Liberation of Kosovo: Stench of slaughter haunts hospital

Legacy of Horror
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The Independent Online
EVEN FROM the outside the smell was so strong it stung the eyes and layered the tongue. Inside it was barely possible to breathe.

There was a stinking body on a stretcher, wrapped in a once-white shroud stained with blood. To the side lay what appeared at first to be a black bin-liner. But it was a body, blackened and bloated, the swollen tongue filling the mouth like a gag. The concrete floor was covered with white maggots.

The particular tragedy of this scene was its location - this was not the basement of a Special Police torture chamber or a burnt-out home where a massacre had been committed.

This was the basement mortuary at Pristina Hospital. Most of the 18 bodies that fill the area have been there for months, Albanians who were shot, stabbed or beaten to death before being left. With the Albanians and Serbs still battling for control of the hospital and causing appalling chaos, these bodies had been forgotten.

"It is absolutely disgusting," said Major Tam Turvet, of the 2nd Armoured Field Ambulance, which is providing security at the hospital.

"In 25 years in the Army I have never seen anything like it. It is barbaric. These people have no ID and there is no way of knowing who they are.

"Their families probably have no idea that they are here, just that they are missing. If we don't bury them no one else will."

The job of removing and burying the bodies will be horrific for the British soldiers who will have to perform that duty over the next few days.

Rumour has it that the refrigeration system at the mortuary has not worked for the past two years. Army engineers have tried to restart the system as an urgent priority.

British troops discovered the mortuary when they arrived in the city two weeks ago. All the bodies had been either left on the concrete floor or piled into the non-working refrigerators. Now the soldiers are confronted with refrigerators full of barely recognisable human remains, yet another legacy of the horror that has befallen Kosovo.

"Maybe they have been left there because people have become more brutalised," said Lt-Col Jeremy Rowan, commander of the medical corps at the hospital.

"There has been so much death and trauma. Now we have identified the problem we will have to do something about it. K-For will have to bury them.

"It is not what we are used to doing but equally we are not used to having to provide security at hospitals. We are not used to having to take guns off patients who have been brought in or break down doors so we can get at the pharmaceuticals. But we have to do it - the people here need this hospital."

Some Serb medical staff have refused to hand over keys to cupboards full of supplies.