Siege of Gorazde: Relief brings no end to the pain: The wounded undergo major operations without anaesthetic

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The Independent Online
GORAZDE - The young man looked like death in the gloom of his hospital room, a pale wraith with a short stump wrapped in blood-soaked bandages where his right leg should have been.

'This man had an amputation without general anaesthetic,' said Dr Alija Begovic. 'We don't have the painkillers or facilities for major surgery here . . . We use alcohol and local anaesthetic.'

Gorazde had been under siege from Serbian forces for 146 days until the United Nations relief convoy arrived with 50 tons of food and medical supplies.

Nowhere was the town's desperate plight more evident than in the town's Isak Samokovlja hospital, where 60 patients were receiving rudimentary care in a building smashed by mortars and without running water or electricity.

'Conditions here are disgusting,' said Major Lawrence Linden, a French medical officer attached to the UN convoy. 'I have seen this in Africa, but never in Europe.'

Nurses held down a three-year-old girl as she screamed in pain and a man writhed while a doctor probed deep in his shoulder wound for shrapnel. 'We have very elementary conditions here,' said Dr Begovic. 'To listen to the cries of that child is terrible.' Dr Asim Prutina, the hospital's director, pleaded: 'We need help, every kind of help. We are treating horrible war wounds and we don't even have a surgeon.'

Down the hall a man hovered over his moaning wife, her body shredded by shrapnel. 'Grenade (mortar), grenade,' he choked out before starting to weep. The man's father, felled by a head wound from the same mortar, lay silent in the next bed, his face swathed in bandages cut from cotton sheets.

Gauze, swabs, surgical implements, antibiotics and suture materials were either in low supply or entirely lacking at the hospital before the UN convoy arrived.

The hospital, which is exposed to mortar and sniper fire from both sides of the valley, had hardly a pane of glass intact and many of its rooms were destroyed. 'That hospital . . . those were like battlefield operations during Napoleon's era,' said Lieutenant-Colonel Erik de Stabenrath, whose French marines provided the convoy's military escort.

When the UN relief column reached Gorazde, men and women wept in the town square as they pinned flowers on French and Ukrainian soldiers.

'This is the first time we have stood outside without fear for four months,' said Hajrudin Causevic, as the first UN vehicle pulled on to a bombed-out plaza in the town centre. 'They (the Serbian forces) were mortaring here just two hours ago,' he said.

Local residents and UN soldiers mingled briefly in a festival-like atmosphere amid the bullet-riddled cars, broken glass and blasted masonry which litter Gorazde. The convoy returned to the UN-controlled Sarajevo airport late on Sunday night.

'This has been a mini-masterpiece of tact and tension,' said the UN logistics expert Larry Hollingworth, who directed the successful convoy. 'We spent 10 days negotiating with the two sides and we had good luck.'

Gorazde's beleaguered residents were pale from months of hiding indoors, and many showed the emotional strain of living under constant Serbian sniper, shell and mortar fire. Men cried in mid-conversation for no apparent reason as grandmothers fought for a single cigarette.

As the UN convoy got ready to leave the besieged town, residents prepared for the worst. 'When you go up the hill the Chetniks (Serbs) will begin firing on us again,' said 30-year-old Dzafer Osmankovic. 'The world must help us. We cannot help ourselves. We are trapped.'

(Photograph omitted)

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