The Independent of London, 6-1-99

War in The Balkans - Nato calls the
bombing of a hospital collateral
damage. I call it a tragedy

Robert Fisk reports from Surdulica

Not far from Milena Malobabic's young
body we found the notebook of love
poems she wrote for her boyfriend.
Nato's jets had killed her and at least
17 other patients in the tuberculosis
sanatorium a few hours earlier.
Milena's body lay in the shade of a
pine tree, her long black hair drifting
over her face in the breeze, a silver
earring sparkling in her left ear.

It would be easy to report that the
deaths of Milena, her mother and two
brothers, and those of the other 14
patients - not to mention the three
elderly people whose shredded remains I
discovered in the sandwiched concrete
of the sanatorium - are an atrocity.

And it would be true. Nato's bombs
destroyed a hospital at Surdulica
yesterday and they called it
"collateral damage". But Milena's death
alone constitutes a unique tragedy of

"If you only knew how much I suffer
now," she had written in childish
handwriting to her beloved in her first
poem in the notebook. "Maybe it's
wrong, but I want to go back to you.
Your Milena still loves you, but I feel
my wounds so much. I don't know if I
can still kiss you."

The poem was composed at least two
months ago, and across the side of one
page Milena had inscribed the words -
in capital letters and in English - "I
love you Dejane!"

The Serb woman who translated Milena's
poem to me broke into tears. No going
back to Dejane now. The wounds are too
many. Suffering is best not spoken of.

Beside Milena's body was that of her
mother - both feet torn off but placed
beside herlegs - and Milena's two
brothers, one of them with an arm bent
over his face as if still cowering from
the bombs.

The blue-uniformed Yugoslav rescue
teams covered them with bloodstained
sheets to keep off the flies. The
bodies lay a few metres from a pile of
concrete, torn clothes and old papers.
That is where we found Milena's

About 40 patients at the Special
Hospital for Lung and Tuberculosis were
seriously wounded when the Nato bombs
fell on them just after midnight. Part
of the two-storey, 75-year-old hospital
simply caved in on the men and women in
their beds, which is where most of them
died, although one old man whose body I
saw was still dressed in a pair of old
bluetrousers and a torn striped shirt.

This was an elderly people's home as
well as a tuberculosis clinic. The
hospital, set in a pine forest, was
marked on every known map.

Branislav Ristic, the commander of the
local civil defence unit, was among the
first to reach the scene. "There was
fire and smoke in the trees and people
screaming in the darkness and terribly
wounded people trying to crawl out of
broken windows," he said. "Everyone was
screaming for help. But this city is
bombed every six hours, so we had a
problem to get enough people to help."

There was, he said, no military target
in the area. So I walked into the pine
forest, joined hurriedly by Mr Ristic.
"There is nothing, you see, no military
target, nothing," he said as we walked
between towering stinging nettles, the
trees alive with birdsong.

But in a glade half a kilometre from
the hospital, I found the remains of
two camp fires, the ash still warm, and
four foxholes, the rectangular pits
soldiers dig to protect themselves from
bombs. On another track were 12 more
newly dug foxholes.

Mr Ristic said worried hospital staff
"probably" built them. Patients had sat
by the fires after they were evacuated
from the bombed building. Which is what
is called a likely story. Had there
been some military vehicle here, a
missile launcher perhaps? Not so,
insisted the Yugoslav authorities when
I raised with them such a heretical

But there was, they told me, a radio
repeater station a kilometre away, a
regular Nato target. Perhaps defence
personnel for the station had been
camped here, I was told. But it most
certainly was not a barracks or a
munitions depot Nato claimed it was
targeting yesterday. There was no
barracks here.

This is the old problem of reporting
civilian deaths in the Yugoslav war. To
find the slightest, most minimal reason
a hospital might be bombed is to
transfer the guilt of the slaughter to
the Yugoslavs and thus to say that
Yugoslavia killed its own people even
when they are torn to pieces by Nato
bombs. And any Yugoslav who hears such
a remark regards it, not unnaturally,
as an obscenity.

Geneva Conventions - assiduously
produced by Nato in response to war
crimes against Albanians in Kosovo -
state that civilians must be protected
even if in the vicinity of military
personnel. But the patients at
Surdulica were not given that
protection. Nor were the 450 dead (more
than half Albanian) in Nato's other 16
"mistakes" during this Balkan war.

"The partisans were here during the
Second World War and the Germans knew
they were but never touched them," Mr
Ristic said as we walked back beneath
the pine stands, filtered sunlight
blessing the smashed concrete and glass
and the patients' clothes, which had
been blasted high into the branches of
a silver birch tree.

He and his friends then took the bodies
of Milena and her family off the grass
and loaded them on to an orange dumper
truck for their journey to the morgue.

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