Robert Fisk in Bratunac, Eastern Bosnia
13 January 2001
The cemetery is dark, the evening rain sluicing down
the black marble gravestones. But when
Nikola Zelenovic says, offhand, as if it is the most
normal thing in the world, that almost all
the graves I can see from one end of the cemetery to
the houses in the other corner belong to
cancer victims from Hadjici, it is as if a plague has
fallen on these people.
Up to 300 out of 5,000 Serb refugees whose suburb of
Sarajevo was heavily bombed by Nato jets in
the late summer of 1995 have died of cancer.
"This is my grandfather Djoko," Nikola says. "He
worked in the military repair factory, and died
last year. We all thought it must be cancer from the
bombs." Behind Djoko's grave is that of
Slavica Korkotovic. She, too, died of cancer last
year, and a photograph of a very pretty woman
is encased under glass on her gravestone. "She was
only 35, and had two children," Nikola says.
And as we go on past the graves, past old Dejan Elcic,
who died of cancer aged 65, and the young
men who also worked with Djoko in the Hadjici factory,
the rain now thundering across the piles
of plastic flowers behind each tombstone, one thought
springs to mind: it will be difficult for
Nato to get away with this one.
All the surviving refugees of Hadjici - most of them
fled to Bratunac on the Drina river in the
months after the bombings - believe that the cancers
and leukaemias that have affected this
population were caused because the American A-10
bombers which struck their factories were
firing depleted uranium rounds.
Djoko Zelenovic's story tells it all in horrifying
detail. His son Nedeljko remembers the day
when his father went to work in the factory, scarcely
an hour before the Nato jets arrived.
"When the first bombs hit, part of the wall fell on my
father," he says. "And you've got to
remember at the time he had no illness at all - he
started becoming ill at the beginning of
January last year. In March of 2000 we sent him to a
clinic in Belgrade, and they found he had
lung cancer, with the cancer covering a 15cm circle on
his left lung. He was on chemotherapy but
it did no good, and the cancer moved to the right
lung, and he died on 30 May last year.
"You have to understand that my father was aware of
depleted uranium, and we had talked to
doctors about it.
"Just before he died, I spoke to him. And he said to
me, 'I think that everything is because of
what happened to the factory in 1995'."
And here is the point. Twelve men were in that room
with Djoko, and nine had already died of
cancer before him. Nedeljko remembers them all.
"There was Jovovic - he died of bone cancer last
summer. Then there was Drago Vujovic. He died
four months ago with cancer. Then there was Vule
Banduka who also died last summer. That's why
my father said to me that he was the only one left and
he was bound to die, because all the
A few streets away from the Zelenovic family lives
Darko Radic. He was next to the factory when
the first American jets bombed that summer. "My father
and mother were both in the house with
me. My wife, Diana, had just had our first daughter. I
went outside and picked up a piece of
shrapnel and it had an awful smell, like a dead
animal. It was so bad, I was vomiting in the
street, imagine, I just threw up because of the smell
of a bit of a bomb. All that night, after
it was hit, the factory glowed as if someone was
putting phosphorous on it."
Then the tragedy began. First it was his mother,
Liljana, who at 46 had never had a health
problem. Three years ago, they found she had a brain
"My father, Radko, was only 57, and my mother was just
46," Darko says. "My father ran a small
coffee shop near the factory, and he was always in the
best of health. Just three months ago he
was told he had cancer. I buried him three weeks ago
in the cemetery up the road.
"Every week, we have a funeral here. My dad was one of
the last to die, but the next will be
Bozo Tomic, who has two small children. He is dying in
a neighbouring house."
You don't have to go far for the tragedy of the people
of Hadjici to continue. Sladjena Sarenac
was six at the time of the bombings, and her father,
Jobo, found her playing with pieces of the
broken munitions in a bomb crater behind the house.
"She took some of the bits of shrapnel into
the house later," one of her friends told me. "After a
while, under her nails, there was a kind
of yellow sand and then Sladjena's nails started to
fall out. She was complaining about pains in
the back, shoulders and head. She was taken to
hospital, first in Hadjici, and for two nights
received blood transfusions. At the end of 1995 she
was diagnosed as having in some way been
irradiated. Two years ago she fell into a coma for 30
Local journalists believe that up to 400 men, women
and children from Hadjici have died, about
300 of them from cancer or leukaemia. The town's
little cemetery seems to bear powerful proof of
this. As a local doctor told me last night: "As the
Hadjici people in Bratunac grow fewer in
number, as families move around Bosnia, the number of
deaths among the decreasing population is