Wings of Mercy
updated 12/09/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 12/09/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST
Such emotion is unusual for Hannah, operations leader of the only large-scale private U.S. effort to aid victims of the civil war between the Serbs and Croats. He has already led three relief missions to the embattled region. This time he'd stopped at the children's hospital to deliver an urgently needed $3,000 skin-grafting device that will enable doctors to cover the third-degree burns on the chest and arms of the boy, Nedjelko Beus. While racing for shelter during a nighttime Serbian air attack on the town of Sinj, the bare-chested Beus had tripped, and a lit candle he carried in one hand ignited a plastic bag he held in the other hand. "They say flaming liquid plastic burns like napalm," says Hannah, tenderly cradling the fingers of the boy's unbandaged left hand.
An upbeat former real estate developer, Hannah took charge of his first 48-hour airlift to Zagreb in late September, after his boss, Bob Macauley, chairman of AmeriCares, a New Canaan-based disaster-relief group (PEOPLE, May 29, 1989), was similarly affected by searing news footage of the war's wounded. Hannah had been organizing grain shipments to the Sudan and Ethiopia when one morning, he says, "Bob came chugging out of his office all excited, collared me by the copying machine and asked me to go to Yugoslavia." Three days later, Hannah and his small crew of "quick-response" workers were in the air on a chartered 707 with $1.6 million worth of medical supplies, largely donated by U.S. pharmaceutical companies.
The five-month war—triggered by Croatia's secession from the six-republic Yugoslav federation in June—has so far claimed more than 7,000 lives and left 10,000 people wounded, including some 300 children, and if the current shaky ceasefires are broken and the conflict escalates, casualties are bound to increase. "We'll be back before Christmas because the needs are still there," Hannah says, adding that his group provides both sides with medical supplies, though the beleaguered Croats have so far received the bulk of the aid. "It's tough keeping our sympathies out of our work, but we try to stay politically neutral."
Hannah began his most recent mission early Saturday, Nov. 23, after a quick goodbye to his wife, Sarah Bourne, 32, an employee-benefits consultant. "I worry about him going off to war zones," she says, "but the job has tapped a whole new compassionate side of him." Hannah, who helped run a construction business in Philadelphia, had broken his knee last year. Then in January, while receiving disability benefits, he moved to New Canaan, where his wife had found a good job. Eager to work, he volunteered to join an AmeriCares project repairing dilapidated houses of the poor in near-by Stamford and Norwalk. That led to a full-time job with the group, which dispenses about $100 million in privately donated aid each year, and eventually to his directing the Yugoslavia missions. "A year ago," he says, "I would never have guessed I'd be a relief version of Indiana Jones."
In the afternoon, ever mindful of the $100,000-a-day rental cost of a larger DC-8 and its five-man flight crew, Hannah hastily boards the transport at Hartford's Bradley International Airport after the last supplies are loaded. "We're always scrambling to beat the clock," he says, explaining that the 43 tons of cargo includes 57 critically needed external fixators (metal devices that hold broken bones in place). "Without them," he says, "hundreds of injured will have to have limbs amputated because their shattered bones won't heal."
During the 10-hour flight to Graz, in southern Austria, Hannah briefs the 10 passengers seated in the plane's cramped rear section. The group includes AmeriCares workers, New York City—based Relief for Croatia doctors and two members of the Knights of Malta, an international relief group that supplies AmeriCares with financial and logistical aid. Luggage, sleeping bags and food packs line the aisle and rear wall. "Get some sleep," Hannah counsels. "You'll need it."
After a brief touchdown in Frankfurt to repair a faulty brake, the group arrives in Graz at 8:30 on a drizzly Sunday morning. Behind schedule, they quickly head south toward the Slovenian border in a three-car convoy, to be followed by the mission's cargo-laden trucks. Two hours later, they enter Zagreb, a city of 1 million and capital of the breakaway Republic of Croatia. It looks like the war zone that it is: Bridges and other key defensive sites are fortified with gun emplacements, windows are taped against the impact of bombs, and everywhere stacked sandbags protect basement air-raid shelters. At the hotel where the group checks in, hundreds of haggard refugees from the eastern war front fill the lobby and adjacent rooms.
While part of the relief group leaves to check on the supply trucks' arrival at a central medical ware-house, Hannah huddles with his local field contact, Joachim Krauskopf, 41, a veteran Knights of Malta relief worker. "He makes this all happen," Hannah explains, hurrying to a children's hospital several blocks away. "He's our early-warning system. He keeps in touch with the Croatian intelligence folks and knows the risks and how to keep our people safe." At the hospital, Hannah delivers the lunchbox-size skin-grafting device to a thankful Dr. Zvonimir Vrtar, the head pediatrician. "You have no idea how many lives this little thing can save," he says, leading Hannah through wards filled with several score badly injured children. "And these are only a few of the worst cases. Most are taken to other clinics closer to the fighting." As for burn victim Nedjelko Beus, Dr. Vrtar tells Hannah the boy will recover, though it may take many operations and years of healing.
Before returning to Graz for a scheduled Monday-afternoon departure, Hannah runs through a series of hurried meetings with hospital directors, Franjo Cardinal Kuharic (Zagreb's Roman Catholic Archbishop), government officials, Croatian Red Cross workers and others pleading for more international relief aid. By 3 P.M., after only seven hours of sleep over two days, Hannah is behind a steering wheel sipping coffee as he leads the mission's convoy north to Austria. They arrive at the airport minutes before the 5 P.M. deadline. After takeoff aboard the cavernous, now-empty plane, the group's leader ventures a tired smile. "We did it again," Hannah says, running a hand through his graying hair. "Now, if I can just find my sleeping bag, I can call it a night—a very long night."