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Doctors Say U

April 5, 1993

Doctors Say U.N. Embargo Hurting Medical Care, Children Dying With AM-Sarajevo-Anniversary, Bjt

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Two-month-old Obren lay in an incubator because his tiny heart is defective, and his mother clasped her hands in prayer.

″God, please save him,″ she said, watching his pale face through the glass.

Doctors say babies are dying in Belgrade hospitals, and they blame a U.N. embargo. They say the sanctions are choking medical supplies and preventing the cash-starved state - which has financed the Yugoslav wars with money, oil, food and arms - from subsidizing medicine.

″During the last six months, 53 babies with congenital heart defects have died because of the sanctions,″ said Dr. Vladimir Hrnjak of the Belgrade Children’s Hospital.

He said complicated surgery ″cannot be done since we are unable to import the necessary drugs and other materials because we simply don’t have the money.″

The United Nations imposed the sanctions on Yugoslavia, now made up of Serbia and Montenegro, last May to punish its leaders for fomenting war in Croatia and Bosnia.

Yugoslav officials say they have forced Yugoslavia’s pharmaceutical industry to stop production of many drugs because of a lack of raw materials. Hospitals say they lack everything from aspirins to antibiotics, pain-killers and anti-cancer drugs.

″Our health care has never been in a worse situation,″ said Serbia’s health minister, Milos Banicevic.

But officials cannot explain how the state found the money to finance the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, but not its health care. When asked the question, their standard answer is: Serbia is not at war, but it had to help its people elsewhere in the Balkans.

The Yugoslav government is Serbian, and it is supporting ethnic Serbs fighting Croats and Muslims, first in Croatia and now in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Imports of medicine are not banned by the sanctions, but many raw materials for their manufacture are under the embargo. State-run firms have neither the money nor the means to go through the complex paperwork that might allow the import of certain materials such as humanitarian goods, Hrnjak said.

At U.N. Headquarters in New York, Matthew Nerzig, the spokesman for the Yugoslavia sanctions committee, said he could not comment on the accuracy of the reports of deaths.

But he said Yugoslavia should have no problem getting medicine and medical supplies since they are exempt. ″If there is a problem getting these things in, then the problem is on the ground,″ he said.

Nerzig said there was nothing to stop charitable organizations from helping.

Many Yugoslavs have had to spend their personal savings to import drugs, but inflation of 25,000 percent a year and unemployment keep medical care beyond the reach of others.

Obren suffers from a congenital heart defect that would cost the equivalent of $3,000 to correct with drugs and other imports. But his parents earn the average salary of less than $30 a month, and surgery is out of the question.

″Maybe older people are to blame for the war. But what has my baby done to deserve such a fate?″ said Obren’s mother, Marija Jovic.

Because about 98 percent of the materials for operations were imported, Hrnjak said: ″Now, we can operate only if parents provide drugs and other materials themselves.″

At least 400 children, including Obren, are awaiting life-saving surgery, he said.

Belgrade hospitals also lack X-ray film, anesthetics, ribbons for cardiogram machines, rubber gloves and spare parts for medical instruments.

Hospitals admit only urgent cases, and the conditions are appalling. Sometimes, two people occupy the same bed, and most patients have to bring their own food and detergent for washing bedding.

When a women is due to give birth, doctors give her a list of supplies she must bring from home, including surgical thread and local anesthetics.

In Belgrade’s psychiatric hospitals, people who are seriously ill are locked in solitary confinement because tranquilizers are lacking. The death rate in those institutions has doubled since sanctions were imposed, doctors say.

Despite rampant inflation, 30 percent unemployment and young lives lost at war, there are few protests of Serbia’s president, Slobodan Milosevic, who is accused of triggering the Yugoslav breakup by kindling Serbian nationalism.

″Now he can blame it all on the sanctions and not on his devastating policies,″ said Vuk Draskovic, head of the Serbian Renewal Movement - the largest opposition party. ″Ironically, if the sanctions were lifted we could get rid of him faster.″

Draskovic and other opposition leaders say the sanctions have awakened the old Balkan instinct in many Serbs - the ″us against the rest of the world″ syndrome.

″The U.N. and the Americans should be ashamed. Our children are dying in hospitals because they deprive us of medicaments,″ said student Veljko Petronijevic, spitting on the pavement for emphasis as he sat in a cafe.

Food is not under embargo and is still available, although imported citrus fruits and bananas, for example, are too expensive for most people.

Gasoline is under embargo, however, and Belgrade’s streets are virtually empty.

Some Yugoslavs do blame Milosevic for their trials.

A private company, in a protest against Milosevic, recently announced the opening of a horse-drawn coach service between Belgrade and Serbia’s second- largest city, Nis, 120 miles to the southeast.

The service was called ″Pony Express.″

″We are back to the Middle Ages and the Wild West, and we deserve it all,″ said a housewife, Mila Djukic.

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