Face of Defense: Airman Recalls Horrors of Bosnian Conflict
By Air Force Staff Sgt. Christopher Hubenthal
99th Air Base Wing
NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev., Nov. 25, 2013 As a 9-year-old girl growing up in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, now-Air Force Capt. (Dr.) Merima White had everything she needed: friends, family, a wonderful life. Until one day when she lost nearly everything.
Air Force Capt. (Dr.) Merima White discusses symptoms of a patient at the Mike O’Callaghan Federal Medical Center, Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Nov. 16, 2013. White grew up in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, during the Bosnian conflict as a child and moved to the U.S. in 1994. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher Hubenthal
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
White, who is now a 99th Medical Operations Squadron family medicine residency resident physician here, lived through the growing conflict of the Serbian paramilitary forces as they surrounded Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992.
During the Bosnian conflict, Serb forces bombarded the city with heavy artillery and snipers targeted civilians without hesitation, aiming at schools and hospitals inhabited by the young and the elderly.
"One morning I woke up and the city was surrounded," White said. "There were people shooting at kids and families. I really didn't understand it. I could never understand why people would do that but it happened. And this once Olympic city that was always a popular destination for travelers was reduced to shambles."
White described this era in her life as a time when each and every day was filled with uncertainty.
"You just lived in darkness awaiting the next artillery attack and insurgency," she added.
White was just a young child during the time and didn't quite know what to make of the situation. She recalls having to travel at great risk to obtain basic life essentials.
"I went from this life of what I considered having everything I wanted as a child to not knowing if I was going to wake up the next day," White said. "I remember running 10 miles to get water while evading snipers.
We had to wait for the fog to thicken so the snipers wouldn't pick us off while trying to get food and water,” she continued. “Sometimes you couldn't afford to wait anymore and you would just have to go out to get food and water for you and your family."
For White, this time of her life was about surviving and helping others when she could -- traits her father showcased on a daily basis. During her father's heroic acts he was injured twice.
"The first time was when we were in line to receive milk and bread because we had to shuttle food through the city as the resources were all depleted," White said. "Obviously they would figure out when the lines were forming and they would bomb the lines of kids and families waiting to get food. My father took shrapnel to his legs and was unable to walk for several months."
Despite the injuries to White's father, he immediately sought to help the community as soon as he regained his health.
"As soon as he got back on his feet he was trying to deliver water to families that couldn't get out of the area to get some," White said. "The truck was bombed and he was ejected, falling onto the railroad tracks resulting in a broken neck. We thought he was going to die in three to five days. Miraculously, he regained sensation in his body and Doctors Without Borders who were in the hospital at the time thought that evacuating him to the USA would give him the opportunity to walk again."
According to the Doctors Without Borders official website, the DWB is an international medical humanitarian organization created by doctors and journalists in France in 1971. The organization is committed to bringing quality medical care to people in crisis regardless of their race, religion or political affiliation.
White's family took the recommendation to heart and made preparations to evacuate the city.
"For us to get out of the city we had to go through enemy territory," White said. "The Air Force at that time was flying in and dropping off humanitarian aid. It was towards the tail end of the war, December 1994, and we had to get to the airport to get out of the city. The only way to do that was to get help from the United Nations."
Despite the U.N.'s willingness to help, the situation presented dangers.
"We had to sign a paper that stated that if we were pulled over we would be handed over for execution," White said. "It was a scary thought because we knew that if we did get pulled over it wouldn't just be an execution. There were concentration camps and all sorts of horrific acts took place there. Thankfully we made it to the airport safe and sound and were able to board a plane."
In 1994, White and her family traveled from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Germany, Maryland, Texas and finally to Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.
White remembers her stop in Maryland the most. During one of the scariest times of her life, she experienced kindness of strangers that she had never witnessed before.
"I will never forget the kindness of people," White said. "There were airmen that stayed and played cards with me. I didn't speak any English and I was really scared. It was New Year’s Eve and I was still a kid so I was wandering the hallways with airmen who were trying to entertain me. It was the most human kindness from strangers that I had ever seen and it really made an impact on my life."
The treatment which the airmen provided White upon her family's arrival was part of the reason she decided to join the Air Force.
"I wanted to give back to the amazing men and women who helped me and my family, and to be a part of something that great is amazing," White said.
Through her experiences, White formed her own idea of what defines a warrior.
"Living a life of a warrior is working to preserve our way of life," White said. "We don't just fight for ourselves but we fight for the freedom that this nation provides. To keep our warriors healthy is to keep our entire nation healthy and safe."
White now works within the Family Medicine Residency Program at Nellis where she aims to give back to the men and women of the Air Force that helped her and her family nearly two decades ago.