I have just escaped from 15 months in a hell that I once knew as Sarajevo. Ours is the fourth generation of my family to claim this ancient, cosmopolitan, multiethnic city as our home. My family is classified as Eastern Orthodox Christian. In the context of the present war, that makes us Serbs. I have lived most of my life under the communist regime of Josip Broz Tito. We were all called Yugoslavs. The atheistic communists did not outlaw the practice of religion; they simply discouraged it. It was not politically or socially acceptable to attend church or to observe the rites of any religion.

Sarajevo is the capital city of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Our people are either Eastern Orthodox Christian Serbs, Roman Catholic Croats, or Muslims. But the same Slavic blood flows through all our veins. Our ethnic preferences were set by our ancestors for historic reasons, usually as a condition for survival. But when the Berlin Wall was razed and the Iron Curtain collapsed, ethnic walls were raised all over Eastern Europe, and so we can no longer be known as Yugoslavs.

Our civil war has been called by many a religious war. That is not quite true. It is a war for freedom and self-determination. Our religious heritage only determines the uniform the soldiers wear. The Serbian Republic along with the Republic of Montenegro form what remains of the Federal Yugoslav Republic. Article 13 of the Serbian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, just as the United States Constitution does. All citizens are considered equal in the eves of the state. Serbs believe in the separation of church and state. This is not so in Croatia, where only Croats (Roman Catholics) are guaranteed the full rights of citizenship. Nor is it true in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where only Muslims can hold office, hold government jobs, teach in the schools, or otherwise benefit from full citizenship. In Muslim countries the church is the state. These basic differences in the rights of minority citizens are the true root of the conflict.

This difference is worsened by the borders of our breakaway republics. The new borders, the ones the breakaways of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina now claim, arc not the same borders that they brought to Yugoslavia when it was formed in 1919 by the Treaty of Versailles. They are “administrative borders,” established by Tito for the sole purpose of better managing the internal affairs of the communist state. They have no historic significance. But they place thousands of Serbs, mostly farmers, in new republics that deny them full rights of citizenship because of the religious preference of their ancestors. Though only about 20 to 30 percent of former Yugoslavs actually practice the religion of their ancestors, they cannot escape the label or the consequences.

I have been the dean of the medical school of the University of Sarajevo since 1989 and the head of the department of reconstructive and plastic surgery since 1978. I have also established an international reputation as a skilled plastic surgeon, specializing in the field of microscopic surgery, most specifically on trauma to the hands. I have never been able to distinguish a difference between the hands of a Serb, a Croat, or a Muslim through my microscope. The difference, if it exists, has never mattered to me, and it still doesn’t. Over the years I have operated on a member of almost every single family in Sarajevo. I considered Sarajevo to be the ideal home. Not out of ignorance, since I have traveled extensively in both the East and the West. But it was cosmopolitan, cultured, and friendly.

The first act of terrorism came as a referendum vote on secession from Yugoslavia was being tallied on March 1, 1992. Three snipers opened fire on the wedding party of a Serbian couple at the Bascarsija Orthodox Church, killing Nikola Gardovic, the father of the groom. They then proceeded to burn the flag of the church, which had been unfurled for the festivities. Two of the killers were later positively identified as Croats, one a Muslim. The latter became one of the most infamous bandits in Sarajevo. lie ended up in our hospital, where he was treated surgically for a hand injury—just one of the little ironies of civil war. That single act of mindless violence unlocked the gates of hell. The barricades went up between ethnic enclaves, and Sarajevo became a city under siege.

My personal hell did not begin until a month later, when on April 6, as I was leaving my home for my early rounds at the hospital, I was struck in the shoulder and in the back of the head by two bullets. They were fired at me by a 25-year-old Muslim neighbor, a newcomer to the area, who shot me because I am a Serb—a fact I had almost forgotten. I became the first wounded person to be treated in my department in my own hospital. The wounds were painful but not so serious as to prevent me from being transformed from patient back to practicing surgeon after several weeks of healing. But I did have time to ponder the motivation that would trigger the attempted assassination of a surgeon who has devoted over 25 years to the healing of the sick in this very city. I felt that I had given my life to these people and that my reward was two bullets.

That transformation also took me from my specialty of microscopic hand surgery to my new field of combat surgery. For the next 15 months the hospital became my home—and my hell. The supply of battered, bloodied bodies seemed endless; the pain and suffering beyond comprehension. I am not a young man. I was born in 1940, at the outbreak of World War II. Those 15 months aged me 15 years. I finally escaped to Serbia, but my health was devastated and my spirit broken.

Let me explain a little about the broken spirit. Our hospital staff represented all three major ethnic groups, as did our patients. We never treated any patient differently, regardless of ethnic label: soldier, civilian, or child. In the hospital all were ailing Yugoslavs, human beings suffering and dying.

Occasionally, we did get the opportunity to watch the television news reports emanating from the United States and Great Britain. It was difficult to believe they were covering the same war that we were experiencing. We Serbs, defending our homes from looters and pillagers, were vilified as invading aggressors. I was shot outside my own home, on the way to work. Invader? Aggressor?

I treated the victims of the notorious “Breadline Massacre” that was reported on Western TV as an artillery or mortar attack on civilians who were standing in line for bread: an attack by Serbian forces at just the moment that the only two professional TV cameras in the city were on hand to film the explosions. I found it very odd that there were no lacerations or puncture wounds on am of the victims. Neither were there any head or chest wounds, only trauma to the lower extremities. The wounds were obviously not caused by artillery shells; they were the result of pre-planted demolition charges placed by Bosnian Muslim forces, triggered for the benefit of the TV cameras. For further proof, the surface of the “attack” area evidenced no starshaped shell holes, which are typical of such explosions. Instead, there were two concentric circular holes that are now covered with flowers, in memory of the victims of their Muslim “friends.” Several Muslim families were evacuated from their homes in the immediate area of the “attack” just prior to the media event. Coincidence? The United Nations has proof of this diabolic war crime, Muslims killing Muslims and blaming the Serbs for propaganda. It is only one example of the horrors of the propaganda war and the gullibility of the Western news media.

At the very beginning of the war, the chief surgeon of the Bosnian army. Dr. Naim Kadic, over mv vehement protest, permitted Bosnian army snipers to operate from the hospital roof and from several windows on the upper floors of our hospital while the lower floors were full of war victims: many civilian as well as combatant Muslims. Thus, he transformed a safe haven into a military target. The Western media was quick to report the daily shelling of the hospital by Serb artillery. They either did not know or did not care that Muslims had made it a military target.

In August 1992, I was approached by a British officer of the UNPROFOR (United Nations Protective Forces). He wanted to give me an official protest for the firing on his troops by Muslims from the hospital. Since I did not have the authority to accept such a document, I referred him to Dr. Kadic, who had become the administrative director of the hospital. His comment: “Dr. Kadic will not admit that there are people shooting from the hospital.” I knew they were using the windows of my office for sniping.

The media stresses that Serbs occupy 70 percent of the land in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but they fail to mention that Serbs hold clear title to 64 to 70 percent of that land. They also fail to mention that Serbs are the farmers of the region and that Muslims have been the urbanites. Farmers always need more land than factory workers or civil servants.

Serbs lost the propaganda war early on in Croatia, even though they successfully defended the land they have owned there for centuries. Once the West had determined that the Serbs were the villains in Croatia, it was easy to shift the aggressors from Croatia to Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Muslims were happy to help maintain the image. Strange that military forces from Croatia have been invading Bosnia-Herzegovina for months, but there has been no serious talk of sanctions, embargoes, or bombs against Croatia.

The damage done to our spirit, vilified by the world and by our former allies and friends, will take much longer to heal than the bodies of the traumatized victims of this mindless war. I can attest to that, since my wounds have healed. My spirit may never heal.


This story was told to and transmitted by Bruce Ralston, a businessman from Delaware who spent four months on a humanitarian mission to Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Croatia.