Underground Hospital: How a Hidden Bosnian War Clinic Saved Lives

10. April 2020.09:22

This post is also available in: Bosnian

A hospital concealed underground to avoid artillery fire in the Bosnian town of Olovo managed to save hundreds of lives during the war – and medics who worked there hope it can be preserved as a permanent monument.

“It all happened in one place – life and death. That is how things looked in those days.”

‘We felt the full intensity of the shelling’

The wartime staff of the hospital. Photo: Radio Olovo.

Hostilities erupted in Olovo when it came under attack from the Bosnian Serb Army in August 1992, while the town was defended by the Bosniak-led Bosnian Army. Local medics had to deal for the first time in their lives with injuries caused by artillery fire, recalled nurse Mevlida Kulic.

“Five people were injured, three of them severely, and one child was killed [in the first attack on the town]. For us, it was horrible,” Kulic said.

Olovo’s former medical chief Mujo Hodzic said that because of the intensive shelling, it was no longer safe to work in the town’s health centre – even in the basement.

“We felt the full intensity of the shelling, because the health centre was a very striking target, it was big and white and easily visible from the positions from which tank and howitzer shells came. So the whole front side of the health centre was destroyed and literally turned into a big pile of rubble,” Hodzic said.

It was then decided to relocate the health centre to somewhere outside the range of artillery fire. Hodzic was one of the people involved in finding an appropriate location at Paska Luka, one-and-a-half kilometres away from Olovo on the road to Zavidovici.

Internal medicine specialist Izudin Kucanovic, the current director of the health centre, said patients and medical staff were relocated to the new, semi-underground clinic on the night of May 3, 1993.

“The facility was practically below ground. It was made by digging and creating a wooden construction, which was covered with some earth,” Kucanovic said.

“So we resolved the security issue by constructing such a facility, but we were still losing people as we did not have a surgery ward and it took four or five hours to transport people to [hospital in the city of] Tuzla,” Kucanovic said.

‘I asked if the baby was alive’

Senada Selibasic, who was a midwife at the hospital. Photo: BIRN.

The first team of surgeons who came to the assistance of the underground hospital in Olovo came from Tuzla.

Doctor Abdulah Fazlic, who led the team from Tuzla, showed BIRN around the abandoned clinic, pointing out old medical equipment that still remains on the shelves.

“A war surgeon cannot change the situation in the field, but he can help minimise the number of casualties,” Fazlic said, explaining that it was necessary to adapt to any situation and work with whatever and whoever was available to save lives.

Once, he recalled, a driver helped him while he operated, as nobody else was free.

Camera operator Zlatan Kopic, who filmed some of the scenes at the hospital, recalled how he filmed not only surgeries and amputations but also the first Caesarian delivery of a newborn in Olovo.

“It was a wonderful experience. It was a baby boy, so when they took him out of the womb, he first peed and then cried. It was a nice refreshing story,” laughed Kopic as he recalled the memory.

The mother of the baby, Senaida Zukic, said that neither she nor her boy would be alive today it wasn’t for the war hospital. She had intended to give birth in Tuzla but the road was blocked.

The delivery was not going well, and Zukic had to be sedated and given a Caesarian.

“When I woke up, I was cold and shivering with fever… At that moment I was in so much pain that I didn’t even ask about my baby. The midwife, Senada [Selibasic], was a great person, very positive, she comforted me and helped as much as she could. I was in so much pain that I could not get up at all,” she said.

“When Senada brought the baby, I asked her if it was alive and if it even weighed a kilo,” she added.

The midwife responded that the boy was healthy and weighed 3.6 kilos. With tears in her eyes, Zukic said that when she heard that, “I can’t explain how I felt”.

‘It should have been preserved’

The two entrances to the neglected medical facility are now in disrepair. Photo: BIRN.

The hospital is seen as a symbol of wartime resistance in Olovo, but it is now abandoned and dilapidated.

A few years ago, doctor Fazlic visited it for the first time since the war, witnessing for himself how it has become increasingly rundown and its surroundings overgrown with shrubbery.

“I came by and saw that the place had not survived the ravages of time. The Olovo war hospital has been devastated. That hurts me deep in my heart,” Fazlic said.

“Believe me, it was as if I had come back to my house and saw it burned down. It should have been preserved,” he added.

Doctor Kucanovic argued that it should have been turned into a museum and educational centre long ago.

“The Olovo hospital, the war hospital, meant life for the local population of the Olovo municipality and for thousands of displaced people in the Olovo area. It also meant life for our wounded soldiers,” Kucanovic said.

Nurse Kulic said that there was an idea to turn the hospital into a museum, with the complete operating theatre on display, but this didn’t happened due to a lack of funding.

The mayor of Olovo municipality, Dzemal Memagic, said that there is a plan to renovate the site within two or three years. But, he cautioned: “The location itself is such that, in my opinion, it requires great financial resources.”

Those who once worked or were treated at the hospital have been saddened by its post-war decline. For journalist Amira Milunic, the reconstruction plan at least offers some hope of reversing this.

“It brings me joy to see that they are talking about it and that the war hospital will possibly be reconstructed one day,” she said.

This post is also available in: Bosnian