Croatian Hospital Copes With Siege Of Its Own Surgeons Sew. Lives Ebb And Flow. Like The Shellings, The Victims Just Keep Coming.

Posted: September 03, 1992

SLAVONSKI BROD, Croatia — The soldier had no name, no papers. He was a big and robust man, and so it took him a long time to die.

He lay still on a basement operating room slab yesterday. He was a tank gunner on the Bosnian front who had taken a sliver of shrapnel to his heart.

For many long minutes, the surgeons cut and sewed, cut and sewed at his pink wounds. A nurse squeezed a hand pump to force oxygen down his windpipe. A tall intern pressed down hard, again and again, on the soldier's chest so that it heaved mightily and then dropped.

The man's feet turned a pale blue, then gray, and the surgeon rose up and said: "Stop. He is gone."

The nurse reached out and, as if turning out a light to go to sleep, switched off the computerized monitor that showed no life left in the unknown soldier.

The passing of this young Bosnian was an unremarkable event in Slavonski Brod, where soldiers and civilians are rushed daily to General Hospital, some of them to die. Since March, the Croatian town has been under siege from Serbian gunners across the Sava River who send artillery rounds whistling into homes and shops in the city center and toward Croatian military targets outside town.

Yesterday, as a nurse mopped the gunner's blood that had dripped into perfect circles on the floor, another Muslim soldier was wheeled into the basement operating room. Parts of this man's stomach and intestines had been blown out and lay now atop his chest.

"Perhaps we can save him," said a physician, Josip Bijelic, staring at the mess, but the faces of the weary nurses suggested otherwise.

Hope is a fragile thing in Slavonski Brod, where the hospital's director says 700 people have died in the operating room since March and 6,000 - including 1,100 civilians - have been treated for wounds. Every day, the shelling fells more civilians and the nearby war disgorges more dead and dying Croatian and Muslim soldiers.

In town, it is a capricious kind of killing. One moment, people are walking the streets, enjoying a sunny day, and in an instant they will bolt for doorways and basements as shells and rockets explode all around. Most survive unharmed. A few do not.

People die performing the most prosaic tasks: posting a letter, buying milk, tending roses in the garden. Everyday life is so perilous that most of the town's children have been bused out to safety, some of them as far away as Spain and Belgium.

On Monday night, Olga Kergic, 75, was opening a window to let in the evening air when an artillery shell destroyed her apartment and sliced open her back and side. She rested yesterday in a hospital hallway thick with bloodied civilians.

Slavonski Brod General is so full that its corridors and lobbies are lined with patients' beds. Most have been moved to basement areas because of shelling.

The hospital director says a hospital driver, electrician and delivery man have been killed by Serb gunners as they try to drive Croats and Muslims from the town. Doctors and nurses sleep at the hospital to avoid the dangerous commute.

Yesterday, a black flag fluttered above the hospital's sandbagged entrance. A hospital cook had been killed Tuesday on her way to work.

The town radio station, which airs shelling reports the way most stations run traffic updates, repeated its customary refrain yesterday morning: "A bad day in Slavonski Brod yesterday, just awful. Two dead. But quiet so far today . . . ."

An explosion shattered the morning peace. Fifteen minutes later, an orderly wheeled in a middle-aged man. He was bleeding from the head and arms, cut open by shrapnel. He was not able to recall what had happened to him.

Bijelic, director of anesthesiology, asked a passing nurse to tend to the man. He moved on to check on a curly-haired man who had lost part of his nose to shrapnel and sat bleeding on a hallway chair.

"We're the only hospital within a 90-kilometer radius," Bijelic said. ''We get soldiers, civilians, children."

Slavonski Brod is the only link to Bosnia-Herzegovina in this section of eastern Croatia. Serb forces control swaths of Croatia to the east and west.

All around the doctor, people wandered the hallways, carrying plastic bags filled with the clothing of a relative being treated somewhere in the warren of underground corridors. Orderlies rushed past with bottles of fluids and fresh blood.

Nurses wearing blue dresses with starched white collars tended to wounded boys and young men. They bent gently over them, spooning their food, washing them, consoling them in sweet low voices that sounded like the cooing of doves.

Damir Cesnik, both legs full of landmine shrapnel, finished his meal and vowed to return to the front to have his retribution against the Serbs who have occupied two-thirds of Bosnia-Herzegovina. He said the war had robbed him of everything except faith. He is a Croat, a Catholic.

"This is the only thing I believe in anymore," he said, and lifted from beneath his gown a silver crucifix.

In the next room, the maternity ward, three babies had been born in the previous 48 hours. One of them was named Josip. He lay curled in the arms of his mother, Vesna Plazaric, 24, a Muslim refugee who said she had been driven out of Bosnia by Serb gunmen.

She said she dreaded taking the baby home. She lived in a refugee center in an abandoned school in Slavonski Brod. Sooner or later, she knew, the place would be shelled.

Her face had the tight, drained look of people afraid of the future. That same look crossed the narrow face of Bijelic as a nurse summoned him to basement room number 5.

Inside lay Silvio Pijetlovic, his chest pierced by shrapnel. He was 19. His sandy hair and clear, full cheeks made him look more like a boy than a man.

The nurse said something in a low voice. Bijelic walked briskly past her into the little room and looked at the young man's pale face and gaping mouth. It was over. The doctor took the bedsheets and lay them tenderly over the boy so that anyone looking in would see only a few strands of his curly hair.

"We expected him to die," Bijelic said. His voice betrayed no emotion. ''This boy had no chance. He was suffering so much."

The nurse held the hand of Pijetlovic for a moment and then turned to wipe the tears that were streaking her smooth young face with mascara. She hurried head down from the room.

In the hallway, someone comforted her. Two other nurses pulled on long plastic gloves to remove the body of Silvio Pijetlovic to free his bed for the next victim of the war inside and outside Slavonski Brod.

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