Binding Up the Wounds: Bosnian Surgeon Recounts Life Under Siege

The Washington Post
April 23, 1993

TUZLA, Bosnia – Nedret Mujkanovic is a physician who specializes in medieval medical practices, though not by choice.

When Mujkanovic, 32, graduated from medical school, he planned to become the kind of surgeon who uses X-rays and lasers and complex drugs with tongue-twisting names. But war broke out among Bosnia’s Serbs, Muslims and Croats, and Mujkanovic, a Muslim, was sent through Serb lines nine months ago to the besieged city of Srebrenica, which desperately needed a surgeon.

There, he conducted more than 200 operations without anesthesia, including amputations. He performed intestinal surgery without anesthesia, head surgery without anesthesia, he repaired compound fractures without anesthesia. The patients did their best to suppress their screams.

“I had to work with the patients,” Mujkanovic said. “While doing the surgery, I tried to convince them that the worst was past, that it would be over soon. . . . These were very strong people, and they were able to withstand it. Nobody held them down. They believed in me.”

Secretly, Mujkanovic had stowed away five bottles of ether that he used only for operations on children. They were spared the pain of the scalpel but not always the sting of death, for there was no blood bank for transfusions and no antibiotics to fight post-operative infections.

The situation was brutally simple. As Serb nationalist forces tightened their siege on Srebrenica, medical supplies from the outside were cut off, along with electricity and running water. Soon there was no working medical equipment and no medicine, not even aspirin. Mujkanovic’s principal tools were his eyes, his hands, a stethoscope and a few scalpels.

Instead of bandages, he used strips of bed sheets. Instead of disinfectants, he washed wounds with boiled salt water. Instead of bright surgical lights, he operated by flashlight. Instead of nourishing food, Mujkanovic and his patients ate dried bean soup and bread made from straw.

Few doctors have worked under such conditions in the closing years of the 20th century, and if there are others they can probably be found in Bosnia. The experience nearly broke Mujkanovic, who said he worked and cried at the same time, up to 20 hours a day. “It was worse than medieval Europe,” he said in an interview here.

It all happened no more than 15 miles from Bosnia’s border with Serbia — chief patron and arms supplier of the Bosnian Serbs. In Serbia, so tantalizingly close, was everything Srebrenica needed, including medicines, bandages, food, electricity, peace. Not much more distant, just an hour away by plane, were rich and sophisticated European cities, places like Vienna and Zurich.

But it didn’t matter; Mujkanvoic was in a time warp. For while well-fed diplomats talked of Balkan peace in London and Paris, while high-speed trains ran on time in Germany, while sun-tanned tourists skied the Swiss Alps, Mujkanovic learned how medicine was practiced a millenium ago.

Mujkanovic emerged from Srebrenica this week on a U.N. helicopter that evacuated the last of the city’s most seriously wounded residents and defenders. Over three days, nearly 500 battered and bandaged people were flown to this Muslim stronghold, and as the hospital emptied, Mujkanovic was given a seat on the last flight out.

Today, dressed in military fatigues, he sat at a sunny outdoor cafe, sipping strong coffee, smoking one cigarette after another and talking for nearly three hours about his journey to hell and back. He was interrupted several times as friends and even strangers who had heard about his ordeal approached to embrace him, kiss him, praise him.

It began on July 15, Mujkanovic recalled, when his commander at a military clinic here in Tuzla asked him to go to Srebrenica. He left on July 21, stopped en route at a Muslim-held town, then made the final six-day trek on foot through Serb lines, traveling with an escort of 350 militiamen and 50 porters carrying medicine and other urgently needed supplies.

“We had to be very careful,” Mujkanovic said. “We could walk only during the night. During the day, scouts went ahead to find mine fields and mark them. Sometimes we passed within 50 meters of Serb positions, and we could hear them talking. But it was nighttime, and we walked carefully, so they could not see us.”

He started work the day he arrived in Srebrenica, which was packed with tens of thousands of frightened residents and refugees. There were five other doctors in the besieged city, but none were surgeons. Mujkanovic trained them, even though he himself was only a recent medical school graduate, but the supplies he had brought ran out within a few weeks. Five desperate months followed, until December, when international pressure forced the Serbs to let in a U.N. convoy carrying food, medicine and several Belgian members of the medical aid organization Doctors Without Borders.

Mujkanovic said he treated men, women and children with all kinds of wounds and illnesses. He also cared for 20 Serb combatants who had been wounded in battle and captured. He says they got the same medical treatment as everyone else and the same food. “My greatest satisfaction as a humanist and a doctor is that they were carried into the hospital on stretchers, and they left on their legs,” Mujkanovic said. “When they entered the hospital, they lay side by side with Muslims. They stayed in the same rooms, and they shared the food that Muslim families brought to the hospital. I guaranteed that nothing happened to them.”

He remembers a Serb who was brought to the hospital with a severe knee injury and a gangrenous foot. “I fought for 10 days to save his foot and avoid amputation,” Mujkanovic said. “I succeeded. When he started to walk, he said to me, ‘Doctor, if we ever see each other again, you will learn how thankful I am.’ He knew I had a son, and he said, ‘I wish you could see your son.’ That was the most sincere way of thanking me.”

What was his worst moment, he was asked. The answer was quick; it was a week ago, when Serb mortar shells slammed into the city center, most of them hitting a school soccer field where children were playing. At least 56 people were killed — 15 of them children — and more than 100 seriously wounded in one of the bloodiest episodes of the war.

“I didn’t know which person to help first,” he said. “Sixteen people died during the night, and a lot of them were children. There was no time to give them adequate treatment. I was working and crying at the same time.”

He did find some humor in his mournful circumstances, but like every other emotion that rose in him, it sprang from human misery.

One of Mujkanovic’s friends in Srebrenica was Tony Birtley, an ABC News correspondent who sneaked into the city and was able to transmit to the world the horror of what was happening there. Birtley suffered a shrapnel wound to his leg a month ago, and before Mujkanovic operated on him he squeezed the surgeon’s hand and asked him not to amputate. Knowing Mujkanovic was a smoker in a city where cigarettes are scarcer than smiles, Birtley joked that he would find a carton of Marlboros for the doctor if the leg were saved.

After the operation, when Birtley woke from sedation — this was after another convoy had arrived with medicine — he looked up at Mujkanovic and asked about the leg. It had been saved, Mujkanovic told his friend, and Birtley squeezed his hand again. “Will I still be able to play soccer?” the reporter asked. “Yes,” Mujkanovic assured him. “In that case,” Birtley replied, “I’ll give you two cartons of Marlboros.”

When U.N. officials negotiated the medical evacuations with the Serbs last weekend, Mujkanovic felt it was time to leave. But the Serbs had agreed that only seriously ill or wounded people be flown out, and two Serb doctors were in Srebrenica to ensure that no one else left the city. Mujkanovic needed their permission to escape.

“Even though we are members of opposing armies, doctors always have special feelings for each other,” Mujkanovic said. “I asked them whether they would let me leave Srebrenica to have a rest once the last sick people were gone. . . . They agreed that I could go with the last helicopter.”

There have probably been few partings like it. Mujkanovic’s friends heard he was leaving, and as a gesture of their admiration they found him a fancy set of clothes to wear on the flight out. He was their doctor, and they didn’t want him to look like a derelict in his soiled combat fatigues.

One person came up with a brown fedora; another gave him a fancy red jacket; others provided a nice pair of leather shoes and matching belt. Few people have been so resplendently clad aboard a U.N. helicopter. Mujkanovic smiled as he savored that moment, and for the third or fourth time in his narrative, he fought back tears.

He cried, too, at the Srebrenica airfield, he said, and a Red Cross doctor remonstrated with him cheerily, saying: ” ‘You should be happy; you are going back to your family, your wife and son.’ I said to her, ‘The nine months I spent in Srebrenica is like 10 years. It is hard to leave.’ “

He left, and within 45 minutes he was back in Tuzla. He spent his first night at home with his wife and 3-year-old son. Other family members stopped by, but they left quickly, because they knew he wanted them to. “I spent the whole night with my son, and I thought it was a dream,” he said.

What will he do next, he was asked.

“On my way to the helicopter, I stopped at the hospital,” Mujkanovic recalled. “A lot of people were there, and I said to them: ‘I am not leaving you. I will be back in Srebrenica.’ They asked me how, and I said, ‘I will find a way back.’ “

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.