Healers try to ease a wounded Bosnia

August 02, 2006|By PHILLIP RAND BROWN

TUZLA, Bosnia -- It begins with the translation of the doctor's introductory query: "How may I help you today?"

What follows are the typical answers and explanations, and more questions. Not much different from a visit to the family physician - except the translator is a Serbian army officer, the patient is an elderly Muslim woman, and the doctor is an internist from Baltimore, a member of the Maryland Air National Guard who recognizes the patient's achy knees and back as the pain of arthritis.

The 175th Medical Group from the Maryland Air National Guard spent July in Bosnia. We were there to perform a humanitarian mission to provide medical, dental, optometry, and pharmacy services to 14 villages in eastern Bosnia.

There was also a diplomatic aspect to this mission. We were there to remind the Bosnians that they are remembered and that America, through the Maryland State Partnership with Bosnia, is reaching out to continue and strengthen our relationship.

But that relationship is changing. The U.S. Army is drawing down, closing the military bases that have ensured peace since the three-year Bosnian civil war ended in 1995. Many Bosnians are fearful and anxious about the coming unemployment and the knowledge that the nationalism that fueled their terrible war has not dissipated.

Some also feel that the contingent of European Union soldiers who remain are not as interested as the U.S. forces in protecting and serving the people of Bosnia. The next couple of years will be critical in the history of these ethnically mixed people. Hopefully, they will become united - but only if the country survives the challenges ahead.

On a recent July day, our destination was Suceska, beautiful in its remote rural mountaintop setting. The trip was arduous, with a steep climb of approximately 15 kilometers up a narrow dirt road. The weather was clear, dry, sunny and hot, for which we were thankful: Dry roads make travel on the narrow curves and steep inclines safer.

The guardsmen set up a medical base in the village's newly constructed ambulanta, a small government clinic of about three to five rooms, although this one had an additional, tiny room for living quarters for the resident nurse. We housed the optometry, dental and clinical services there. Two rooms in an adjacent empty house also were made available to us. On the other side of the ambulanta was a burned-out shell of a home. Across from the ambulanta was the new village mosque.

Although the medical facility and site had very limited space, our team made the best of it. One medical group set up in the shade of a large fruit tree, the nicest office our Baltimore internist said he had ever worked in. The Muslim villagers were polite and friendly.

Critics say missions like these don't matter or are just attempts by the soft-hearted to take up a cause. Yes, the medicine may only last a few days, and some other pain will inevitably arise, but the psychological impact of our presence can be felt.

Looking across the hills and farms of eastern Bosnia, it seems so peaceful, but just 20 kilometers away lies Srebrenica, infamous for a 1995 "ethnic cleansing" and mass murder that killed more than 7,000 men and boys. The unimaginable loss is still so painfully evident in the people who live there - for example, in the mother who still prays for the chance to bury the remains of her missing son.

Traveling these roads, the scenery is marred by bullet-scarred homes, bombed-out factories and destroyed businesses. It's tempting to look past these battered relics and view them as the debris of an old war. But then the medical convoy reaches the village of Potocari and the memorial to the victims of the Srebrenica massacre.

Rows upon rows upon rows of headstones bear the names of several generations of families. Grandfathers buried next to fathers and sons and brothers, a haunting reminder of why it matters that we came.

A patient sits in a makeshift clinic, telling her secrets to a strange man, an American physician, through a solider-translator whose Army caused the scars she bears. We are here for a moment in time. But how we help them today does make a difference. We help them by caring and listening and remembering.

Lt. Col. Phillip Rand Brown, commander of the Maryland Air National Guard's 175th Medical Group, is co-director of the Johns Hopkins/United States Surgical Minimally Invasive Surgical Training Center. His e-mail is prbrown@jhmi.edu.

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