When Diederik Ross, who was enlisted in the Netherlands at the time, volunteered to join UNPROFOR in Yugoslavia in 1994, he thought that the war, Europe’s deadliest armed conflict since Word War II, would be brief and that he would be back home in no time. Instead, the war continued, and he was sent to join Dutchbat III in Srebrenica, where, as some may know, things went from bad to worse.
Diederik sent his family multiple letters about the situation and also kept a diary, which includes some horrific events. He finally went home in July 1995, long after his military service had officially ended. The same year, the Netherlands abolished military service.
Bosnia, Potocari Srebrenica enclave, 6 May 1995
I’m working at the first aid station as a Dutch army medic for Dutchbat III as part of UNPROFOR and we are stationed in a former battery factory. My call sign is 73P. It’s the end of a bitter cold winter, supplies of fuel, medical equipment, ammunition, mail and many other things are a major issue.
A female refugee is brought in. She can’t really be treated any more by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). In a desperate attempt, she has decided to carry out an abortion on herself with as a result a growing internal infection. The plan is to evacuate her as soon as possible so she can be treated in Sarajevo, the convoy has already been requested. As with many of our convoys the request is denied by the Bosnian Serbs.
In the meantime, her condition worsens. She needs surgery as soon as possible. The medical team decides that they cannot wait for clearance. Her blood pressure is way too low for the surgery, though. We don’t have fresh blood available … although … although … enough soldiers around. We dust off the list with blood types of the military personnel. My blood type matches hers, so I volunteer and give ½ a litre of blood. After this, three other soldiers do the same, and she finally has a high enough blood pressure.
After around four days, she finally is fit enough and the surgery can be performed. The surgery is a success. Shortly after her surgery, complications occur. There is fluid in her lungs. The only way to remove the fluid is to have her breathe pressurised air, which is only possible when she’s kept unconscious.
Treating the female refugee
The next issue arises: how do you feed an unconscious patient? Normally you would use a drip feed, but we don’t have that available. Instead, they use a probe to put a tube through her nose into her stomach. Next hurdle: what to feed her? She really needs high protein food to regain her strength and health. The pharmacist makes a concoction of yogurt, peanut butter, multi vitamins etc. After a request on radio Dutchbat (local radio station manned by Dutchbat soldiers but also often listen to by the ‘locals’) for protein rich food, we get some food that is normally used by body builders.
Slowly, the patient recovers; the fluid in her lungs is almost gone. Her metabolism is very slow. She still needs enriched air to breathe. They use two in machines that have been placed in series called permoxen. These machines enrich the oxygen level of air from 20 to 40%. There are frequent power cuts, however, and when that happens, the patient has to be ventilated by hand using oxygen bottles. All medical personnel are doing their utmost to care for this patient. The thing with oxygen bottles is that if you have an emergency, you need those to be on standby. A grave decision is made: they will no longer use oxygen bottles to treat her. This basically comes down to a suspended death sentence if the electricity fails. A diabolical dilemma, she has been in our ICU for almost three weeks now.
I am sorry to spoil this story but it does not end well. The diabolical dilemma never arrives. As many people at that time, she gets a virus infection. Many people who get this infection suffer a couple of days of intestinal problems and that is it. For her, it proved to be fatal. She dies on 26 May. A day later, she is collected by her torn family. The next day all personnel involved are gathered outside. The atmosphere is dejected and sad. I am told what has happened, it moves me deeply.
When I look back, I am proud of the people involved here, who used all of their ingenuity and effort to care for this person and tried to prevent the inevitable.
Unfortunately, this would not be the last diabolical dilemma to come.
The last trip, Potocari, Srebrenica 13 July 1995
The enclave is almost empty, most of the refugees have been deported by the Bosnian Serbs. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has taken away the wounded refugees in a convoy of four-tonne trucks. These are being driven by medical personnel – including people who have never driven a truck – to Kladanj, the border between the Bosnian Serb and Muslim areas. Although I am a medic and officially qualified to drive a four-tonne truck, I have not been asked to join the convoy. That may have to do with the fact that I was exhausted after my (overnight) stay with the refugees. I’d just woken up when the convoy left.
In the afternoon, I receive the order to go to Srebrenica town with a four-tonne truck and a group of medical staff to pick up any refugees left behind. The dressing station’s boss, Jan, will be joining as a co-driver, with a Mercedes G with a lieutenant and co-driver leading the way. There are four or so men in the back to pick up anyone who needs rescuing. Normally, everyone would take their helmet, bulletproof vest and gun. Not this time. The BSA are lord and masters of the area and they’ll steal everything that isn’t nailed down. Including helmets, bulletproof vests and weapons. So it is a question of putting on your beret and hoping everything turns out okay.
When we leave the gate, we turn left towards Srebrenica and the bus station. The bus station is empty. Where thousands of refugees used to be, there are clothing and blankets scattered everywhere because the refugees could not take them with them. It’s another hot, sunny day. When we are a few hundred meters past the bus station, we meet a group of Bosnian Serb soldiers on the road, who signal that we must stop. When we stop, an AK47 barrel is pushed through the window of the Mercedes G. We are literally robbed of the vehicle right in front of our eyes. The lieutenant briefly makes an attempt to get away, but there’s no point. So he joins us in the front. There is plenty of space for three people in the front of a four-tonne truck, so it is no problem. So, what now? The only thing we can do is continue.
On the road to Srebrenica – about a 15 km drive – we occasionally meet looting Bosnian Serbs. They’ll take anything that is of value to them. Slowly we drive on, keeping an eye on the surrounding area to look for refugees who have been left behind. We manage to pick up two elderly, utterly weakened refugees. Then we arrive in Srebrenica itself. A ghost town. Every now and then we see corpses lying in the street. We turn around. Jan wants to drive, so we change drivers. Halfway back, we pick up another old woman. And a little later we arrive back at that notorious bus station.
A group of Bosnian Serbs have tried to steal a truck. But you don’t get very far without fuel and coolant. The truck is halfway on the road, with its nose pointing towards us. After a brief discussion and some talking with hands and feet, we push the truck off the road with our four-tonne truck. And we drive back to the compound. This would be my very last trip as a four-tonne truck driver and it was probably the very last trip into the Dutchbat III enclave. I’m not done yet, however. When can I go home? Now, that will be a whole other adventure.
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