War in the Balkans: 'Collateral damage' lies dying in a shattered Belgrade hospital

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The Independent Online
WHEN NATO attacked the Belgrade suburb of Banjica yesterday, its third bomb blasted shards of glass into Dragana Kristic's neck.

The target had been a barracks 50 metres away. So that obscene cliche "collateral damage" comes to mind - but for one thing. Dragana was lying in a hospital bed when she was wounded, recovering from a cancer operation that surgeons had performed only a few hours earlier. They had taken a four-and-a-half kilogram tumour from her stomach.

With her neck and shoulder swaddled in bandages, she looked up at us yesterday from her bed, a pretty dark-haired woman of 23 who was as angry as she was in pain. "I don't know which hurts more - my stomach, my shoulder or my heart," she told us. "It was the third bomb that broke the window and did this to me."

She was not the only victim. On a lower floor, 74-year-old Radisav Milosavljevic - already suffering a serious heart complaint - lay curled up like a giant foetus, bandages covering half his head and face, his heart monitor racing on a small screen to the left of his bed.

The bombs had vibrated through the entire Military Medical Academy, shaking the bed of 14-year-old Ivan Labovic, critically wounded during a Nato bomb attack on Pristina on 30 March and now dying - heavily drugged but still conscious - in the intensive care unit. "He was wounded - near his home - in the back, the abdomen, stomach, liver and spleen," Dr Nenad Markovic said. "He has had major surgery four times already but the wall of his stomach is missing. I don't think we can save him."

Six other patients lay beside Ivan, one of them a soldier, the rest civilians, all dying like the 14-year old, all in a coma, all on respirators. Two of them were brain-dead - most were hit by falling masonry during air raids - and a young doctor was using a tube to suck saliva from the throat of a young man gravely wounded in the Nato bombing of Aleksinac 11 days ago. "He will die - I'm afraid they are all going to die," Dr Markovic said. He walked over to where Ivan lay, scarred legs apart, under a mountain of sheets, 12 tubes winding into his nose, throat and stomach.

"Which football team to do you support?" he asked the dying boy. "Partizans?" There was no movement from the child. "Red Star?" And Ivan moved his eyes towards the doctor and then lowered them for a second. "You see?" Dr Markovic said loudly, turning to us with a smile. "He supports Red Star." But Red Star is sure to lose this supporter. "Their wounds are too terrible," the doctor said. "What can we do?"

The medical staff have hung a large red cross from the roof of their hospital and a smaller red cross flag to the side of the vast 18-year- old building. Half its 1,000 patients are civilians - non-military personnel can buy their way into the hospital's care with medical insurance - and the other half soldiers and members of army families.

But the medical centre is located in a suburb teeming with barrack buildings, parade grounds and army compounds. Most of them are deserted and Nato was evidently not aiming at the hospital. But it knew the risk it was taking when it bombed the army garages behind the hospital's teaching centre. And it wounded Dragana Kristic.

"The bombs were only 50 metres away; was that worth the risk to this hospital?" Dr Markovic asked. A colleague, Dr Radoslav Svicevic, walked in from the broken glass door with a small piece of metal and put it in my hand. It was part of the fuse cap of a bomb, its jagged edges clinging to my fingers. "I just found this outside the door," he said.

Hundreds of windows lay in pieces around the hospital, millions of glass splinters, which staff were sweeping into silver, wintry piles around the hospital grounds with their blossoms and magnolia trees.

Dr Markovic's question was a moral one. True, this hospital is a military institution with General Aco Jovicic as its head. True, there are soldiers as well as civilians among the patients. But wounded soldiers in field hospitals are supposed to be safe from attack under the rules of war, as well as civilians. What if the Nato bombs had deviated just a few metres, as they had at Aleksinac where 24 people are known to have been killed? Did Dragana Kristic and Radisav Milosavljevic have to be lacerated by glass in an attempt to destroy a row of empty barrack buildings?

With a communist's preference for rhetoric rather than argument - and an ability to destroy any arguments with exaggeration on an epic scale - General Jovicic loudly denounced the damage to his hospital as a "war crime".

Yugoslavia, he told us, was fighting in "a dance against Satan" and "only the crimes of Ghengis Khan" could compare to the Nato attacks on Serbia. The Americans were "psychopaths realising their frustrations in death and destruction all over the world". We wanted him to stop, to let facts speak for themselves, to end this genuinely angry but nonsensical tirade.

Walking the wards of the Belgrade Military Medical Academy, I remembered another hospital I walked through seven years ago, in Sarajevo, deliberately shelled for months by Bosnian Serb forces. And I thought of those thousands of Kosovo Albanians, dispossessed, in despair, who desperately need the care and compassion that these Serb doctors demonstrate each day in this Belgrade hospital. But victims cannot be balanced against each other.

The Nato spokesman, Jamie Shea, says the alliance goes to "extraordinary lengths" to avoid civilian casualties. But this is totally untrue. On Monday, Nato planes destroyed a passenger train in south-eastern Serbia while bombing a bridge that it called "a military supply line". In other words, it was prepared to attack a railway track in mid-morning - in full knowledge that the railway carried scheduled passenger trains - to blow up a bridge. So much for Mr Shea's "extraordinary lengths".

And the same applied in Banjica yesterday. Nato bombed a barracks and wounded hospital patients. By a terrible irony, we found Mira Drijaca waiting outside the medical centre to visit her wounded brother Mica. Mira is a paediatric doctor; Mica is a surgeon. And he was wounded while tending to patients at a clinic more than a week ago - in another Nato bombing attack, this time on a nearby military airport outside Kraljevo. He was brought to Belgrade with his legs covered in burns.

Mira carried a plastic bag of home-made cakes and Easter eggs for her brother. "He did nothing wrong to the pilot of the plane that wounded him," she said. "I don't think the pilot knows why he bombed. He was ordered to do it." As for her brother: "I tell him to endure."

In her bed, Dragana Kristic is less forgiving in her pain. "If I met the pilot that did this," she said, touching the bandages at her neck, "I could only wish for his child to have a day like I had."