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The Human Toll
Child of Two  Patients
Lost Souls

Story and Photos by Chester King Vega

Young Boy
A young boy, a patient at Zavod Mental Institution at Drin, Bosnia.
O N THE OUTSKIRTS of the Bosnian town of Fojnica, on the edge of a hamlet known as Drin, stands the Zavod Mental Institution. Inside the drab, tan four-story building live over 300 patients, a mixture of local inhabitants and refugees. Ranging in age from newborns to the elderly, from mildly retarded teens to schizophrenic adults, they are survivors and victims of the recent brutal war.

The effects of overcrowding are clear in a large infirmary room on the second level. The air is warm and humid. The stench in the air is from the mass of bodies present. In one corner, dozens of hyperactive preteens buzz around one another, laughing and playing games while on the opposite side of the room, a group of ten older patients lay in neat hospital beds, imobile and catatonic. Pinned to their beds by several layers of blankets stretched tight over their bodies, only their heads show through. Pulling back the blankets reveals thin, atrophied bodies matching their blank faces. Not a sound comes from this side of the room, in stark contrast to the shrieks of laughter of the children just yards away.

Unknown past, uncertain future

Mildly retarded boys
hospitalized at Zavod
In an adjacent room, the youngest children sit or lay in metal cribs. From newborns to 8-year-olds, they spend their days oblivious to the nurses and attendents who call them by pet names because their real names are unknown. In the chaos of sudden evacuations from other facilities, identification papers often did not accompany them. The staff have no idea from where in Bosnia they come from, who their families are, or if their relatives are dead.

Yet these children are the lucky ones. For many patients, this institution became a place to die as the war worsened and the Bosnian Army continued to lose ground during heavy fighting in '93 and '94. When the area was siezed by Muslim forces, the largely Croat staff fled the hospital leaving behind a token crew to care for the hundreds of patients. As food and medicine supplies dwindled, and the building grew cold after the gas line was cut, the the remaining caretakers could only watch as one by one their patients succumbed to disease, neglect, and starvation.

Many died in the winter siege.
Every patient at Zavod Mental Institution is a unique case. Click the images for a closer look at their stories.
By the time the siege was lifted, 120 men, women, and children had perished. A local contingent of Canadian UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force) troops did their best to help, providing some medicines and food, and when the time came, burying those who died. The graveyard rests in a shallow field next to the hospital slowly. Grass has grown. The small individual mounds are each marked by short slender branches taken from nearby trees. Here lay the innocent victims of a war they could not possibly understand.

Currently, the situation has stabilized and the residents of Zavod can at least count on a basic meal, some heat, and a new if still undermanned staff. But with everything from diapers to lightbulbs still in short supply, and a roof in desperate need of repair, things remain far from normal. When asked what the hospital could use most from the outside world an administrator quickly answers, "Everything."

Additional resources
World Vision International Humanitarian Assistance
Reports on Human Rights Abuses in Bosnia Intac Access

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©1995-1996, All Rights Reserved.
Photos in this story are ©1996 by Chester King Vega. All Rights Reserved.