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Saturday, May 22, 1999 Published at 21:55 GMT 22:55 UK


World: Europe

The view from a hospital bed

Belgrade hospitals: "No absolute protection"

By BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson

To lie in a silent hospital ward in the blackness of a power cut, watching the anti-aircraft fire arcing into the air and listening to the engines of Nato planes as they come in for the attack, is to begin to share the fears of this city's inhabitants.

Kosovo: Special Report
Especially when the hospital has already been damaged in past Nato air strikes, and it is surrounded by several government offices and other legitimate targets.

Each of them is between 50 and 100 metres from the intensive care ward where I find myself.

I am here because I slipped on some wet steps on Friday morning and tore the tendons in my left thigh badly enough to need an operation.

The irony of events

And so, having come here at the beginning of April to film the most vulnerable hospital in Belgrade and listen to the fears of its doctors, I now find myself one of their patients.


[ image: Medical staff at a Belgrade hospital run for cover]
Medical staff at a Belgrade hospital run for cover
No one here, of course, has failed to spot the irony.

As I was brought into the Belgrade University Clinic on a stretcher a rough-looking paramedic with a shaven head started in on me in Serbian about Nato bombing and Tony Blair.

As a couple of nurses took my details and started to register me as a patient the air-raid sirens sounded.

They glanced at each other. Then at me. One of them seemed about to say something but the other shook her head warningly.

And that, effectively, was that.

Don't mention the war

Since then, I have only heard the war mentioned twice: once by a pleasant young orthopaedic surgeon, who said Nato had tried to break this country's army and its economy, and was now trying to break its morale.


[ image: Nato planes continue to strike Belgrade]
Nato planes continue to strike Belgrade
Afterwards he apologised for troubling me.

The other time was when an X-ray technician asked me where I lived.

Dublin, I replied, but when he started to say that the Irish, as neutrals, were very popular in Serbia I broke in to explain that I was British. No point in flying under false colours.

He nodded. Then he said: "Everything here is the fault of Communism."

He tapped his elderly X-ray machine and waved at the shabby, ill-equipped hospital ward.

Then he pointed out of a window at the sky which the Nato planes have made their own. "This war too," he murmured.

Experience gained through the war

In a way, though, I should be grateful to the one-time Communist President Slobodan Milosevic.

All the wars that have been fought in the former Yugoslavia since he came to power have given the specialists at the University Clinic unrivalled experience in dealing with damaged limbs.


[ image: A four-year-old is patched up in hospital]
A four-year-old is patched up in hospital
In a similar way, the IRA's favoured punishment, kneecapping (smashing the victim's kneecaps) turned the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast into the world's foremost centre for injuries to the kneecap.

When my wife Dee, who is here in Belgrade as my television producer, heard the doctor examining me suggest that an immediate operation would be best, she rang a specialist friend of hers.

He said we would be mad to have it done here. "Get on the plane for London at once," he said.

But Friday was my 63rd day in Belgrade. It was hard to get here and it has been harder to stay. I did not want to leave now.

A job well done

It turned out to be the right decision.

The operation was swift and easy: I had an injection in the spine which meant I could see everything and feel nothing.

The hospital may be short of equipment and some medicines, thanks to the UN sanctions, and some aspects of the place are distinctly Third World: the slice of bread and dollop of jam for breakfast, or the lavatories, or the lack of privacy.

But the surgeons and nurses can easily hold their own with those of western Europe.

The great majority of the international press corps are staying at the Hyatt Hotel here: vast, superbly run, and as safe as anywhere can be at a time like this.

The headquarters of Yugopetrol, whose facilities around the country have been frequent targets for Nato, is right next-door to the Hyatt - rooms on that side are not so popular.

The chances of friendly fire

But Nato presumably knows that the Hyatt is the press hotel, and with luck its maps will not be up to date (as they were not with the Chinese Embassy).

So there is a degree of safety in the hotel which does not exist elsewhere in the city.

In this hospital, for instance, we all feel pretty vulnerable.


[ image: Paramedics evacuate pregnant women from a maternity ward]
Paramedics evacuate pregnant women from a maternity ward
Last Thursday's accidental bombing of the neurological department of another Belgrade hospital showed that there was no absolute protection even for the most vulnerable and innocent.

Last week I hoped that Nato's bombing would prove a little more careful in the days to come, but it has not been.

Was the Yugoslav army barracks just down the road from the neurological ward really so valuable as a target that the risk of missing it and killing three patients instead was one worth taking?

So at night, most of the specialists and doctors leave, and a small number of nurses stay on duty here at the university clinic.

Other patients snore or mutter in their sleep, even when the sirens start up.

As for me, the discomfort keeps me awake.

The lights go off immediately the sirens sound, and I wait for the night's fireworks.

If you are immobile you feel particularly vulnerable.

The whoosh of the anti-aircraft rounds, the whining of the jet engines as the pilots search out their targets, the shuddering rumble as the bombs hit: these are the nightly noises here.

At the Hyatt the reinforced glass keeps most of the noise out. Now I am getting the original version.

The cause is just, I tell myself as I wait for one of the government buildings nearby to go up, those are our boys overhead.

Somehow, though, lying in the darkness unable to move it is hard to be convinced.



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