The Making of a Martyr
Collette Webster threw herself into things whether in the end it proved to be a good idea or not. That's what she had done with her marriage; with the convenience store she and her husband had operated together, working 14 hours a day; and with her decision, after the marriage failed, to go to the former Yugoslavia and try to ease the endless suffering there. Now, nine months after arriving in Bosnia and pitching in as a hospital medic in the embattled city of Mostar, the 27-year-old American had found a sense of mission. She had also found a boyfriend, a British photographer named Sean Vatcher. Together they had climbed to the top floor of this bombed-out apartment building in Mostar's western sector to tend to a wounded Croatian soldier. After Collette finished dressing the soldier's wounds, she and Sean stayed to see if any of the other soldiers there needed help. While Sean was taking pictures in another part of the building, Collette returned alone to the room where she had treated the soldier. Around 4:30 p.m., just as Sean was returning, a Muslim sniper fired a rocket-propelled grenade through the window. The blast hurled Sean, 27, back through the doorway, giving him a concussion. Shrapnel ripped through Collette's abdomen.
Several hours later, on September 27, in the very Mostar hospital where she had volunteered in the midst of this horrific conflict, Collette Webster became the first American aid worker to die in the Bosnian civil war. Father Svep Kroljeric, a Catholic priest who knew her, spoke for many when he wrote after her death, "She was a loving and caring person who could not ignore the suffering of others. She gave her all. Her life made a difference."
In many ways, Collette's journey to Bosnia was as unlikely as it was inspiring. A Catholic of Irish descent from tiny Sunfield, Mich., about 25 miles west of Lansing, she had no ethnic or personal connection to Yugoslavia. "Here was a girl who loved her makeup and high heels," says her grandmother Eleanor Bicknell. On the surface, her life appeared settled. In January 1992, Collette and her husband, Mike Nichols, had opened Collette's General Store together in Sunfield. Collette's peerless cinnamon rolls, baklava and chocolate-chip cookies drew customers, including her father, John, who would walk over from his hydraulic-equipment repair company in town.
But by the fall of 1992 Collette was struggling. Her marriage, long troubled, had sputtered out, and the store was losing money. Amid the problems, Collette befriended a high school exchange student from Sarajevo. The student, whose parents had sent her to the U.S. to get her away from the war, told Collette about the horrors of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia. "It devastated Collette to hear that children were being executed in front of their mothers and pregnant women were being raped," says her mother, Peggy Webster Wells, who was divorced from Collette's father in 1981.
Though her family had no history of volunteer work, Collette had always been sensitive and caring. The second of John and Peggy's three children, Collette was brought up on a small farm near Sunfield with her older brother, Christopher, who now works with his father, and her younger sister, Cammy, now a high school senior. Collette had been a shy child, in part because of chronic psoriasis that made her an easy target for ridicule by other kids. Perhaps because of this, Collette, says her stepmother, Jan Webster, who married John in 1991, had a heightened sense of compassion: "If you had a heart that she liked, then she was your friend."
After graduating from Lansing Christian High School in 1984, she spent several years working as a waitress both in Sunfield, where her father lived, and in Bucyrus, Ohio, where her mother moved after the divorce. She worked long hours, chain-smoked and fought periodic attacks of asthma and insomnia. "She was always on the go," says Peggy. Numerous fender-bending accidents made her father think of her as somewhat reckless.
In 1989, Collette married Mike, a salesman who was twice divorced and eight years her senior, after just a few months of courtship. Her family thought she was moving too quickly, and apparently they were right. By late summer of '92, she and Mike had amicably split up over what John calls "unresolved issues on both sides."
Then one day in October, she stopped by John's office and said, "I want to tell you something, but I just want you to listen." At first, John was skeptical about Collette's plans to go to Bosnia. "She jumped headfirst into things, and usually they never worked out," he says. But this time they did. Collette took a six-week emergency-medical-training course and read everything she could find on Bosnia. "She did her very best studying in the months before she went to Bosnia," recalls John. Toward the end of 1992, she signed her share of the store and their house over to her soon-to-be-ex husband and sold her red Chevy Sprint to Cammy.
On Jan. 3, 1993, carrying $500 in cash and $500 in traveler's checks, she flew to Zagreb, Croatia. Though her family was worried about her, says Jan, "we were feeling good for her that she was doing something she really wanted to do and that it was actually all coming together." Collette had arranged to stay with a couple in Zagreb but had no further plans. Before she left, an acquaintance suggested she make her way to Medjugorje, some 15 miles southwest of Mostar, where help was urgently needed. Collette took the advice, and in Medjugorje hooked up with the Croatian-based relief organization Suncokret and spent the next five months working at orphanages, hospitals and refugee camps. In a letter home to John and Jan, she wrote, "Everything that was a normal part of daily living there seems like a completely other world now. Here, just getting through the day alive is a reason to celebrate." Once she called her father and said, "Listen, Dad," then held the phone to the window to catch the rumble of tanks.
Collette was especially moved by the plight of children, both Christian and Muslim. She wore a necklace that bore two shell casings and a pacifer given to her by a refugee child. Remembers Nancy Jellinek, a member of the Texasbased agency, St. David's Relief Foundation, a group Collette worked with: "She loved being around the children, no matter what. She'd hug them, even if they had lice." Collette caught lice herself, but when people would ask her, "How can you hug those kids?" she would answer, "How can I not?" Compassion was not Collette's only strong point. Notes fellow relief worker Jeff Reed: "She knew how to get things done. The newer volunteers would seek her out for guidance and information."
Collette stayed out of the politics of the war. She left one aid group because, says Martin Terry, a British relief worker and friend, "it was run by Croats for Croats, and she wanted to help anybody. Some of the Croats in the organization were very anti-Muslim, and she couldn't accept that."
When Collette returned home last June to celebrate Cammy's 17th birthday, the family saw amazing changes. Recalls her aunt Cindy Landis: "Collette was so confident and knowledgeable and had an inner radiance." Relatives noticed something else too: Collette anticipated death and had made detailed plans for her own funeral, in case something should happen to her. "I begged her to wait before she returned," says Peggy. "But she said, 'I'm homesick for my kids.' "
At the end of June, Collette flew to England, where she spent a week with Sean, whom she had met in May. They soon returned to the war, renting a room in the relatively quiet town of Citluk, not far from Mostar. Their rundown quarters became a gathering place for a tight-knit group of foreign nationals. Collette was "like a sister and a mother to us," says Terry. "If any of us was out, she would always check to make sure everyone got back okay."
Meanwhile, Collette's involvement in the war intensified. When working as a volunteer medic at Mostar General Hospital proved too frustrating—people were dying before they could be treated—she tried, unsuccessfully, to join the Croatian army as a combat medic. "She didn't want to join in a military sense,'' says Sean, "but as away of working on the front line."
On Sunday, Sept. 26, Collette was in an especially good mood, because she'd just delivered a homemade apple pie to some soldiers living in Mostar. Later, she began the mission that cost her her life. After she was struck by the grenade, she lay with her intestines literally tumbling out of her. She looked down at herself, Sean recalls, and calmly said, "I'm not going to live." She also said, "Tell my sister I love her," and finally, "Wipe the blood from my eye." She did not speak again.
Last October, Sean and three of Collette's close friends from Bosnia flew to Michigan, where a service was held and Collette's ashes were spread on the farm where she had spent her youth, as she had requested. Collette's coworkers at the Mostar hospital sent a cable to John Webster saying, "You gave us Collette and she, because of her love for us, sacrificed her life."
Meanwhile, the war, with all its horror, continues. Sean, who is putting together a book of photographs of Collette, and her other friends are returning to Bosnia. "If we stopped going there because Collette had died, she would be very unhappy with us," says Martin Terry. Collette's family still grieves, of course. "It was just good to know that there was somebody with her when she died who knew her and loved her," says Jan Webster. For members of Collette's family, one story speaks volumes about the young woman who lives on in their memory. Earlier this year, a Croatian relief worker named Bernard Boras asked Collette if she could drive a Land Rover to deliver some supplies to central Bosnia. "It was not dangerous," he says, "but the road is so difficult, going through mountains 7,000 feet high. She said, 'Yes, it's no problem.' " Later, Boras learned that Collette had never before driven a Land Rover, let alone over treacherous terrain. But by that time she had completed the hazardous round-trip without incident.
FANNIE WEINSTEIN in Sunfield, SANDRA GURVIS in Bucyrus, and JOHN WRIGHT in London
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