speak up for hundreds of thousands of mine victims - men, women, and children with little or no access to proper medical care and rehabilitation.
I first met the Princess of Wales on June 12 at a London seminar co-hosted by my organization, the Landmine Survivors Network (LSN), and the British-based demining organization, Mines Advisory Group.
As the princess first emerged from her car to greet us, I was struck by her beauty and energy, and those eyes. She could focus like a laser on you and then employ her disarming sense of humor to put you at ease. She was to deliver her first important speech about land mines, and it was my first up-close experience with her.
I was amazed at the scores of photographers, many of whom had staked out places the night before.
The clatter of camera shutters was terribly distracting. But Diana maintained her poise, speaking forcefully about the plague of land mines and the devastation she'd seen in Angola.
Unescorted, and absolutely approachable to anyone who cared to talk to her, Diana stayed most of the morning and even through a 45-minute coffee break.
The next week, she came to Washington to an American Red Cross fund-raiser that brought in over $600,000 to make artificial limbs for mine victims. During the visit she spread her typical charm and sometimes mischievous humor even while dealing with a terribly sad subject.
A 20-year-old Cambodian woman, Chim Kong, who lost a leg to a land mine, was beaming after the fund-raiser telling me that "after meeting Diana, I now feel like a princess."
When she and American Red Cross president Elizabeth Dole both showed up wearing outfits in the same shade of purple, Diana joked, "So what? They'll just call us the lavender fairies."
Her irreverent humor softened the starch of a black-tie auction when a Red Cross volunteer asked to take a peek at the engraved silver box from the princess that had fetched more than $20,000. The bejeweled woman suggested the box might be "perfect to hold pearls." But Diana fired back that it could just as well hold someone's ashes.
In late July, Ken Rutherford and I visited Kensington Palace to brief the princess on LSN's mission in Bosnia this summer.
Created by survivors to help rehabilitate the growing numbers of mine victims worldwide, LSN is literally the two of us with help from a few interns and other land-mine survivors who've volunteered their time in Cambodia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Mozambique, Angola, Jordan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.
Diana immediately latched on to the idea of survivors helping survivors and wanted to jump in with both feet.
She greeted us at her door with an exuberant "Hello, boys!" a firm handshake, and a bright smile. Escorting us up her stairway past a large painting of her and Prince Charles's 1981 wedding, she had us to tea in her cheerful but sumptuous palace living room.
As we described our plans to visit families of mine victims in remote Bosnian villages, the princess interrupted: "Would you mind if I came with you? I just want to walk in your footsteps and watch you work."
It took our breath away.
"You what?" we gasped.
"I so want the opportunity to meet privately with the victims and their families," she explained.
Right then and there we planned the princess's three-day visit to Bosnia. She was adamant that it be a "private trip" with as little fuss and protocol as possible.
Then she pushed the envelope further, asking whether we could visit the Serbian Republic of Srpska because she wanted to meet war victims from all sides of the conflict. The British Foreign Office later nixed that idea, saying it was too dangerous.
Still, she was able to bring together a Serb family from Srpska and a Muslim family, both of whose boys, Zarko and Malic, aged 12 and 14, had each lost a leg to a land mine during the past two years.
She told them that they reminded her of her own boys, full of energy and rather "naughty."
Later, Diana's star power also drew together representatives from a Croat and a Muslim disability group in Travnik who had never spoken together. These groups are now working on a common agenda for better prosthetics in Bosnia.
For most visits, media and cameras were not permitted into where the princess privately worked her magic, making each person she met feel like royalty. As one Croat mine victim, Franjo Kresic from Tuzla, later told me, "There are few people in the world with her gift."
He lost both his legs and 90 percent of his vision to a land-mine explosion during the Bosnian war.
And when a reporter asked the tacky question whether he could see well enough to know how beautiful the princess was, Kresic replied, "I don't think you need eyesight to see this type of beauty - after spending time with her, I sense it in her spirit."
Later, after a long, taxing day and a six-course Bosnian dinner, the princess relaxed with a small group and described the difficulties of living with the tabloid media.
Asked whether she'd ever considered putting land mines around her to keep the press at bay, Diana replied, "Don't give me any ideas."
I'm convinced the princess would want the world to take up her battle against land mines and the terrible toll they inflict on human life, killing and ripping limbs off more than 2,000 innocent civilians each year.
Her Aug. 12 letter to me, reproduced on this page, is proof enough to me.
She didn't have to risk her life visiting the minefields of Angola in January, or Bosnia in August. But she did because she cared deeply about the consequences of man's inhumanity to man and was determined to reach out to the victims.
"Where should we go next?" she asked during the Bosnian journey, wondering aloud whether to visit Cambodia or Afghanistan next year.
I was scheduled to visit Kensington Palace this Sept. 5 to discuss a message the princess wanted to deliver to the international gathering in Oslo next week to negotiate the first global ban on land mines. She wanted the treaty to include strong language on rehabilitating victims.
I'd planned to bring flowers for the princess to thank her for her remarkable work in Bosnia.
She told me on the plane from London to Sarajevo that she took thank-you notes very seriously. Her father, she said, had drilled into her that if one wasn't prepared to write letters of appreciation within 24 hours, then one shouldn't bother. I am ashamed that my thank you note is sitting on my desk still unmailed.
Still, on behalf of land-mine victims around the world, I want to express our thanks for the compassion of this woman. We also pray that her two boys, who she told me were her "best friends," will inherit their mother's compassion, humor, and determination.
And now with less light and heavier hearts, we'll carry on our work cleaning up the humanitarian disaster caused by up to 100 million mines strewn across more than 60 countries.
But who can take up the mantle so abruptly dropped last Sunday?
* Jerry White lost a leg to a land mine in Israel in 1984. He is the co-founder and director of the Landmine Survivors Network in Washington.