Nato calls the bombing of a hospital collateral damage. I call it a tragedy

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The Independent Online
NOT FAR from Milena Malobabic's young body we found the notebook of love poems she wrote for her boyfriend. Nato's jets had killed her and at least 17 other patients in the tuberculosis sanatorium a few hours earlier. Milena's body lay in the shade of a pine tree, her long black hair drifting over her face in the breeze, a silver earring sparkling in her left ear.

It would be easy to report that the deaths of Milena, her mother and two brothers, and those of the other 14 patients - not to mention the three elderly people whose shredded remains I discovered in the sandwiched concrete of the sanatorium - are an atrocity.

And it would be true. Nato's bombs destroyed a hospital at Surdulica yesterday and they called it "collateral damage". But Milena's death alone constitutes a unique tragedy of war.

"If you only knew how much I suffer now," she had written in childish handwriting to her beloved in her first poem in the notebook. "Maybe it's wrong, but I want to go back to you. Your Milena still loves you, but I feel my wounds so much. I don't know if I can still kiss you."

The poem was composed at least two months ago, and across the side of one page Milena had inscribed the words - in capital letters and in English - "I love you Dejane!"

The Serb woman who translated Milena's poem to me broke into tears. No going back to Dejane now. The wounds are too many. Suffering is best not spoken of.

Beside Milena's body was that of her mother - both feet torn off but placed beside herlegs - and Milena's two brothers, one of them with an arm bent over his face as if still cowering from the bombs.

The blue-uniformed Yugoslav rescue teams covered them with bloodstained sheets to keep off the flies. The bodies lay a few metres from a pile of concrete, torn clothes and old papers. That is where we found Milena's notebook.

About 40 patients at the Special Hospital for Lung and Tuberculosis were seriously wounded when the Nato bombs fell on them just after midnight. Part of the two-storey, 75-year-old hospital simply caved in on the men and women in their beds, which is where most of them died, although one old man whose body I saw was still dressed in a pair of old bluetrousers and a torn striped shirt.

This was an elderly people's home as well as a tuberculosis clinic. The hospital, set in a pine forest, was marked on every known map.

Branislav Ristic, the commander of the local civil defence unit, was among the first to reach the scene. "There was fire and smoke in the trees and people screaming in the darkness and terribly wounded people trying to crawl out of broken windows," he said. "Everyone was screaming for help. But this city is bombed every six hours, so we had a problem to get enough people to help."

There was, he said, no military target in the area. So I walked into the pine forest, joined hurriedly by Mr Ristic. "There is nothing, you see, no military target, nothing," he said as we walked between towering stinging nettles, the trees alive with birdsong.

But in a glade half a kilometre from the hospital, I found the remains of two camp fires, the ash still warm, and four foxholes, the rectangular pits soldiers dig to protect themselves from bombs. On another track were 12 more newly dug foxholes.

Mr Ristic said worried hospital staff "probably" built them. Patients had sat by the fires after they were evacuated from the bombed building. Which is what is called a likely story. Had there been some military vehicle here, a missile launcher perhaps? Not so, insisted the Yugoslav authorities when I raised with them such a heretical suspicion.

But there was, they told me, a radio repeater station a kilometre away, a regular Nato target. Perhaps defence personnel for the station had been camped here, I was told. But it most certainly was not a barracks or a munitions depot Nato claimed it was targeting yesterday. There was no barracks here.

This is the old problem of reporting civilian deaths in the Yugoslav war. To find the slightest, most minimal reason a hospital might be bombed is to transfer the guilt of the slaughter to the Yugoslavs and thus to say that Yugoslavia killed its own people even when they are torn to pieces by Nato bombs. And any Yugoslav who hears such a remark regards it, not unnaturally, as an obscenity.

Geneva Conventions - assiduously produced by Nato in response to war crimes against Albanians in Kosovo - state that civilians must be protected even if in the vicinity of military personnel. But the patients at Surdulica were not given that protection. Nor were the 450 dead (more than half Albanian) in Nato's other 16 "mistakes" during this Balkan war.

"The partisans were here during the Second World War and the Germans knew they were but never touched them," Mr Ristic said as we walked back beneath the pine stands, filtered sunlight blessing the smashed concrete and glass and the patients' clothes, which had been blasted high into the branches of a silver birch tree.

He and his friends then took the bodies of Milena and her family off the grass and loaded them on to an orange dumper truck for their journey to the morgue.