Photo: Wild Dingo Press
With the surgical unit set up, I’m aching for rest, but it’s not going to happen. The first rocket explodes fifty metres away.
Extract from Blood on My Hands by Craig Jurisevic
Original full-length version published by Wild Dingo Press
Condensed version © Reader’s Digest (Australia) Pty Ltd
Craig Jurisevic’s bold plan to get medical aid to soldiers and local people torn apart by the Serb army is to set up a field hospital in the war zone -- in a cave near the peak of Mount Pastrik in Kosovo, not far from the Albanian border.
Alija and the lieutenant leave me in possession of the cave and I stand at the entrance, wondering how I can fashion this hole in the side of a mountain into a combination hospital ward and surgical theatre. I can see that I’ll have to operate up here, at the mouth of the cave, where the light is the strongest. This leaves me exposed to a direct hit by shrapnel, but without the light there can be no surgery. I’ll sleep at the back of the cave and in between the sleeping section and the operating section I’ll site stretchers and bedding for preoperative and postoperative nursing. I’ll have to maintain a rapid turnover. As soon as patients are fit for travel, I’ll have them moved down the mountain to Shkumbin and Rukije at Cahan, and then on to the NORWAC unit at Krume.
With the surgical unit set up, I’m aching for rest, but it’s not going to happen. The first rocket of what will almost certainly be a barrage explodes fifty metres from the cave’s entrance. The Katyushas are augmented by mortars and now the cave itself is shaking, dust falling from its ceiling.
I crouch inside the entrance to the cave. The Serbs must have a precise fix on the position—the barrage is extraordinarily accurate. Initially intense, it becomes more sporadic, and eventually subsides. Among my volunteers is Mentor, a male nurse with broad experience. I tell him to prepare for the first casualties and, even as I’m speaking, they begin straggling in. Small shrapnel wounds, burns; we can cope with this low-level stuff—but soon we’ll be struggling with much more serious casualties from further afield.
The aftermath of the next barrage is everything I feared it would be. Three of the wounded are bleeding badly from neck and abdominal injuries, all three under twenty years old, all three dead very quickly, in spite of my best efforts.
We have no blood, very little intravenous fluid, and only a small amount of Ketamine and, as on other occasions, I’m saving that for those soldiers who have a reasonable chance of survival. It feels callous, but economies like this are what I’m reduced to.
Corpses are carried into the cave, too. It’s a hospital and morgue combined. I tell the volunteers to lay the dead, shoulder to shoulder, at the back, where I sleep.
I work alertly but with a sick sense of beginning a surgical list to which there will be no end. Two below-knee amputations are followed by three open abdominal procedures to stop bleeding from the liver, then an iliac artery clamping in the pelvis, a carotid artery repair, an open thoracotomy and a number of major wound clean-ups.
The shelling fluctuates throughout the day, sometimes intense, often in just ones and twos. I have to take advantage of the lulls to organise a party of volunteers to find an area of soft ground not far from the cave, rapidly excavate a series of shallow graves, and get the dead into the ground. As we hurry back to the cave we pass a second burial detail carrying two more dead. I call out, ‘Be quick!’ because I know this lull could come to an end in seconds.
And that’s exactly what happens. Four massive mortar strikes just as we reach the cave. I dive headlong inside and stay immobile for a count of ten, then look back. The second burial party has been ripped to shreds, pieces of the corpses they were carrying and pieces of themselves are strewn over the slope.
This latest mortar strike means that there will be casualties waiting for us. I call out to my remaining volunteers and tell them we’ll have to go with stretchers and look for the injured. They nod their heads and prepare themselves for the open ground. Their bravery would move me deeply if I had time for being moved.
I lead stretcher teams up the track to the clearing where the shepherds’ huts are sited. We hug the rock wall on one side but even so, snipers’ rounds smack into the stone inches above our heads. Then mortar strikes break out, and it’s as if the explosions are stalking us up the track, covering us in dust and smoke.
The huts are still standing. Some of them are full of soldiers, most of them injured. A mortar shell on that hut would have turned the mountain top into an abattoir. I’m dazed in the head and sick in the heart. There’s a limit to what anyone can stand when it comes to this kind of stress.
It’s in the storage hut that I notice a man of about sixty, who appears to know what’s happening, issuing orders. I reach over and tap him on the shoulder.
‘Listen, I need some rations to take down to a cave we’ve got set up as a hospital. What do you think?’
He leans back and studies me. ‘You’re an Aussie?’
‘Yes. How did you know?’
‘So am I. Rilind Bytyci. I’ve been living in Victoria for years. Originally from here.’
A great rush of relief washes through me, just knowing that this man, this Rilind, is from Oz. I couldn’t be more delighted if he were Hugh Jackman, or Paul Hogan, or Dame Edna!
It’s a potent thing, a homeland, that sense of coming from somewhere. No wonder these Kosovars are prepared to leave their guts all over the place to secure the same sort of thing for themselves.
Rilind tells me that he has a son, Ilirian, also living in Victoria, whom he has ordered to stay put in Australia.
‘I told him that I’ll represent the family over here. You can see why I made him stay home, can’t you? What’s the life expectancy of a kid in a KLA uniform on this mountain?’
‘About five minutes,’ I say.
‘I would have said three.’
Rilind and I shake hands and speak of catching up whenever possible. I begin looking for my stretcher crews out on the mountain. I see lots of joshing among the soldiers. It’s extraordinary how moods can change in combat zones. Half an hour ago, everyone was petrified, convinced it was their turn to die. It’s a survival mechanism. Smile while you can, even if the mountain top is strewn with bits of human flesh.
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