War In The Balkans: Belgrade displays its own casualties of the battle

By Robert Fisk in Belgrade
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The Independent Online
ON THE second floor of the Serbian Clinical Centre in Belgrade are victims of the Balkan war who will never be mentioned in any Nato briefing. There's a 14-year-old boy with his head crushed, lying in a coma, eyes half-closed, a fat oxygen tube down his throat. There's a middle-aged farmer hit in the head by shrapnel and expected to die within a few hours. A little further down the emergency ward is another boy - 13 this time - with his head swathed in bandages, moving in agony, his brain damaged and his right leg fractured by a falling building. They are Nato's victims.

Our victims, I suppose. Standing at their bedsides, the phrase "collateral damage" seems somehow obscene. Ivan Tanasijevic, the 14-year-old from the Drina river valley, was wounded in a Nato air raid on Loznica, and his father came to see him on Wednesday. "He asked if he could see his son," Dr Dragana Vujadinovic says. "I said, yes, but that Ivan was in a coma. The father sat by his bed here and cried. He is a farmer. Yes, I told him his son is very bad but that we wouldn't know what will happen for another few days. Yes, the boy is likely to die."

Of course, walking the emergency ward of this modern hospital, one thinks of other human suffering far away to the south, of the exhausted masses scrambling over the borders of Albania and Macedonia and Montenegro, of executions and of "ethnic cleansing". But the victims of our bombs die too - nine of them, all originally Serb refugees from Croatia, were torn to pieces in a Nato raid on Nis last week; they had been living in an abandoned army barracks.

Dobrica Vukojicic is likely to join them soon. He was a farmer and appears to have been in his fields near Kraljevo when a Nato missile exploded a few metres from him. Pieces of metal smashed into his head and the blast caused what the doctors call "contralateral" damage to his brain, which started internal bleeding. He was brought to the medical centre on Wednesday night. Will he live, I ask Dr Mihaelo Mitrovic? He looks at me as if I am foolish to ask and raises his eyebrows. The man breathes noisily through his tubes, huffing and puffing as if aware of his fate. He will probably never awake.

Dr Mitrovic, who refuses to talk politics, insists on pointing out those patients who are not war-wounded and those who - though they may not be direct victims of Nato's bombs - are victims of the war. Milan Lemajic, for example, lies unconscious in a bed at the end of the ward, his head as bloated as a football, his face a mass of bruises. "We think he tried to commit suicide after the first bombs," the doctor said. "He jumped from the fourth floor of his apartment block. Look at his X-rays." He holds out a sheet of negatives that shows just a big, dark mass. "His head is like a water-melon."

For reasons that have as much to do with xenophobia as national security, with paranoia and national pride as well as inexperience, the Yugoslav authorities have jealously guarded the number of their civilian dead and wounded. Injured children have been taken to the Military Hospital in Belgrade and most casualties among the non-military population can still be cared for in civilian hospitals. Dr Vujadinovic receives most of her patients from regional medical centres; the hospital to which Mr Vukojicic was originally taken in Kraljevo was itself damaged by the explosion of a cruise missile in a neighbouring military installation.

And this - the proximity of the Serbian Clinical Centre with its 3,000 beds and 1,200 doctors and 3,000 nurses, to potential Nato targets - is what worries Professor Dragan Mitic, the hospital's vice-president. He outlines the non-sectarian nature of his medical facilities, the hospital's treatment of thousands of Albanian patients - but then comes to the point. "We are all feeling great tension and anxiety here because we are so close to the Interior Police Ministry and the General Military headquarters building," he says. "We saw on the CNN website that these will be Nato targets.

"But what can we do? We have a major hospital here next to places which may be targeted. We cannot move these patients, we have no bunkers, we have nowhere to take our patients to. We cannot take the wounded and sick off life support machines in the wards."

The doctors' message is simple. If Nato decides to attack the Belgrade headquarters of its principal enemies in Kosovo, then the Serbian Medical Centre is going to be hit.

In one bed lies Dejan Lukic, 13, another victim from Loznica though this time with a birthplace of special horror. He was originally a Serb resident of the east Bosnian town of Srebrenica and was driven from his home by Muslim forces in 1992. It was those same Muslims who held Srebrenica as it filled up with Muslim refugees during the Bosnian war and it was their menfolk who were the victims of the 1995 atrocity when thousands were executed by Serb militiamen. By then, Dejan Lukic was 25 miles away in Loznica.

He was still there last week when Nato began raiding the eastern bank of the Drina. Doctors believe he was running for his life after a missile explosion when he was hit by concrete from a collapsing building. He never regained consciousness. But his eyes moved yesterday - a good sign, according to the doctors. He may live.

At least 22 war-wounded have been transferred to this Belgrade hospital alone since the start of the Nato bombardment, but others - physically untouched by shrapnel - have not survived their reaction to the bombing. Boris Grubicic was 18 and fell into depression when he heard that Nato and Serbia had gone to war. He had been "ethnically cleansed" from Croatia in 1996 with 170,000 other Serbs. Perhaps his experiences in Croatia three years ago had unbalanced his mind.

"He was brought in here with a fractured head and neck," Dr Vujadinovic said. "He had climbed to the top of the McDonald's restaurant in the centre of Belgrade. That's five floors high. Then he threw himself off the top. He died here last night."