The Independent, 4-14-99
War in The Balkans - 'Collateral
damage' lies dying in a shattered
Robert Fisk in Belgrade
When NATO attacked the Belgrade suburb
of Banjica yesterday, its third bomb
blasted shards of glass into Dragana
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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."
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