Why Did the Banja Luka Babies Die?

From the pens of our historians.

In the spring of 1992, the Muslim-Croatian coalition had the Autonomous Region of Krajina surrounded. The region was in the northwestern part of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with Banja Luka as its center, which among other things meant a shortage of basic foodstuffs, hygiene products, medication… Restrictions on power and water were making life even more difficult. The road through Posavina was cut off, so the entire area between Derventa and Modriča was under occupation, and the only road connecting the AR Krajina and the western part of the Republic of Serbian Krajina with the eastern part of the Serbian Republic of BiH and Yugoslavia was via Doboj (where battles were in progress) and Tuzla. After the Muslim forces took Tuzla on May 15, 1992, all land communications were cut off…

The air corridor was the only source of supply to the city, but also to the University Clinical Center, the largest medical institution in AR Krajina. The functioning of the city and its residents was brought into serious question. In late May, the University Clinical Center experienced a shortage of oxygen. Prior to the isolation, the University Clinical Center was receiving weekly oxygen deliveries from Belgrade, using specialized vehicles. Apart from that, the Banja Luka hospital was receiving patents not only from the neighboring eight municipalities, but also from the Republic of Serbian Krajina, more precisely from the area of West Slavonia, as well as a large influx of wounded soldiers from the battlefield.

Newborn babies who required oxygen therapy began dying from oxygen deprivation. The first plea for help from the University Clinical Center was sent on May 20, 1992. The first of the babies died two days after this plea was published. University Clinical Center staff attempted to substitute medical-grade oxygen for industrial oxygen, which was delivered to them by numerous individuals and organizations from Banja Luka following their plea for help. The problem with the industrial oxygen was that it was not sterilized, it did not have the same humidity level, and the bottles themselves were pressurized differently. All of this created additional problems for the medical staff. Many of the gifted bottles could not be used.

Pert the Resolution No. 757, the United Nations imposed sanctions on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia starting May 30, 1992. When the sanctions took effect, air traffic was stopped and the AR Krajina and Banja Luka found themselves completely isolated. The first oxygen crisis was resolved through the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina — UNPROFOR. In early June, 180 bottles of oxygen and other medical aid were delivered to Banja Luka by airplane. The aid was short-term and the University Clinical Center soon slipped into a new period of uncertainty. An airplane carrying oxygen and other medical aid for the Banja Luka hospital was packed and ready at the Batajnica airport on June 12, 1992. The UN Security Council Sanctions Committee was supposed to approve the humanitarian flight. The typical procedure for obtaining a permit took up to a week. Twelve days later, the flight had still not been approved.

In the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a campaign was being led to allow the flight and stop the agony at the Clinical Hospital Center. The campaign was conducted through the media, and numerous celebrities endorsed the action. President of the FR Yugoslavia Dobrica Ćosić and Patriarch Pavle issues personal pleas for help. The pleas were addressed to UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, international institutions and humanitarian organizations. Pleas for help also came from the Republic of Serbian Krajina, Banja Luka and the Banja Luka hospital. The international media completely ignored any and all news of the tragedy at the University Clinical Hospital.

Humanitarian aid was exempt from the sanctions against FR Yugoslavia per the Resolution 760/1992. This decision did not meaningfully change the situation on the ground. On June 24, the UN Security Council Special Committee approved humanitarian flights towards the western part of the Republic of Serbian Krajina and AR Krajina. Thanks to the governments of BiH and Croatia dragging their feet on giving permission for the airplanes to fly across their territories, the flights never happened.

Between May 22 and June 19, 1992, twelve prematurely born babies who required oxygen therapy died in the Intensive Care Unit at the Banja Luka maternity hospital. The humanitarian crisis was resolved with a military operation of the Army of the Republic of Srpska.

This operation liberated Posavina and created conditions for the humanitarian convoys to pass through uninterrupted. The issue of oxygen supply at the University Clinical Center was resolved permanently with a land breakthrough towards the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and with the arrival of humanitarian aid in the early days of July.

Still, the tragedy at the Banja Luka maternity ward filled the saddest pages in the history of the Banja Luka University Clinical Center.

Those who could have helped but did not do so are responsible for this tragedy. Above all, the United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Security Council, and the Sanctions Committee. The committee bears the responsibility for stalling and failing to issue a permit with no justification whatsoever, and Boutros Boutros-Ghali for failing to put pressure on the Committee members. They also failed to pressure the governments of the Republic of Croatia and BiH to allow the planes to fly, even after the Committee had given its approval. Boutros Boutros-Ghali confessed that certain UN members did not have the good will to solve the problem. Organizations also bear responsibility, such as the World Health Organization and the UNICEF, who could have at least helped to minimize the tragedy, if not prevent it altogether. Instead, they never said a word!

If the flights taking off from the territory of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was such a complicated issue, the aid could have arrived from any other country. The Banja Luka airport had the conditions to safely deliver the humanitarian aid, as it was far away from the combat operations area.

Banja Luka, which was not part of the FR Yugoslavia, bore the consequences of the sanctions.

The babies were stripped of their basic human rights, the right to life and the right to medical treatment. These rights are guaranteed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted at the United Nations General Assembly on November 20, 1989.

If the babies had been administered oxygen at the Banja Luka hospital or if it had been possible to transport them to Belgrade for better medical care, they might have had a chance to fight for their lives. They are indirect victims of the war and direct victims of the sanctions!!!

Two of the babies born during the oxygen shortage, Slađana Kobas and Marko Medaković, who managed to survive despite it, were left with severe consequences.

Slađana Kobas was born on June 18, 1992 in Banja Luka. As a prematurely born infant, she was placed in an incubator in the Intensive Care Unit at the University Clinical Center. She was in an incubator for about 10 days. Nearly from the moment she was born, she had health issues mostly related to her vision. Shortly after, Slađana was abandoned by her mother and subsequently raised by her father Stojan. Slađana’s vision was restored after undergoing a surgical procedure in Russia, but she was diagnosed with bone cancer not long after, followed by a surgical procedure in the United States. The cancer had metastasized to her lungs.

Slađana died on February 9, 2006 in Prijedor. She was buried at the Orthodox Cemetery in Prijedor. The media dubbed her “The Thirteenth Star”. Her fight for her life was depicted in a novel written as a fictional journal titled “Slađana Kobas’ Diary” (orig: Dnevnik Slađane Kobas), by Violeta Božović.

Marko Medaković was born on June 21, 1992 in Banja Luka. Marko was deprived of oxygen while he was being transferred from the delivery room to the Intensive Care Unit. Those several minutes without oxygen had fundamentally changed Marko’s life, and left him with severe health consequences. Marko suffers from cerebral palsy, quadriplegia, and complete paralysis of all his extremities including the head. Marko also has severe brain damage, so he can only see and hear, and his spine is curved. He has breathing problems, more precisely, he only uses a quarter of his lungs to breathe. Bronchial secretions accumulate in his lungs, causing his family to fear the that he may suffocate in his sleep. Marko Medaković was given the status of a civilian victim of war. His parents believed that their family tragedy did not require media attention. For that reason, the public was unaware of the Fourteenth Star’s identity fora long time. The life story of Marko Medaković and the tragedy of the twelve babies are the subject of a documentary titled “The Breath of Life” (orig. Dah života) by Snježana Brezo.

Banja Luka remembers the death of the twelve Banja Luka stars. A song was recorded in their memory, which doesn’t leave anyone with a dry eye. In addition, an appropriately marked tomb was built at the City Cemetery in Banja Luka, where most of the deceased babies were buried, and a memorial plaque detailing the tragedy was unveiled at the University Clinical Center. A monument titled “Life” was unveiled in downtown Banja Luka in 2008, as a symbol of Banja Luka and the Republic of Srpska residents’ lasting memory of the death of the Banja Luka babies. In 2008, the Committee for Nurturing the Tradition of the Liberation Wars of the Government of the Republic of Srpska added the death of the Banja Luka babies in the Program for Marking Important Historical Dates and Events of the Republic of Srpska as an event of regional significance.

Nikola Borković

(Author of the monography “What Have They Done Wrong?”