Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Medicine and War

Trying to heal the scars left by the war in Bosnia

BMJ 2018; 362 doi: (Published 10 July 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;362:k3004


Medicine, trauma, and sexual violence—healing the wounds of war

  1. Richard Vize, freelance journalist, London, UK
  1. richard.vize{at}

More than two decades after the Bosnian war, memories of the conflict and caring for the living—and the dead—still define many lives in the Balkan state, reports Richard Vize from Srebrenica and Tuzla

Ilijaz Pilav was a doctor in the mining town of Srebrenica, close to the Serbian border, when Serb forces encircled the largely Muslim population in 1992. Like many Bosnian towns it is surrounded by hills, an easy target for artillery and mortars.

The 1992-95 war followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. After the republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina voted for independence Serb forces mobilised to secure continuous territory across a swathe of the country, forcing out inhabitants through its policy of ethnic cleansing.

Most doctors in Srebrenica fled. That left five—including Pilav and one trapped there while visiting after graduating medical school—for a population swelled to 40 000 by refugees.

“The city was under siege from the beginning—no electricity, no medicines, no sanitation materials, and for a couple of months no food. We five doctors with humble experience of medicine had to solve every problem,” Pilav says.

Until the Serbs advanced on Srebrenica three years later and massacred Muslim men and boys, in what the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague described as genocide, “there were bombardments every night,” says Pilav, who as a Muslim was at risk himself. “From the beginning the number wounded was huge.”

During the siege, Pilav and his colleagues operated in an improvised theatre. For more than a year they had no anaesthetics: “Simple operations like treating wounds to complicated operations like amputations or even opening the stomach cavity. All that without anaesthetics.” …

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