A New Documentary on Sarajevo´s former Military Hospital – The unsung heroes of the siege of Sarajevo

This article was published by Kosovo News on 9th January 2014 ( Link )

On February 15th  2013 during the trial of Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic, the Trial chamber heard the testimony of one Dr Bakir Nakas a prosecution witness in the case against Mladic. Nakas was manager at the Sarajevo State Hospital, which was a military hospital before the Yugoslav People’s Army, or JNA, withdrew from the city in May 1992. According to Nakas due to the constant shelling of the city and the hospital, most of the hospital´s equipment was moved from the upper floors to the basement. Nakas office however remained on the third floor from there he had access to a terrace from where he could see the Bosnian Serb positions. “I could watch firing from that direction as well as other activities,” Nakas told the court. He said that his secretary was wounded by a bullet “probably from a sniper”, and that “a similar shot” subsequently hit his office.

When asked by the prosecution why he thought that the Bosnian Serbs intended to destroy the hospital, Nakas replied that he had heard about remarks made by Dragan Kalinic, a surgeon and former colleague of Nakas who later became health minister in Republika Srpska. Aside from saying that shelling Sarajevo´s hospitals was good idea ( Remember, Kalinic had taken the Hippocratic Oath ) Kalinic is most famous for being removed from position of chairman of the national assembly of RS and SDS for what the OHR and Paddy Ashdown called “a catalogue of abuse, corruption and tax evasion at all levels of the SDS.” According to Nakas, Kalinic had once stated that “since the former military hospital had been lost, it was “good and necessary” to target it and also another city hospital, in order to “reduce the possibility of providing care to injured citizens of Sarajevo”.

The prosecution then produced a transcript of a Republika Srpska assembly session dated May 12, 1992, where Kalinic is quoted as saying “if the military hospital falls into the hands of the enemy, I am for the destruction of the Kosevo hospital, so that the enemy has nowhere to go for medical help”.

According to Nakas, a professor of architecture surveyed the damage done to the hospital due to it´s exposure to shelling and sniper fire and pointed out that one of the pillars on the eight floor had been damaged. Had the pillar broken off or sustained more damage the hospital would have broken down. “Given that a number of shells hit the eight floor we supposed that it was an attempt to render the hospital unfit for use”

The siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of any major city in modern time, it lasted three time longer then the siege of Stalingrad and a year longer then the siege of Leningrad. Beginning on April 5th 1992 with the murders of Olga Sucic and Suada Dilberovic on Vrbanja bridge and lasting up until February 1996, 11541 people were killed, of those 1601 were children. Approximately 50 000 people were wounded.

One of the cemeteries for those who died in the siege of Sarajevo, built on a football pitch in front of the Zetra Olympic hall in Sarajevo.
A cemetery for those who died in the siege of Sarajevo, built on a football pitch in front of the Zetra Olympic hall in Sarajevo.

In May 1994, two years before the end of the siege, the most comprehensive UN-Report on the siege of Sarajevo was published. According to the report, the structural damage and damage to property in Sarajevo as a result of the siege included hospitals and other medical buildings and ambulances and medical personnel, doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers with more. Civilians have also been subjected to attacks, which can in no way be justified by the current state of war.

According to the report:

The siege has not spared any sector of Sarajevo’s population. UNICEF reported that of the estimated 65,000 to 80,000 children in the city: at least 40 per cent had been directly shot at by snipers; 51 per cent had seen someone killed; 39 per cent had seen one or more family members killed; 19 per cent had witnessed a massacre; 48 per cent had their home occupied by someone else; 73 per cent have had their home attacked or shelled; and 89 per cent had lived in underground shelters. It is probable that the psychological trauma suffered during the siege will bear heavily on the lives of these children in the years to come. ( Civilian Casualties )

The chronology confirms that certain areas of the city have been systematically shelled throughout the course of the siege. For example, the city centre has consistently been the most often targeted area, with shelling attacks reported in that particular area of the city on 240 days. Also heavily shelled were the airport area and southwestern suburbs (shelling attacks reported on 158 days) and the Old Town area (shelling attacks reported on 113 days).

Systematic targeting can be inferred from the shelling of hospitals and in particular the Sarajevo University Clinical Centre Kosevo which has constantly been under shell and sniper fire. The Kosevo complex has reportedly been shelled at least 264 times since the siege began, killing staff and patients alike. An examination of the sheer number of shells and the high percentage of direct hits on the complex indicates intent by the besieging forces to hit this civilian target. Moreover, much of the shelling from the surrounding hillsides has taken place at midday, the time when the hospital is busiest with visitors.

It is therefore obvious that the besieging forces have knowledge of the patterns of operation of this facility. Despite extensive damage, a shortage of electricity, water and necessary equipment, the Kosevo Hospital is by necessity still in operation. UNPROFOR and city officials have indicated that shelling of the city ranges from about 200 to 300 impacts on what they refer to as a quiet day to 800 to 1,000 shell impacts on an active day. The chronology confirms that the city has been relentlessly shelled over the course of the siege. On the 196 days in the chronology where a total shelling count was available, Sarajevo was hit by 64,490 shells, totalling an average of approximately 329 shell impacts on the city per day.

The range of shelling activity on these days varied from a low of two shell impacts on 17 and 18 May 1993 and 24 August 1993, to a high of 3,777 shell impacts on 22 July 1993. Observers have noted that UNPROFOR shelling reports in many cases record only a fraction of actual shelling activity. This is due in part to the logistical difficulties encountered by the UNPROFOR contingent during the siege. Therefore, it should be assumed that Sarajevo has been hit by a greater number of shells than that which has been recorded by observers. (Structural and property damage and destruction)

At the trial of Major-General Stanislav Galic, the man that commanded the Sarajevo Romanija Corps of the Bosnian Serb Army or the SRK and was in command of the besieging forces from around 10 September 1992 to 10 August 1994, the prosecution stated the following :

The siege of Sarajevo, as it came to be popularly known, was an episode of such notoriety in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia that one must go back to World War II to find a parallel in European history. Not since then had a professional army conducted a campaign of unrelenting violence against the inhabitants of a European city so as to reduce them to a state of medieval deprivation in which they were in constant fear of death. In the period covered in this Indictment, there was nowhere safe for a Sarajevan, not at home, at school, in a hospital, from deliberate attack.

Galic was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the siege of Sarajevo, for the campaign of terror that the Bosnian Serb Army had unleashed on the citizens of Sarajevo. For the daily sniper and artillery attacks on the city as well as for the first Markale Massarce in February 1994, the verdict stated that the prosecution had proved beyond reasonable doubt that the shell had been fired from Serb positions. During the sentencing the Trial Chamber used for the first time the term; “Violence Aimed at Spreading Terror among the Civilian Population” as it was designated in the Geneva Convention. The Galic verdict also mentions the topography of Sarajevo, with its ridges and high-rise buildings provided vantage-points for the Bosnian Serb sniper and artillery to target civilians in the city.

A Former UN military observer and member of the UNPROFOR team investigating the first Markale market massacre testified in November 2012 at the trial of Ratko Mladic as to what he saw and experienced during his time in Sarajevo, John Hamill an Irish Colonel talked about what it was like to be in a city under siege, he mentioned that while he was there, on one day 3777 shells were fired at the city within the space of twelve hours. Hamill had previously testified at the trial of Stanislav Galic with regards to the first Markale Massacre. During his time in Sarajevo Hamill interviewed several Bosnian Serb officers, including  colonel Radislav Cvetkovic who confirmed to Hamill that “30,000 to 40,000 shells” had been fired on the city the previous year and wondered why so much fuss was made about a single shell that fell on the Markale market.

Bare cemetery, overlooking Sarajevo. Many of the victims are buried there.
Bare cemetery, overlooking Sarajevo. Many of the victims are buried there.

One of the most terrifying aspects of the siege was the introduction of so-called ”Modified Air Bombs” which really served only one purpose : To kill and injure as many people as possible, according to the Dragomir Milosevic verdict the bombs were heavy, clumsy and served no military purpose. Every time one of these was fired towards the city Milosevic was playing russian roulette with Sarajevo residents’ lives, according to the evidence that was put forward the effects of these so-called ”Modified Air Bombs” were overwhelming when it comes to the killing of civilians, and the psychological aspect it had on the civilian population. These clumsy mostly improvised devices usually fired from mobile launchers  had zero success rate, they could land just about anywhere and cause huge damage. During the ongoing the trial of Ratko Mladic a French UN officer described the damage such a device could cause. According to the witness on the 28th of June 1995 a so-called MAB ( Modified Air Bomb ) hit the TV building in Sarajevo, the explosion was extremely loud, almost like a train collision and the device itself was so large and flew so slowly that one could actually see it before it hit the TV building.

The witness who was an UNPROFOR official based in Sarajevo also testified about Bosnian Serb Army´s sniper activity in the city, according to the witness, the Serbs did not adhere to any ethical principals, “the shooting was very random.” “They basically wanted to crush the city, its inhabitants and their morale, and the sniper shootings seemed very logical in that regard – they were a means to achieve that goal.” According to the witness.

A "gravity bomb" or "A Modified Air Bomb" aircraft bombs modified into self-propelled projectiles launched from the ground.
A “gravity bomb” or “A Modified Air Bomb” aircraft bombs modified into self-propelled projectiles launched from the ground.

During the trial of Dragomir Milosevic in 2007 Thorbjorn Overgard testified about an attack that he personally witnessed in the Sarajevo suburb Hrasnica. Overgard, a UN monitor from Norway confirmed that the terror campaign against Sarajevo was “enhanced” after Milosevic took over the command of Sarajevo-Romanija Corps in late 1994. The prosecution had put forward the notion that Milosevic had simply continued where Stanislav Galic had left of, the campaign of terror against the civilian population continued, and was enhanced and enlarged by the use of modified air bombs. Overgard was witness to the destructive impact of the modified air bombs. As a member of the UN monitoring mission located in Sarajevo’s Hrasnica suburb. He witnessed an attack on 7 April 1995 in which a house was razed to the ground and caused damage to the houses in a radius of several hundred meters. The Norwegian major remembers having seen one or two legs sticking out of the ruins. He also added that there was no way that this was a military attack or collateral damage since the nearest Bosnian Army facility in Hrasnica was located one kilometer from the site of the blast. According to Overgard, an experienced air force officer, it´s impossible to control and guide these bombs, especially if the fired from an “an alternative source” in this case a truck.

Long before Dr Bakir Nakas came face to face in Hague with one of the architects of the siege of Sarajevo he witnessed on a daily basis the pain and suffering both physical and psychological that was being inflicted on the residents of the city by those besieging it. As a member of the staff at Sarajevo´s former Military Hospital, ( Vojna Bolnica) later renamed Sarajevo State Hospital. During the siege Nakas and his colleagues had the almost impossible task of taking care of the wounded, the victims of the siege. In many cases they were young children hit by shrapnel while playing, or by sniper fire. Or pregnant women, the elderly, students, workers and soldiers. Nobody in Sarajevo was safe, and nobody was more exposed then those tasked with taking care of the injured and the helpless. The hospital was directly hit by over 200 shells, as well as sniper fire, Serbs also used modified anti-air craft guns to fire at many of the buildings in the city.

Now a new Bosnian documentary chronicles the struggle of the hospital staff during the three and half year long siege. At the beginning of the siege the hospital lost three quarters of it´s medical staff. Given that this was a military hospital a great deal of the employees agreed with the wars JNA and the Milosevic regime in Belgrade was by then waging in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and decided to leave while others decided to stay. Those that stayed faced an impossible situation, heavily understaffed they were at the same tasked with treating an increasing number of patients with severe wounds.

As a result of the siege there also a lack of water and power; the hospital had lost fifty percent of its capacity during the very beginning of the siege. There was nowhere to put the patients. The patient ward was heavily exposed to the shelling. Patients were housed in basements and hallways. Hospital engineers were forced to dig wells around the hospital grounds in order to find water. Doctors recall several instances when pregnant woman would came running in the hospital carrying their wounded child in her arms, while expecting another one. Sometimes the doctors managed to save the children’s lives other times they did not.

A lot of the time despite the best efforts of the doctors the wounds were so severe that there was nothing that could be done. The hospital only had one power generator, which they used only when they had to do emergency surgery on a patient. Rest of the time they used candles. The bandages were recycled, they were washed dried and used again. As well as catheters, they were washed, boiled and sterilized so that they could be used again. Transfusions were given only to those that needed it most. However despite the hardships the staff persisted, adapted and rose up to the challenges they faced. The Sarafix external fracture fixation system was developed at the hospital during the war, in total 4000 of these were made at the hospital during the war. The system which is now world-renowned was born like so many great inventions out of sheer necessity. Many of the procedures that the staff adopted out of sheer necessity have now become standard practice in hospitals around the world.


The documentary, narrated by a former patient in the hospital, Marko Zita shows the quit determination and heroism of the men and women that cared for the victims of the siege, it also shows how they found time to make the patients forget about the horrors of war, even if it was for a brief moment. In the basement of the hospital, ballet performances were held for the patients and the staff, some of Bosnia´s most famous musicians preformed in the hospital, including Mladen Vojicic Tifa, Davorin Popovic, and Hanka Paldum. Sadly patients and staff were reminded of their predicament by the Bosnian Serbs on a regular basis. On New Year’s Eve 1993 it was decided that all the lights in the hospital would be turned on for fifteen minutes to cheer up the patients. The hospital was immediately struck by seven shells from the surrounding hills.

The military hospital as it was once called changed its name during the war to Sarajevo State Hospital. In 2006 it changed it again, today the hospital is called Abdullah Nakas General Hospital, named after its most prominent chief surgeon, Abdullah Nakas was chief surgeon at the hospital for well over 30 years. His colleagues remember him as a great humanist, a great surgeon a great leader and a great intellectual. He rarely left the hospital during the war and worked 1500 consecutive days during the war and its aftermath.

The documentary is a tribute to the heroism and determination of the doctors and rest of the staff of one particular hospital. However lets not forget that only a short drive away, up the hill was Sarajevo University Clinical Centre Kosevo, just as exposed shelled 264 times by 1994 and it´s staff just as heroic. Above all, for me this is a tribute not only to the heroic efforts of the doctors and the medical staff of Sarajevo´s Military Hospital, but to the heroic efforts of Dr Ilijaz Pilav and his staff during Ratko Mladic´s ruthless campaign against Srebrenica and Zepa in 1993, or the doctors and medical staff in Gorazde, Zepa, Bihac, the heroic efforts of the doctors in East Mostar and other places in Bosnia and Herzegovina during almost four years of merciless genocidal aggression on the country. The unsung heroes of the defence of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the healthcare professionals, physicians the caregivers and the healers.

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