Intended for healthcare professionals


Abdullah Nakas

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 06 April 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:856

Bosnia and Hercegovina's most famous war surgeon

Abdullah Nakas was chief surgeon at Sarajevo's State Hospital for over 30 years. At the outbreak of the war in Bosnia and Hercegovina in May 1992, this hospital was part of the Yugoslav national army network of hospitals, serving army personnel but also dignitaries and local residents. As most of the staff had military training and the hospital was right in the centre of the city, it rapidly filled with casualties. Conditions were horrific and Abdullah would operate with his team under temporarily rigged lights, often without basic equipment, anaesthetic gases, or analgesia.

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In the first winter of the war in 1992, conditions in the State Hospital were especially harsh. There was little food, scarce medical and surgical supplies, and no heating. Abdullah had a practical solution for his patients even then. “We will show them that this is not so cold at all.” The next morning his entire team made its rounds in short sleeved white coats, which the patients found highly amusing.

Through all this, Abdullah's close partner and ally was his brother Bakir Nakas, who initially was an infectious diseases specialist but when the war started turned to hospital administration and managing, and lobbying for international aid to the hospital. They were a notable team, Bakir more diplomatic and outgoing, and Abdullah more taciturn.

Abdullah worked 1500 consecutive days during the war and its aftermath. He was a quiet man who made few demands and was certainly no prima donna. Despite not speaking English, he met and worked with the many teams of international surgeons who made their way to Sarajevo; some became longstanding friends. He was even polite to the medical tourists, but tended to disappear whenever a fuss was being made. He maintained cordial professional relationships with all sides during the war and was known for his fair and professional treatment regardless of ethnic background. These qualities helped make him one of the most respected and well loved doctors in Bosnia and Hercegovina.

Abdullah Nakas was born in 1944. He was always straightforward in his views and knew from an early age that he wanted to be a surgeon and that he wanted to live in Sarajevo. He did both, qualifying in 1968 from Sarajevo University and doggedly working away at general surgery, acquiring en route an encyclopedic knowledge of urology and gynaecology. He was never particularly fired up by fame or fortune and could not stand a fuss or confusion.

After the Bosnian war he started the Union of Health workers in 1997 with Bakir. At the time nurses were working for a few pennies an hour and he rightly saw that in the aftermath of war those who had worked with little or no pay during it would be forgotten amid post-war privatisation.

Abdullah also turned to politics and was elected a member of the parliaments of first the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina (one of the two post-Dayton peace agreement entities) and then the state for the SDA of Alija Izetbegovic. He was not particularly nationalist and was moderate in his views, but was deeply disturbed by the break up of Bosnia and Hercegovina following the dissolution of Yugoslavia.

His last illness was short; he travelled to Berlin with Bakir for coronary artery surgery, but died a month later from a ruptured abdominal aneurysm followed by haemorrhagic pancreatitis and renal failure. His funeral was one of the largest seen in the country and attended by over 10 000 ordinary people, many of whom he had treated. It was also one of the quietest funerals, something he would have appreciated. There was little pomp and ceremony and no stuffy speeches, which he would have hated, just an endless stream of people wanting to take a turn bearing his coffin a few metres through the old cobbled streets of Bascarsija, marked still by Sarajevo “roses,” the old mortar craters filled with red cement commemorating those who had been killed at those spots. He was buried in Kovaci, an old cemetery dedicated to soldiers and the many civilian victims of the recent war.

It is hard to imagine the State Hospital without him. When I visited in March 2006, the surgical department seemed sadly empty, even though the entire hospital, which had been shelled floor by floor during the war, was now rebuilt and re-equipped, and the bodies and blood from the war years long since patched and cleared up. The place was lacking its key character, the quiet man and stubborn surgeon Abdullah Nakas.

He leaves a wife, Senada, and two children.

Abdullah Nakas, chief surgeon State Hospital, Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina (b 1944; q Sarajevo 1968), d 27 November 2005.

[Mary E Black]

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