Serb Shelling Aimed to "Destroy" Hospital
A doctor who worked at a Sarajevo hospital when the city was under bombardment told the Hague tribunal this week that he could see tank shells being fired from Bosnian Serb-held territory targeting the medical facility itself.
Dr Bakir Nakas, a prosecution witness in the case of wartime Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic, was general 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.
He also worked as an expert advisor to the Bosnian government’s health ministry and was a member of an organisation known as the “crisis centre”, made up of managers from all of Sarajevo’s healthcare institutions.
Nakas said that due to the constant shelling, most of the hospital’s equipment was moved from the upper floors to the basement. His office, however, remained on the third floor, where he had access to a terrace facing Bosnian Serb territory.
“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.
Nakas said everyone knew about the infamous “sniper alley” – the name given to Sarajevo’s main boulevard which was a consistent target for Bosnian Serb snipers. He said the road “directly opens onto the state hospital and made sniper fire possible in many ways”.
Prosecutors asked Nakas how he came to the conclusion that the Bosnian Serb intention was to “destroy” the hospital.
The witness replied that he had heard about statements made by Dragan Kalinic, a surgeon and former colleague who became health minister in the newly-formed Bosnian Serb entity known as Republika Srpska. He understood that Kalinic had 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”.
The witness described this remarks as “more or less an explanation of the statement which we heard at the meeting of the crisis centre”.
Nakas said that a professor of architecture surveyed damage done to the State Hospital, and pointed out damage to a pillar on the eastern side of the eighth floor.
“[The professor] said that if the pillar was broken or sustained more damage, the hospital would practically break down and implode. So realising that a number of hits were directed to the eighth floor, we supposed this was an attempt to render the hospital unfit for use,” the witness explained.
The prosecution asked Nakas to comment on post mortem reports from the first of two attacks on the city’s Markale market, which occurred on February 5, 1994. The mortar attack killed some 60 people and injured more than 100. (A second attack on the market occurred more than a year later, on August 28, 1995, and killed some 40 people.)
Previous trials have established that the attacks originated from Bosnian Serb territory, though Mladic’s defence is challenging those conclusions.
The witness said he viewed excerpts from the findings of autopsies conducted on those killed in the 1994 attack. The autopsies took place at the city department of forensic medicine, and the excerpts seen by Nakas listed the name of the victim, the diagnosis, nature of injuries and cause of death.
One of these documents stated that the “amputation of the lower extremities was caused by an explosion”, Nakas said.
“This was a blast syndrome, and there are explosive wounds on the head, abdomen and both extremities, and as a result the complete destruction of the foot of the left leg caused by explosion,” he continued, citing one of the excerpts.
During the cross-examination, Mladic’s defence lawyer Miodrag Stojanovic pointed out that the witness was absent from the hospital between April 8 and May 10 1992, because he applied to be demobilised from the JNA, which was running the hospital at the time.
Nakas said he was kept very well-informed about what was happening by his brother and by his colleagues during his absence, and also obtained information from the news media.
“Information was published in the media, so I could hear it on the TV and I did. And I also was in contact with my colleagues, not just my brother, they confirmed to me they were hit once. I couldn’t tell you on what day that was, but it did happen in the relevant period,” Nakas said.
Stojanovic also asked several questions about the “crisis centre” – also referred to as the “crisis staff” – to which Nakas belonged.
“Was it an ad hoc body?” Stojanovic asked.
The witness said the crisis staff was formed some time in March or April 1992.
“I suppose it was set up based on law and regulations that were issued by the authoritative body. It was not [an] ad hoc group. That group had a special role. I represented my hospital and I was attached to that group, but when it comes to the setting up of the crisis staff, I’m not aware of any details,” Nakas said.
He said most of its members were health professionals, but local and international humanitarian workers also attended its meetings. On occasion, members of the Bosnian police or army would come “if the agenda topic required their presence”.
Stojanovic asked whether the crisis staff was able to “issue binding decisions in regards to safety, logistics and management of the hospital”.
“The role of the crisis staff was mostly as a coordinating and advisory body,” Nakas replied. “The proposals and suggestions that they came up with would be sent to authorities who transformed them into instructions that everyone had to adhere to. It did not have a major impact on management of [the] institution I managed.”
The Mladic trial continues next week.
Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague.