Letter: Plea from a city in the throes of death

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The Independent Online
Sir: Greetings from a city where only the dead are lucky. The last two days here were a living hell. I'm sure you have all the casualty figures and do not need them again. I want instead to give a picture of the daily lives of the people here.

Both residents and refugees are crammed into crumbling buildings waiting for the next shell. When it hits, many are killed as there are such crowds in each building. It is usually many from the one family. The wounded lie for hours in the debris, as it is suicidal to try and bring them to the hospital. One UNHCR local worker said he could hear the cries of the wounded in the houses on his journey to our cellar yesterday.

All three UN military observers' cars are now engaged in ambulance service. There is neither safety nor effective treatment at the hospital. Shells batter down the walls there and machine-gun fire rakes the wards. Twenty people were confirmed killed in one of the hospital apartments yesterday. The Serb excuse for targeting it is that it is a military institution. I've been in all parts of the hospital 100 times in the past month, and I can assure the outside world that this is a lie. The theatres and all sterilising equipment were destroyed by a shell yesterday morning, so no further operations can be carried out. Now the hospital has little more to offer those patients who get there alive than sympathy.

The dead are hastily buried at night by covering them with a thin layer of sand. If it ever gets hot here, there will be terrible epidemics.

Our refugees have increased in numbers to approximately 100, mostly women and children. As yet, we are lucky, in that only one child was wounded here and is still alive. They pack the stairs to our cellar and when the shelling gets particularly heavy we bring them into our living quarters. They are so quiet and leave again for the upper floors when things calm down.

It was some of these children who asked to send their pleas to Geneva last night and gave us those messages from their hearts. They have little food and we cannot help them because, if we tried, our rations would be gone in an hour. At least we can give this little band of refugees water when ours is running, but God alone knows how long they will last. They all have terrible stories to tell, but I cannot speak to them or look them in the face - I am too ashamed at how little we can do for them.

Only occasionally, as when dressing some of their wounds, do we hear these stories. One old lady cried for her relative, an eight-month pregnant woman who was killed together with her three children by a direct hit on their apartment on 19 April. Another man with burnt hands was the only survivor of the fire that burned the UN military observers' worker and three others to death on the same night.

Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin want to hold talks about the future of Bosnia next month. There will be little left in Gorazde by then but corpses and rubble.



United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees


22 April

This letter, signed as above, was received by fax yesterday morning at 11am.