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Crisis in Yugoslavia | DISPATCH FROM KOSOVO

Serb-Run Hospitals Hold Fate of Infants Left Behind

Medicine: Parents of premature babies were herded out of the province, but medical staffs labor tirelessly with newborns.

April 25, 1999|PAUL WATSON and ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — When the order came to get out of Kosovo, many ethnic Albanians had to leave behind what they loved most, even if that was a newborn child.

The soldiers, police and paramilitaries who drove them from this Serbian province, some disguised in black masks, weren't very sympathetic to a mother's pleas for a little more time to get her baby from the hospital.

Some of the infants were too small to be moved safely anyway, so their mothers had no choice but to join the columns of deportees and hope that the doctors and nurses at the hospital had bigger hearts than the men with guns.

Fortunately for at least five premature babies, they did. The babies, all ethnic Albanians, lie in a corner row of metal cribs on the maternity ward of Pristina's main hospital, the Clinical Medical Center.

They are wrapped as tight as mummies in white cotton, with only their sleeping faces exposed. Their names are not written in the ward's registry because, officially, they don't have any.

The babies' names are with the memories in the minds of their parents, who are living in a refugee camp in Macedonia or Albania, or maybe even farther away by now.

It is anyone's guess when, or if, the five Kosovo Albanian babies will be reunited with the parents who were forced to abandon them. For now, they are in the hands of fate, and of Serbian medical staffers like Mirjana Rascanin.

She swore long ago to care for all of her patients, no matter how they came into the world, or her ward, and that is what she is doing.

"When I arrived here the first day, the chief doctor told me to leave all of my prejudices at home and to do my job the best that I can," Rascanin, an intern in charge of the maternity ward, said Saturday.

"This is a situation where people can react in different ways and can be driven by different motives," she went on. "But we have to continue with our work, and do it as correctly as possible."

As Rascanin read from the ward's registry, the first of five names was that of Ymrane Gajtani, of the town of Urosevac, who gave birth on March 19, five days before the first NATO bombs fell on Yugoslavia.

Rascanin didn't know it, but Gajtani is a 19-year-old woman living in Tent C286 in the Brazda refugee camp, about 50 miles to the south and across the border in Macedonia. She cries every day.

She knows the name of baby #1127 in Rascanin's registry. He is Kushtrim, her son, who was born two months premature, at 4 pounds, 6 ounces, on March 19.

Two weeks after Gajtani gave birth to Kushtrim, Serbian paramilitary forces came to the family's home in Pristina, Kosovo's provincial capital, and ordered them to leave immediately.

Gajtani begged them to let her collect her baby first, but they told her they didn't care about the infant.

Like thousands of other ethnic Albanians in the city, Gajtani and her husband, Hyzri, had to join a column of people walking solemnly to the rail station, where they were loaded onto trains and deported.

When they reached the border, Hyzri wanted to turn around and go back to Pristina for Kushtrim, their firstborn. But his wife talked him out of it.

"I didn't let him because the road was full of police," she said in an interview at the Brazda camp.

Gajtani reported the missing baby to the International Committee of the Red Cross two weeks ago, but each time she has checked with the group at her camp, she's been told they have no information.

Along with all but a few Greek relief agencies, the Red Cross evacuated its staff from Kosovo, so the first news Gajtani heard of her baby came from a foreign journalist.

The couple have registered to go to Germany, Austria or Sweden, but they worry that if they leave the Brazda camp, it will be even more difficult for them to be reunited with their son.

As Kushtrim grows older, he also gets closer to being declared officially abandoned and then, when he is too old for the maternity ward, sent off to an orphanage.

Kushtrim has put on the weight he needed to get out of an incubator--and then some--and now he sleeps and eats with the rest of the babies under the care of Rascanin and her nurses.

She has heard reports coming from outside Kosovo that claim the Pristina hospital staff has mistreated ethnic Albanian patients or kicked them out altogether, and she can't just shrug them off as war propaganda.

"It hurts me very much when I hear this," she said. "I'm trying to be a professional every single moment.

"God is watching all this, including those who report on this unprofessionally and those of us who are doing our jobs professionally."

Each night, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's bombers usually attack targets in and around Pristina, the nurses carry the babies down to an underground bomb shelter.

They make enough warm milk for the night and keep the babies as close together as they can, because the shelter is cold, and then carry them all back up to the ward after sunrise.

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