Letter: Sarajevo: the media have left, the suffering continues

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The Independent Online
Sir: May I congratulate your newspaper on its concern for the people involved in the conflict in former Yugoslavia, and encourage it to continue.

I have recently returned from a short medical visit to Sarajevo and was saddened by the decrease in media presence. At the beginning of the war the Holiday Inn hotel was bursting with camera crews and reporters, now it is half empty. I suppose this is inevitable and reflects the weariness of the free world with wars that continue more than a few months. Many of the journalists have moved on to more topical places, but the aggression is not over and the siege continues. The people we met and worked with are in the twentieth month of a living nightmare.

The day before we left, a shell landed on a school, killing the teacher and four pupils and seriously injuring 15 others. The following day another shell killed five children and injured 40. The hospitals are severely stretched. The city hospital where we worked was modern and well equipped before the war, but because of the siege it cannot get many essential drugs or spare parts to repair or replace equipment that wears out. There is no morphine for pain relief; there is no oxygen; there is no running water; and the electricity is off more than it is on, so the wards and corridors are unlit and freezing cold. Instruments and dressings are sterilised over an open fire in the hospital courtyard, and in the dark theatres we often operated with a single battery light. The medical and nursing staff are very reduced in number but continue to work with unbelievable energy and good humour despite their desperate conditions.

Evacuation of some of the serious cases by the UN continues but it can only ever help a limited number. A nine-year-old girl I operated on had shrapnel injuries to both legs which had shattered her right femur and removed most of the flesh from the front of her thigh. She had a similar injury in the left shin and had also lost half of one foot. She has been evacuated to Italy and will undergo further surgery, but she will never walk normally again.

So far 55,000 people have been injured in Sarajevo alone, including 15,000 children. Hardly five minutes goes by without the sound of sniper fire or heavy shelling echoing through the city. The shells are the most destructive but the sniper fire is the more calculated and vicious. A favourite place to hit is the side of the thigh or knee, which does not kill but permanently cripples the person. The town is surrounded by hills so there are few streets that are completely safe. A colleague of mine was in the middle of a ward round when one of his patients was hit by a well aimed bullet that broke the window and passed right through his face.

We were busy operating when the news came of the shelling of the school. We finished as quickly as we could and hurried to the emergency room. I had to fight back tears as we saw the dark corridors full of mutilated children. Their clothes were soaked with blood and covered with dust from the damaged building. Some were already dead, others scarcely alive. Some were crying in pain, others strangely silent - brave but innocent victims of a hatred they cannot understand.

Many people ask me what they can do to help the citizens of Sarajevo. Not everyone can go out there, but we can all support your newspaper's campaign.

Yours sincerely,

CHRISTOPHER LAVY

Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon

University College Hospital & The Middlesex Hospital

London, W1

18 December

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