The Courage to Help: Dr Ilijaz Pilav

It probably wouldn’t be stretching the truth to state that Dr Ilijaz Pilav was the last man to leave Srebrenica. Forcing his injured patients into the care of unwilling UN staff, the doctor ran back to the post office to make a last ditch attempt to radio Sarajevo for help. As he raced across the road from the hospital, over the brow of the road behind him he could see hundreds of Bosnian Serb soldiers who had breached the town with murderous intent in their eyes.


They were metres away from him when he realised that the town had been abandoned by the international community. With only minutes before they arrived, and with artillery shells pounding around his ears, he took the life or death decision to run for the hills, while his brother decided to head towards the UN base in Potocari. In the three years Srebrenica was under siege by Bosnian Serb troops he saved countless lives, making life or death decisions every day. But it is this decision – the decision to part ways with his eldest brother at the side of the road – which continues to haunt him.


Ilijaz speaks quietly and softly, but his voice commands attention. He’s tall without being imposing, and there is something about his manner which suggests absolute authority without any hubris. You feel that could trust him with your life. Now the Chief of the Thoracic Surgery Department in Sarajevo’s main hospital, his story blurs the line between doctor and soldier.


Growing up in the former Yugoslavia, all young men of Ilijaz’s age were conscripted into the military. He was stationed in the navy as a radio operator – but he left as soon as he got the chance to pursue studies in medicine in Sarajevo. Bright and hardworking, he graduated top of his class in surgery, and his professor offered him a job. It would mean specializing in the field, but Ilijaz ached to return to the easy life of his home in Srebrenica after many years away, and recalls saying:


“Professor, I don’t want to stay here. And where I’m heading I will never need surgery.”


Little did he know how wrong that prediction would turn out to be. He was young and optimistic, and returning to a town that was the height of European sophistication.


”Everything you read about it is true. It was a place full of life, and people came here to experience modernity. It was one of the most developed municipalities in the whole of the former Yugoslavia.”


With only two years of general practice under his belt, he found himself aged 28, one of only five doctors at the beginning of a war, caring for more than 50,000 inhabitants.


“You cannot imagine the breadth of helplessness I felt, especially in the early days. I remember every day vividly. There isn’t a day where something out of the ordinary or the boundaries of normality didn’t happen. We were cut off from the other areas of Srebrenica when it was briefly occupied and at the time I thought I was the only doctor remaining. I was in the villages with no equipment, no medicine. People were being injured right, left and centre. Children, women, men – they all expected so much from me, and I couldn’t fulfil their expectations.”


“It’s important to point out at this stage that I was a doctor but also a soldier. My role was to organise the men into a military unit and defend the area we were in from the Serb army. My village was on the Drina River, which separates Serbia from Bosnia, so we were on the front line and under heavy shelling and firing daily. Because of this I chose to be both doctor and soldier. I knew that if we retreated everything would go to hell, basically. And I was a person from whom this type of authority was expected.”


“After the Bosniaks regained control of Srebrenica, we five young doctors came together, and discussed opening the hospital. There was another doctor, but he was killed early on by an airstrike while tending to the wounded.”


During this time, Ilijaz was still commander of his military unit, but was shortly after ordered to work at the hospital full time by Srebrenica’s army commander Naser Oric. “If a commander dies,” Oric said, “he can be replaced. But a doctor can’t.” Compelled to be on the front line to help his fellow soldiers, Ilijaz worked out a compromise. He would be the designated field doctor and head out with the makeshift Bosnian army when they were engaged in fighting.


Ilijaz’s leadership and talent for surgery became clear and he became the de facto head of the hospital and responsible for operations. “It was at this point exactly I remembered the words of my professor. I was reminded how powerful fate is in our lives and one should never make any final predictions.”


Ilijaz says the conditions were horrific. “War surgery is the most difficult form of surgery and it was even worse under those abnormal conditions.  We had no instruments, no anaesthetic, no antibiotics, no painkillers or sterilisers. We had nothing other than the utter need to help people.


Try to imagine an ordinary table upon which a patient is lying. You’re speaking to him, trying to calm him and persuade him to go through such pain while their arm or leg is being amputated that you are certain you yourself could never bear. And you’re using a saw for cutting wood to do it.


There are no appropriate words to describe the suffering the patient felt, or your own suffering for them at that moment.”


Ilijaz is keen to point out the special support of the doctors of Medicin Sans Frontieres, who supported them through the war. They brought humanitarian aid and staff , both of which proved invaluable throughout the effort. His gratitude, he says, is eternal.


But it is in July 1995 that the true strength of Dr Ilijaz and his colleagues are revealed.


“For us, the climax really started on the 6th of July, not the 11th. That was when the Serb offensive began. I entered the hospital on the 6th and did not leave for 5 days. There were so many injured we stopped taking records and I was constantly in surgery. I slept at most two or three hours a night.

The centre of town was being shelled every hour and there was conflict on the outskirts. Our lines were being pushed every hour. Injured after injured came in. It was absolutely clear to me what was happening outside. But regardless of how clear it was, I couldn’t reconcile that this was the end. I always felt that there would be something, someone to save us, and the international community would not let us fall.”


“I had so many hopes, but most prominent was that there wouldn’t be a slaughter of the people. We could count on the international community. It was paradoxical to expect the fall of somewhere that was referred to as a protected zone of the UN and which housed a Dutch battalion. Everyone expected that counted for something.”


“At 1pm on the 11th I ordered the hospital be evacuated. I went to one of the Dutch bases near the hospital to try and get them to take the wounded patients.


At this point, the Chetniks were 500 metres down the road; the town had been abandoned. I couldn’t leave a hospital full of injured men that I knew would end up becoming a slaughterhouse. I was welcomed by a shut gate and barbed wire. A UN officer came and told me they didn’t want to become involved in what he described as a ‘Muslim and Serb conflict.’


That was it for me. I no longer had the time or manner to talk patiently to someone of such conviction. I was horribly angry and of course I shouted at him. I told him ‘if you don’t open now I will tear down this gate. I need to get my patients to safety.’ I think he could sense that I was prepared to do anything – even take up arms. He let us in.”


“After the evacuation of the hospital, I gathered together the staff in the empty building. I told them they had two choices – to go to the UN base in Potočari or the woods. For the men, the decision was clear. The woods were the only choice, but my female colleagues decided to avoid the UN base too. So they headed off.”


Ilijaz was still part of the army staff. One can only imagine the intelligence he was party to as a senior member of the defence, and the responsibility that brought. The night before they had been assured that NATO would attack Serb positions the following day with air strikes. In amongst the chaos, panic and utter fear of that day, Ilijaz still retained hope of salvation. He ran across to the post office where the army staff was located, and where a small unit of 20 soldiers stood ready to extract him as the last man from the town. 200 metres up the road the Serbs were advancing. The hospital and road was being constantly shelled.


“When I relive those moments, my main feeling was an obligation to get out as many injured as possible without thought to my own life. I knew it was sensible to try and leave the area as soon as possible after this, but for some reason I refused to believe this was the end. I tried to establish radio contact with Sarajevo from the post office. But Sarajevo was busy. One said the commanders were resting and they couldn’t be woken. I knew at that point were abandoned and the town was betrayed.”


It is when questioned about his own emotions during the chaos that is most telling of the impact the war has had on this brave surgeon. He betrays no visible emotion, but the tremor in his voice is like a dam struggling holding back the memories of thousands of dead and wounded patients.  “I crossed a line long ago where I no longer felt any fear.  Perhaps it was the result of all of these unfathomable things that I was witness to. Fear became the least of my concerns. I don’t succumb to panic. I’m not saying I’m brave. Maybe it’s indifference. Perhaps something broke inside me a long time ago.”


Ilijaz unexpectedly brings up his two older brothers. He has not spoken of his family before. The eldest, ten years his senior, was part of his extraction unit. “The plan had been to head to the woods, but he was obviously shaken by the state of chaos and lack of organisation. You cannot imagine the sense of hopelessness at that point. He looked at me at the crossroads between the woods and the UN base and said: ‘now what?’ I didn’t have the strength to go through everything with him again, and tell him everything we were supposed to do.”


Ilijaz stops. There are few things as heartbreaking as seeing a strong, brave man brought to silent tears. And his silence fills the room. In that thirty seconds it’s clear that Ilijaz is a broken man. That the strength he carries is due to the weight of responsibility and guilt he feels.


“I just looked numbly at him. I don’t know how long. And in that moment he said he was going to Potočari. I didn’t even try stopping him. I couldn’t imagine what we’d face going up the hills. But I didn’t believe we’d be protected by the UN. I honestly can’t remember who said this, or if even a single word was uttered by anyone at that moment, but I remember it being said: “’it’s probably better we both go our separate ways. Maybe it increases the chances of one of us surviving.’ He was shot near Zvornik and I survived.”


“For the past twenty years, not a single day goes by where I don’t ask myself if there was something I could have done differently.”


Ilijaz looks like he’s in shock, and it happened just yesterday. “I was at a crossroads with my brother and he was asking me to give him an answer to a question of life and death. And I wasn’t able to answer him.  Any response or suggestion I could have made would have been a mistake. There were no good choices that day.”


This is undeniable. The journey through the woods was fraught with danger. Despite being the last to leave Srebrenica, he and his group made it to the Tuzla in the Free Territory in six days – rather quicker than the many other thousands who attempted the journey.

From the first day until the last, he remembers being constantly under attack from shells, water poisoning, snipers and mines. He witnessed an ambush of men in which he estimates between 500-1000 men and boys were killed near a place called Kravica. Dead bodies littered the paths in front and behind him.  He had caught up with his medical colleagues at this time, and they still tended to the injured and wounded while they marched, ensuring those who could not walk were being carried. “It is a horrible feeling – not being able to help people.” But he feels rightly proud that their efforts saved many lives.

“When I finally got to the free territory, I can’t say that I felt any sense of happiness. Every experience I had gone through previously was stronger than the expected feeling of happiness. I still don’t feel joy, more than twenty years later. “


The memories of that time are traumatic. For all of the survivors who recount their experiences it is an exercise in reliving some of the worst moments of their life. But Ilijaz is unflinching about his own reasons despite the obvious pain.


“We are not entitled to silence. We have to be witnesses. If my mission during the war was to be a doctor, then it is my mission to be a witness after this crime.”


“By telling our stories we are maybe fulfilling some part of the obligation towards those that did not survive to tell theirs.  And by telling our story, we are imposing the need on someone in the future to prevent something similar happening again. After all, what has not been written down is as if it never happened.”