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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.