Bosnia: Doctors number high among victims of Bosnia conflict: Hospitals have only one-third of the medics employed before the war, writes Tony Barber in Sarajevo

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The Independent Online
MUSTAFA BEGANOVIC is a member of that common Eastern European species, the chain-smoking health minister. When he recites the dismal statistics of Bosnia's war, it is easy to see why he finds it difficult to break the habit.

Since the conflict broke out in April 1992, about 400 doctors and medical personnel have been killed in Bosnia, including 70 in Sarajevo. Some died when the ambulances in which they were travelling came under gunfire. Others died when shells exploded on their hospitals. The fighting has wrought such destruction that only 32 per cent of the doctors who used to work in Sarajevo's two hospitals before the war remain in their jobs. Sarajevo now has only two working ambulances, compared with 51 before the war.

For Mr Beganovic, Bosnia's Muslim Health Minister, one of the least forgivable aspects of the war is the decision by dozens of Serbian doctors to abandon Sarajevo and work for the Bosnian Serb cause. Most of these doctors, who include highly trained specialists such as brain surgeons, used to work in a hospital run by the Serb-led Yugoslav army. Some had formed close friendships with their Muslim colleagues, but broke them off as soon as the war started.

'Only a good man can be a good doctor,' Mr Beganovic said. 'These were obviously bad doctors. The purpose of a doctor is to cure a disease, regardless of the race, colour or ethnic affiliation of the patient. One should observe the Hippocratic Oath, but not everyone is capable of doing that.'

Mr Beganovic believes it is no coincidence that the most important units of Sarajevo's hospitals, such as the trauma clinics where wounded people are taken for immediate treatment, are also the places that have taken the heaviest shelling. About 500 shells have fallen on the former army hospital, and almost 400 in and around Kosevo Hospital, which is attached to Sarajevo University, he said. 'The (Serbian) doctors who left us knew perfectly well the layout of the hospitals.'

The minister stressed that harsh though conditions are in Sarajevo, they are almost certainly less severe than in other Muslim-held parts of Bosnia such as Maglaj, Zenica, Gorazde and the eastern half of Mostar. 'We have wounded people all over Bosnia-Herzegovina, not just in Sarajevo. We tend to talk largely about Sarajevo because that is where we have the most accurate information. Elsewhere in Bosnia we don't really know what is going on,' he said.

'Even so, we don't have as many epidemic diseases as you would expect under the circumstances. That is partly because of the sacrifices made by our medical staff. But it is also our good fortune that we don't have food poisoning, because before the war we didn't have a diet of meat, milk, dairy products and eggs, which are the foods that can cause infection,' he said.

In Sarajevo, there are only five cases of dysentery and 13 cases of hepatitis A. More serious is the breakdown of the government's immunisation programme, which risks the return of diseases that had been eradicated, such as polio and diphtheria. There is also a danger that people will contract diseases from the numerous dead animals that are scattered on Bosnia's roads.

Sarajevo's citizens pride themselves on their cleanliness, pointing out that they have the oldest water supply system in Europe, built in 1461. This summer, however, tap water - like electricy - has been cut off in large parts of the city. Simple actions such as washing or changing babies' nappies have become arduous chores.

'There is no precedent in this in the history of warfare,' Mr Beganovic said. 'Water, food and electricity are being used to an enormous extent as an instrument of blackmail. The aggressor wants us to die, and the international community is tolerating this.'