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Healing often begins within

Hav Pajaziti, left, and her daughter, Ryve, who lost her arm in a NATO bombing, live in the children's ward at Isa Grezda Hospital. [Times photos: Jamie Francis]

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 1999


DJAKOVICA, Kosovo -- Years ago, it might have been a bright and gleaming place, with ample supplies and the latest in medical technology. But like much of Kosovo today, the only hospital in this city of 100,000 is just struggling to get by.

photo
Dr. Besnik Bardhi, right, works an all-night shift at the hospital helping twoo car accident victims.
The doctors and nurses have not been paid in seven weeks. There is not enough money for hospital gowns or soap in the bathrooms. There are no TVs, no books, no toys -- no way at all to pass the time except remembering what life was like and pondering how drastically it has changed.

Many of the patients here are ethnic Albanians who were uprooted from their homes during the three months of war between NATO and Yugoslavia. Despite its paltry resources, the Isa Grezda Hospital has been forced to become not just a place of healing but also a refugee camp and surrogate home.

Walk through its dimly lit corridors, with their peeling paint and cracked linoleum, and those sterile reports of "casualties" and "collateral damage" take on tragic human faces. But there are stories, too, of faith and courage and resilience that show how people, like hospitals, do not need the latest in fancy gadgetry to survive.

* * *

It was Wednesday, March 24, the first night of NATO airstrikes against Serbian targets. Dr. Besnik Bardhi, the hospital's ear and throat specialist, was a half block away when he saw a colleague's house go up in flames.

Serb paramilitary forces had wasted no time exacting their revenge against ethnic Albanians.

"I saw the light of the fires, where they started to burn houses," Bardhi says. "Then I heard automatic weapons shooting. It was like the "Night of the Long Knives.' We knew something very bad was happening, but people were afraid to get out and see."

When Bardhi arrived at the hospital the next morning, he made a sad discovery -- among the victims of the carnage was a 62-year-old surgeon. He had pleaded with the Serbs to spare him -- "I am a doctor and I need desperately to stay here," his wife heard him say -- but they shot and hacked him to death.

Still wearing his KLA uniform, Selman Hasani, who lost his foot when a mine exploded, spends another endless day at Isa Grezda Hospital.

For many of the 60 doctors on the hospital's largely Albanian staff, that was enough. Within days, about half of them had fled the city.

"Three times I was prepared to leave, but I was afraid to go because I had heard the Serbs were separating males from females and killing them," says Bardhi, 39. "When I saw that our wounded people were coming here, I decided to stay for good. I was concerned about my people and felt it was my obligation to be here."

With so many doctors gone, even specialists like Bardhi quickly became emergency room practitioners working 12 hours or more a day. They treated not just Albanians but also Serbian soldiers, who demanded that they be given priority. Many complained of hearing problems, from the sound of gunfire and shelling.

Bardhi found himself torn between his duties under the Hippocratic Oath and his feelings about the men who were massacring his people.

A Serb would hold out his hand to shake Bardhi's and "I'd see his arm and think how an Albanian had been killed by this arm. It would be hard to save a Serb's life and fortunately none were sick or injured enough that I had to do it."

Although Bardhi drove from home every day, several doctors moved into the hospital with their families. Bardhi is convinced that the only reason they weren't killed and the hospital stripped of everything valuable is that the Serbs needed medical help.

As soon as the war ended June 10, the only three Serbs on staff -- including the hospital's director -- promptly disappeared. So did several cars, many pieces of equipment and all but one of the ambulances.

Now, as the hospital fills with refugees returning to Kosovo, its already limited resources are being stretched even further. A French humanitarian organization has promised to donate drugs and other supplies, but as Bardhi looks around he sees need everywhere. Many of the doctors who fled went as far as Canada and New Zealand, and they may never come back.

"We are in very, very bad condition," Bardhi says. "I don't know what is going to happen."

* * *

The world for Zoje Krasnechi has shrunk to this: three rusty hospital beds.

One is for her 18-year-old-daughter. One is for her 13-year-old son. And one is for Krasnechi herself.

Almost everyone else in the family is dead -- husband, another son, two more daughters. All four killed by a NATO bomb.

On April 14, the Krasnechis were in a convoy of trucks carrying refugees from central Kosovo toward Albania. They had just entered the village of Meja, where Serb forces were shelling houses, when the bomb fell.

As she regained consciousness, Krasnechi, 38, could tell from the carnage that most of her family was dead. So she focused her attention on Sundim, 13, whose foot was on fire. Despite her own injuries, she went into a deserted house where she found some sheets that she ripped apart to make a bandage.

Sundim, his mother and his sister waited four hours before help arrived. They do not know what happened to their house, so for now the hospital is the only home they have.

At breakfast, they get cheese, tea, maybe some eggs. For lunch, bean soup or macaroni and a few pieces of bread. There is nothing for dinner, unless a friend or relative brings it to them. The only person who has visited in 21/2 months is Krasnechi's brother, who lives in Germany. That is where her oldest son -- who was severely burned on the face in the bombing -- is now undergoing treatment.

Krasnechi has the look of a woman who is still in shock. Her voice is flat, her face expressionless as she talks about her devastating losses. "What has happened, has happened," she replies when asked if she is angry at NATO or the hand life has dealt her.

The sun these days comes up before 5 a.m. and the sky doesn't grow dark until after 8:30. There is absolutely nothing to do in the long hours in between.

What would Sundim like most?

The 13-year-old doesn't say anything. He just starts crying.

* * *

As he gazes through the dirty windows, Selman Hasani wishes he could be outside with his colleagues in the Kosovo Liberation Army, who are guarding the hospital grounds.

But Hasani, 23, can no longer walk. A week ago his foot was blown off by a land mine.

After the war ended, Hasani was among the first to enter his village. Retreating Serb forces had cleared a few land mines, as required by the peace agreement. However, they had not touched several others that were still lying in the middle of a road, soon to be traveled by hundreds of returning refugees.

Hasani's KLA training included mine deactivation but only on dummy ones. He managed to defuse five with a knife; he didn't see the sixth until it was too late.

Now five days later he lies in bed, still dressed in his KLA camouflage uniform. He refused to take it off, which is fine with the nurses because they have nothing else for him to wear. The bandaged stump of his leg rests on a bloody sheet; there are no clean sheets either.

Hasani whiles away the time waiting for KLA buddies to visit, when he allows himself to smoke an L&M; cigarette or two. He has no wife or children, and his parents, brothers and sister are still someplace in Albania.

Maybe they will come to see him tonight. Maybe they won't.

Once a strong, vital man, Hasani doesn't know what the future holds. His home has been destroyed. There is no chance of getting a prosthesis right now; the hospital doesn't even have adult-size crutches. He is angry at himself, for as he sees it there is little glory in a soldier being wounded outside of battle.

Still, he is thankful that there are six less land mines to injure someone else.

"I was thinking of the children of the town. Better me than them."

* * *

Last Sunday night, Naile Istogu looked up and saw someone she never expected to see again. Her husband.

The family had been separated for more than two months, ever since they were the victims of another NATO bombing mistake. In the chaos that followed, father and two daughters wound up in separate Albanian refugee camps; mother and two sons in the Isa Grezda Hospital.

Mustafe Istogu was at first thrilled to see his wife and boys. Then he broke into tears.

"He saw my son had a leg amputated," Mrs. Istogu says.

Krenar, 7, was riding with the rest of his family in a truck near Djakovica (pronounced Jah-koh-VEET-sah) on April 14 when they heard the fighter jet high overhead. The others managed to jump out and run into the woods; Krenar could not escape in time.

Doctors at the hospital amputated his right leg below the knee. They also stitched up a gaping wound that nearly paralyzed his left arm. He is learning to walk on crutches, but the wood chafes his arm so badly that his parents have to carry him most of the time.

"It's impossible to see how this happened," his father says, still bitter at NATO. "They can't recognize a column of civilians? If this happened to us in a battle with Serb forces it would be one thing, but to have this happen in a column is very tragic."

That the family was reunited is due to some incredible luck and a German TV station.

Soon after arriving in an Albanian refugee camp, Mustafe Istogu was able to call his brother, who lives in Germany. The brother was watching TV a few nights later when he saw a report from a second huge refugee camp. And there on the screen were his nieces -- Mustafe's daughters.

The brother went to Albania, found both girls, then located Mustafe. Mustafe already had learned from other refugees that the rest of his family had been hospitalized in Djakovica. As soon as possible after the war ended, he used some of the money his brother left him and caught a taxi to Kosovo.

The road was so crowded with other returning refugees that the 50-mile ride took 12 hours.

When doctors give their okay that Kenar is able to travel, the Istogus intend to go to Albania, pick up the girls and move to Germany. But the family still won't be complete.

"My other son ran into the woods that day," Mrs. Istogu says, "and I don't know what happened to him."

* * *

When Dr. Bardhi, the hospital's nose and throat specialist, has a rare free moment, he works on a puzzle.

It is putting skeletons back together.

A few days after the war ended, a reporter with Djakovica's local newspaper called and asked if Bardhi would meet him at 80 Millosh St. Some bones had been found in the charred ruins of a house, and the reporter wanted to know if they were animal or human.

Bardhi took one look at a long, straight bone and knew the answer instantly. It was a human leg.

On April 1, neighbors had heard shots coming from the house, owned by an Albanian couple who ran a nearby paint store. The house was later consumed by flames from a Serb mortar attack.

The bones were scattered throughout the ruins, probably by dogs. For the past week, Bardhi has been piecing them together and now has two nearly complete skeletons. War crimes investigators have yet to visit the site, but there are many, many other places in Kosovo to keep them busy.

"This kind of victim is all around here," Bardhi says with a mixture of sadness and anger.

But now his walkie-talkie beeps. It is time to return to the hospital and tend to the living.

On the way back he picks up a few fresh peaches, just arrived from Albania.

"For my wife," he says. "She is pregnant and she hasn't seen anything like this in months."

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