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Chapter 8
The Hospital in Mihailovici

The next day, a Sunday, Dafoe and Wilson were invited to dinner with General Nadj and his staff at Korpus HQ. Determined to mend any damage his previous visit might have caused, Dafoe accepted at once.
    The atmosphere was cordial. Throughout the meal, Nadj plied Dafoe with questions about his background. At an appropriate moment Dafoe delivered his credentials, in the form of a letter from Major-General Gojko Nikolis, Head of the Medical Division of the Supreme Headquarters of the People's Liberation Army. Dated May 3, 1944, it read:

To the Headquarters of the Third Korpus of the People's Liberation Army of Yugoslavia

By agreement with this division, the British physician Dr Dafoe is being sent to you by the Allies. By training Dr Dafoe is a surgeon and according to the information we have, he is one of the better war surgeons in the British Army.
    Please provide Dr. Dafoe with the best possible medical working conditions available under your circumstances so as to make the best possible use of his professional training.

The letter concluded with the slogan that appeared on virtually every Partisan document and was also their rallying cry: Smrt fasizmu, sloboda narodu! "Death to Fascism, Freedom to the People!"
    General Nadj nodded approvingly as he read the letter, then handed it round to his staff. Dafoe took this opportunity to study the other men in the room.
    He remained impressed by Nadj's rugged and capable appearance as well as by the respect the young commander had earned. He suspected the man had "rather the hand of steel in a velvet glove" — that he could be ruthless if necessary.
    General Vukotic struck Dafoe as "a deep man," and he admired the way Vladimir Popovic, the political commissar, maintained an easygoing expression despite his heavy burden of duties.
    Other officers and men in the room included a colonel, described by Diklic as "an understudy for a general." Dafoe guessed that the man, who had curly blond hair, steel-blue eyes, and a severe expression, was in his twenties. Dr Levi was also present. Much to Levi's confusion, Dafoe always addressed him as a pukovnik, or colonel, in the British tradition when actually he was a potpukovnik, or lieutenant-colonel. Levi never did understand the custom and remarked on it often.
    It transpired that Dafoe was to visit the Korpus surgical hospital within the next few days. It was situated in a village called Mihajlovici several kilometres down the mountain. The General Staff remarked again on the amount of materiel Dafoe had brought into the country and reminded him of the need to remain ready to move at a moment's notice. Though Dafoe had not yet seen the enemy, he remembered well the peasant's story from the day before, and so took Kosta Nadj's advice on faith. Later that night, as they shook hands before departing, Dafoe was surprised to hear Kosta Nadj call him "Scott." Dafoe laughed and bade the general "good night" in Serbo-Croat — amid smiles and handshakes. The evening had been a great success.
    Dafoe spent the next day with the British Mission and especially young Lincoln, Wilson's wireless operator. "Link" or "Linky," as he was often called, spoke Serbo-Croat tolerably well and could be relied upon to interpret in an emergency. He had arrived with Wilson when the Mission had landed in Vlasenica several months earlier. The village was nestled in a great saucer-flat valley, ideal for landing or dropping supplies. As a result, it was frequently the target of enemy attacks and Partisan counterstrikes. By the war's end, Vlasenica would have been occupied more than forty times, its inhabitants stoically enduring the seemingly endless coming and going of men and equipment from opposing armies.
    In the spring of 1944 the enemy's Sixth Offensive had forced the British Mission out of Vlasenica and into the mountains until it reached the area surrounding the village of Sekovici. Lincoln provided a light-hearted account of the Mission's activities since its arrival, but claimed he knew little of Mihajlovici beyond its general whereabouts — perhaps a ninety-minute walk.
    Although Dafoe was eager to go to work, it was mid-afternoon the following day before the medical unit, along with Wilson, Diklic, and Dr Levi, set out to inspect the hospital. Diklic travelled on horseback, sharing the mount occasionally with Dafoe. Mostly they walked. It was a pleasant journey through rolling hills walled by limestone cliffs and sometimes broken by open fields.
    Dafoe's first sight of Mihajlovici was from atop a grassy promontory overlooking the village. The village was situated in a great, sweeping valley described by more rolling emerald-green fields and quilted farmland relieved occasionally by clumps of dense forest. There were perhaps a dozen small peasant chalets and, standing sentry-like in the fields, were several enormous stooks of grain.
    The column proceeded towards the village and stopped at one of the peasant huts. Dr Levi went in, emerging a moment later with an elderly fellow he introduced as Dr Ivo Baboselac — the colonel in command of the Korpus hospital. Dafoe greeted him warmly, offering a well-practised "Zdravo!" as the Partisans always did. He seemed "a striking individual," Dafoe remarked in his journal, "not because of his stature, which was small, [or] his clothes, which were shabby and dirty, but because of his face — a kind face, a face that obviously had seen much of the sorrows of the earth but still maintained its twinkle."
    Dafoe estimated Baboselac to be in his mid-sixties. He had greyish whiskers and exuded an avuncular charm — best captured, perhaps, in his chestnut-brown eyes. Before the war, Dr Baboselac had had a country practice in Vojvodina. Then he became chief medical officer in the Royal Yugoslav Navy. Dafoe could easily imagine the trials the Partisan surgeon had since endured.
    Baboselac was grateful for the British cigarettes Dafoe offered and insisted on giving him a tour of the hospital immediately. Dafoe was puzzled at first, as he could see no building in the village other than the scattered peasant dwellings. The Partisans sensed his bewilderment.
    "Come," Dr Levi motioned.
    Dafoe followed him to another peasant hut and entered with the rest of the small party. Incredulous, he was told that he was standing in the main surgical theatre.
    The floor was in great disrepair and covered, at one end, with several centimetres of mud. In the middle of the room there was a genuine surgical table, but it had seen better days. A crate which held a random selection of rusted surgical instruments stood forlornly in a corner. In another corner stood a battered table and, on it, an assortment of drugs haphazardly arranged. Mostly German-made, they had been captured during Partisan raids.
    Dafoe craned his neck to examine the ceiling and was dismayed to see it was covered with grimy jaconet. Two windows shed some light to reveal the mud and filth in semi-darkness. The effect was dreary and quite horrifying. As Dafoe took several tentative steps around the room, the floor creaked and groaned underfoot. Mud oozed from the cracks as he approached a small sterilizer heated with an alcohol lamp standing on one of the corner tables.
    "Dressings," he said. "What do you do about dressings?"
    For a moment Miki and Diklic exchanged glances, deciding who would interpret. Then Dafoe discovered the answer himself. The dressings were autoclaved over a wood fire.
    He entered a second room in the building and was told it was used as a minor surgical theatre. Here he found a combination meeting room, waiting room, and office reserved for the doctor. Roughly the same size as the main theatre, this room had two glassless windows. A small nondescript stand was pressed up against a wall.
    Dr Baboselac and Dr Levi behind him made some noises and started outside to show Dafoe another building. Here, he was told, the nurses lived in the back and shared space with the cooking facilities and a storage room. Dafoe inspected the room quickly. It was dark and dirty and offered more muddy floorboards. He moved along to the main room behind Dr Baboselac, and there, quite literally caught his breath.
    A dozen or more seriously wounded Partisans — men, women, and even a few young girls — lay in crumpled heaps on the floor with only a filthy blanket, sometimes shared with another patient, for warmth. The men were unshaven and soiled and the stench of infection and unwashed bodies was almost unbearable. Dafoe felt anger rise in his throat. His hands clenched involuntarily. This was the most wretched assembly of men — and women, for God's sake — he had ever encountered. He could feel the patients staring at him, blinking painfully in the dim light and casting empty, resigned looks as flies buzzed overhead.
    Dr Levi explained that an English doctor had come recently to examine the patients. Dafoe could not believe it. He examined each man and woman in the room, alarmed by the lack of treatment they had received. There was no extension on the fractured femurs — or on any limb, for that matter. Filthy dressings covered serious wounds, now filled with pus and in some cases gangrenous. Where plaster had been used, it was inadequate, and often feet had been left dangling free. Occasionally he found windows cut in the plaster casts, through which decaying flesh now bulged. The patients were deathly pale. Dafoe remarked on this and Dr Levi explained that they had recently spent eight days in an underground shelter.
    Dafoe grew still more disturbed as he moved from patient to patient and found evidence of malnutrition and avitaminosis. It was soon obvious that every patient there required immediate surgical attention. He cursed himself for wasting time on his recent fishing and climbing excursions when these poor creatures lay helpless in their own excrement, silently awaiting the mercy of death. The room seemed to shrink around him then and he shivered from more than the cold.
    Outside again, Dafoe was shown another building which housed as many as seventy patients, all in conditions of varying severity and comparable filth. He was amazed to find some of them singing — old folksongs, he was told — despite their terrible wounds. Dr Levi explained that dressings were washed with ashes, sometimes six or seven times, and reused as required, owing to the shortage of supplies.
    How can human beings endure so much? Dafoe wondered. He had seen and operated in harsh conditions in North Africa, but nothing had prepared him for this. He examined several patients and found cases of frostbite, old amputations with gross shortening of the limb, nerve injuries, and more infected wounds. The amount of work that lay ahead was staggering. In all there were at least two hundred patients in the village, and another "hospital" on a nearby hilltop to visit where the infectious cases were kept.
    Suddenly Miki was translating for someone in the group, asking Dafoe what he thought of the hospital. He did not know what to say at first. Then he swung around on Miki.
    "Ask the doctors why no extension on the femurs. Ask why they aren't using more plaster. Ask...," but by then Miki had started his translation.
    The answer followed shortly and he understood it well enough without Miki's help. He had heard it before, and he knew he would continue to hear it in the months ahead: "There is not any material, Sir Major."
    It was inexcusable, unpardonable, inhuman.
    Not good enough, he wanted to say. But instead he fell silent and controlled his rage. "It was worse than a native hospital in Iraq I had worked in to pass some time," he wrote afterwards. "The filth and uncleanliness of the patients, the rooms and even the surrounding grounds. Pigs seemed to be everywhere, wallowing in the mud. The smell of the latrines — or lack of them. The untidiness of the nurses. Admittedly they had suffered and nothing was stable. But that didn't explain everything. Why couldn't they even wash the patients?"
    Dafoe decided at that moment that the Partisans were callous beyond description towards the wounded, "as if life didn't mean so much here as in other parts of the world." He fumed as he was introduced to several other doctors who had arrived.
    The inspection ended with a lot of handshaking, but the moment Wilson had the chance, he took Dafoe aside to ask him what he thought.
    "Bloody awful," he snapped. "There's a hell of a lot of work to do here."
    Dafoe collared Miki and fell to the rear of the column on the return journey to Dukici. He then spoke to Dr Levi, and dismissing any objections, swore that if he heard "nema materijala" one more time he would explode.
    Dafoe had assumed he would visit some of the divisional hospitals in the area, and shuddered to think of what he would find at a smaller establishment. But the next day he was told that Dr Levi and Kosta Nadj had decided to appoint him to the Korpus hospital permanently.
    "I suppose they couldn't do anything else," Dafoe said, "for I had all the equipment and I refused to have the unit split up — or what remained of the unit."
    Dafoe had seen enough to urge the organization of a landing strip nearby so that the Partisans, with Allied assistance, could begin to evacuate the wounded to Italy. Dr Levi told him that the General Staff were already searching for an appropriate site, but there was something in Levi's tone that Dafoe interpreted as resentment or suspicion. He sensed that the Partisans were watching him carefully, despite his good rapport with Nadj and his staff and the generous testimonial contained in the letter from Gojko Nikolis. He would need to prove his skills to them. More important, he must maintain his own high standards, if not exceed them.
    Dr Levi procured some horses to move the medical supplies to Mihajlovici that same day. Dafoe would spend the remainder of the afternoon and evening at his lodgings in Dukici, preparing for the move, then follow with his assistants the next morning. Generally, he was pleased by "Toffee's" progress. Lindsay Rogers had warned him in Italy that it might take several weeks to actually start work, yet he was about to get underway within a week of his arrival.
    That night, Dafoe used some parachute silk to purchase a flask of rakija from one of his neighbours. He had gradually learned to like the strong drink. Moreover, he knew that the peasant's family could use the silk for a year. It would turn up again and again in the form of various items of clothing.
    He sat next to a fire, drew reflectively on his pipe, and stared into the flames while he drank, rolling the rakija in his mouth and contemplating its powerful aftertaste. There had been a few moments during the day when he had felt he might have done better with some knowledge of the language. He reached into a haversack and withdrew his small guide to Serbo-Croat, then practised a few phrases. Miki looked up from the other side of the fire and smiled, amused that Dafoe always seemed to get the language caught in his throat. He studied Dafoe's expression in the lambent firelight and thought again how strange and yet familiar this Canadian seemed.
    "We have an expression, Sir Major," he said. "Koliko jezika znas, toliko Ijudi vredis. It means, 'How many languages you know, so many men you are worth.'"
    "True enough," Dafoe replied. He took another small book from his haversack then. Again he spoke, staring at nothing but feeling the heat of the fire.
    "You know, Miki," he started, "I'm sometimes a religious man. I saw a church the other day with George. Think you might be able to find a church for us, Miki?"
    "Of course, Sir Major. It shall be done," Miki answered.
    "Hvala," Dafoe said quietly, as he held the well-thumbed Bible in his hands and considered his role in the days to come.

Copyright © Brian Jeffrey Street 1987,1998. All rights reserved.