By Caroline Kennedy
Over the years friends have given up asking me what I am doing. Few of them are ever surprised any more. From journalist to radio producer, from traveller to film researcher, from actress to antique dealer, from jewellery designer to theatre director – at some time or another I have dabbled in almost everything. These days I am running a small charity involved in helping the refugees and displaced people of former Yugoslavia. Every two months a group of volunteers, including myself, drive deliveries of medical, surgical, food and sanitary supplies down to the hospitals, refugee camps, orphanages and homes for handicapped children in Croatia and Bosnia.
A year ago, when the war began, I was woefully unprepared for the horrors I would find there. Typically middle-class I was uneducated in dealing with any family problems more complicated than deciding what to watch on TV, what we would eat for dinner or where we would take our annual holiday. And I was certainly unfamiliar with life as a long-distance truck driver. But it didn’t take long for all these things to become very much part of my everyday life. Unlikely as it may seem, I soon became inured to stories and images of brutality, rape, loss of dignity, destruction of homes, and of death. I soon learnt to witness, silently and without tears, small children with limbs blown away, elderly people without anything or anyone left in the world and young women traumatised by violent rape. And soon I felt more at home driving a heavy truck loaded with medical supplies than the family saloon car loaded with school trunks.
This is part of my diary from one convoy, this summer of 1993, when my film-maker son, Elisar, accompanied me to record the devastating effect of the war on just one seaside town on the Dalmatian coast – Zadar.
“On 10 July we set off for our second visit to the Croatian town of Zadar, formerly a beautiful coastal port. On our previous visit in May we had brought medical supplies and an incubator to the local hospital. This time we carried two more incubators, battery/mains operated theatre lamps, anaesthetics, a vast supply of medicines, intravenous antibiotics, heart monitors, ECG machines and a great deal of surgical and sanitary equipment.
We arrived at the Zadar hospital at a time of great confusion. Ten minutes earlier a shell had hit the house directly opposite the hospital, across the street from the ward we would be staying in. People were screaming hysterically. Confused, panic-stricken and traumatised, they were rushing in all directions unable to predict where the next bomb would fall. For the last 18 months Zadar has been shelled like this on a daily basis. But, although when the immediate panic is over, the inhabitants of Zadar appear resigned and surprisingly philosophical about their particular fate, there is no denying the absolute fear that prevails while the bombs are actually falling.
The hospital, airport and bridges are the main targets but many bombs are destined to go astray. This daily shelling of Zadar is devised to cause the most devastation. The shelling is devised to instil the most panic and fear among an already-terrified population. And the shelling is devised so life can never be lived normally. In all these ways the shelling of Zadar and its residents has been successful. For two years all the schools and colleges have been closed down, cinemas and restaurants only operate intermittently and at their own risk. And swimming has now been banned because, just before we arrived, several rockets had fallen into the sea killing many people, mostly mothers and small children taking an afternoon swim. The shelling is devised to kill, injure and maim indiscriminately.
For the past two years the Zadar doctors and nurses have been working round the clock, operating on the wounded from the front line. Being a prime target, the hospital itself has already received several direct hits. For their own safety, therefore, all the patients are housed in the basement, either on rough mattresses on the floor or swinging from hammocks attached to the ceiling. In these most appalling, distressing and stressful conditions limbs are being amputated, babies are being delivered and life-saving surgery is being performed – without electricity, without water – and without privacy.
11th July. Today one of the surgeons, Dr.Martin Mikecin, arranged for us to be escorted by two military officers to the front line, 10 kilometres inland from Zadar. Driving in zig-zag formation along the pockmarked roads, we visited the ruins of Crno, Murvica and Dracevac, once prosperous rural villages – now mini Vukovars. Everything that once moved is dead. Everything that once stood has fallen. Houses have been burnt, fields scorched, livestock massacred, churches desecrated and graves ripped open, their bones scattered, epitaphs erased by vulgar grafitti. What is left is eerie, haunting – silent. Fresh laundered shirts, encrusted by soot, still hang on a washing line. A child’s kite dangles from the scorched branch of a tree. Carcasses of what were probably once cows lie rotting and fly-infested in the fields. A rusted tank, a trophy of war, provides a makeshift playground for two little boys with plastic guns. A frightened dog and her pups cower and whimper in the ruins of their family home. Grass and flowers, blackened and brittle underfoot, crackle as we walk.
We light a candle on what remains of the altar in the small, gutted church at Murvica, only a week before the scene of a joyous local wedding. The soldiers cross themselves, kneel down. They mouth a silent prayer. As I bend down to pick another charred candle from the ground, rockets streak over our heads in search of their targets. We watch mesmerised as one lands near the airport, another near the main bridge and a third somewhere in the residential area of Zadar.
By the time the young officers return us safely to the hospital, more wounded are being brought in for surgery. Bodies of young children, swathed in makeshift bandages, carried by parents, themselves bleeding and wounded. One child, playing on his own, had accidentally shot himself with his father’s gun. Another young boy, walking his dog in the field, had unwittingly stepped on an anti-personnel mine. A little girl, no more than three years old, lies bloodied and twisted in a cardboard box outside the hospital’s main gate along with a mounting pile of rubbish. Small, limp, lifeless bodies – now just no more than statistics.
Reluctantly we say goodbye to the soldiers. They are going back to the front line and, although unspoken, we all know – maybe tomorrow it could be their lives ended prematurely, their broken bodies lying on the hospital floor, their children’s corpses discarded in a cardboard box. I promise them I will take the candle home to my Croatian mother and, together, we will say a prayer for them – and for their ravaged country.