branislav kapetanovic  
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Date of birth: December 4, 1965
Place of birth: Kraljevo, Serbia
Residence: Beograd
Country: Serbia

I was born into a modest family, in which education and reputation played an important role. I owe my upbringing and my honor to my diligent and hard-working parents and my older sister, who took care of me. When I was a boy, I took up sports, especially two Eastern martial arts, judo and karate, in both of which I had achieved a high level of skill, the brown belt. Playing chess was also one of my favourite pastime. I engaged in a number of chess tournaments at an early age, and was fairly successful, even when playing with my seniors. I played a couple of simultaneous games against two of our outstanding chess masters of the time, Ostojic and Rajkovic, and both games ended in a draw. Nevertheless, football was my greatest passion. I played well and I achieved noticeable success playing for one of the local teams. However, further on, I focused on my profession, and put aside my sports career.

Working in the Army

In 1993, I started working as a deminer in the Army at the ‘Ladjevci’ airport near Kraljevo, with cluster bombs as my specialty. Since the beginning of my active service, I had worked on disabling bombs on the test and training range. The work I did then is not even remotely close to the real war time situations I encountered in later periods of my career. The knowledge about the characteristics and impacts of cluster bombs used in the Army was not sufficient to prepare me for the war years which ensued. This became apparent during the NATO bombing, because my previous experiences with such devices proved insufficient, in terms of their applicability, for my work on defusing cluster bombs widely used on the whole of my country’s territory. This in itself meant there was an ever-present possibility for an unpleasant surprise, to say the least.

NATO bombing of Serbia

During the NATO campaign in my country, I was actively engaged in clearing the contaminated areas in Kraljevo, Uzice, Cacak, Ladjevci, Sjenica, Novi Pazar, Gornji Milanovac, Kragujevac, Nis and other parts of the country. I spent a considerable period of time during war in Nis. I remember the city quite well, because the NATO air force acted against a number of civilian objectives. On one such occasion, immediately following the bombing of the city urban areas (hospitals, market places, the city center...) I was ordered by the High Command to urgently begin the clearing of unexploded cluster bombs.

When I got there, I was met by a site of a city in complete chaos and distress. I could hear the loud sirens of the ambulance cars taking numerous wounded civilians to the hospital. I felt chills at the sound of people crying for their loved ones who got killed, wandering the streets still trying to comprehend what had happened just minutes earlier. Some were in complete shock, not knowing what to do at that horrible time for them and their families. Some were still hiding, lying don in street corners, expecting another attack.

Most people were too afraid to move around, let alone go home in fear of getting injured or killed. During these moments, I tried to calm them down, explaining what they should do and how to do it, at the same time trying to stay focused on the job at hand. I remember walking pasta a cafe while checking the backyards and rooftops of the houses in that area. A young girl was lying there, in a pool of her own blood, still oozing from her body. It was extremely upsetting; one more blow added to everything I had witnessed and experienced up to that moment.

After having cleared the residential area, I was followed by two police officers to a house further away. On the street near the gate , an older woman was lying down, covered with a bed sheet, her blood spreading on the pavement. As I tried to get into the yard, I couldn’t go past her and I didn’t want to step over her body, although the policemen had already done so, waiting impatiently for me to do the same. As I was contemplating whether to jump over the fence or step over a dead body, the impatient policemen started calling for me again. I barely managed to jump over the body, feeling chills up and down my spine. I felt very bad at that moment, and I’m sure most of you can’t even imagine something like that. What made it even worse was the fact that I had to remain completely calm and focused, in order to perform my job properly, because even the slightest mistake could have been fatal.

Everything I experienced in Nis during that time, assured me what a devastating effect cluster bombs have on innocent civilians. To tell you the truth, nothing can ever prepare you for something like that. There is no training course, no army practice that can do it. It is one thing to shoot military targets which is common during war time, and you do it in silence. This was something completely different, something much more dramatic. I continued working with the military, even after the NATO campaign, until I was injured on 9 November 2000…

My accident at the „Sjenica” airport

… That fatal morning, I went on an assignment with a group of officers to the ‘Dubinje’ airport near Sjenica, where I spent most of the day checking the buildings there.

Just before returning to the base in the afternoon, some soldiers approached us, informing us that they had found 6 or 7 unexploded cluster bomblets. I immediately went to check the spot, and as soon as I confirmed that those were indeed cluster bomblets, I ordered the soldiers to go back to the shelter, taking all the necessary safety measures to prevent anybody from getting hurt.

Once everyone was at a safe distance, I began a thorough examination of the terrain because it was highly likely that one or more unexploded bomblets would go unnoticed due to the fact that some time had passed since the NATO bombing, and the terrain was covered with high growth. This is exactly what happened. One of those bomblets was hidden in a bush, and as I was trying to clear the way to it, a horrible explosion launched me several meters from the detonation site. I was dazed; I couldn’t see anything, and my mouth was full of dirt. I couldn’t breathe and I kept struggling for air. I somehow managed to get the dirt out of my mouth, and I started calling the soldiers for help.

Although blind and partially deaf, I was able to realize what had happened, and how I got injured. The soldiers came running and quickly took me to the car. They drove to the nearest infirmary, located in Sjenica, a few kilometers from the airport. It was a small infirmary, with no doctors specialized in the kind of injuries I had suffered. There were also no operation rooms there, so they just bandaged my wounds, and gave me an injection for the pain.

I was then immediately taken to an ambulance car waiting to transport me to Uzice. It took almost an hour and a half to get there. On the way there, I felt increasingly weaker, because the injuries I had suffered in the explosion were very serious, and I was beginning to question whether or not I would make it to the hospital. I told that to the driver and the nurse who was with me during all that time, doing everything she possibly could to keep me conscious. Dark thoughts started going through my mind. When I told them how I thought I was dying, screams filled up the car; they both started crying, begging me to hold on just a little longer, because we were not far from the hospital. That is the last thing I remember. Due to a massive blood loss, I went into a coma just as we got there. The team of doctors had to reanimate me because of the multiple organ failure I had suffered, and with superhuman efforts, they managed to save my life.

The surgeons there operated on all four of my extremities; they couldn’t save a lot of what had remained of my arms and legs, because of the difficult and high-risk nature of the operation it would take to do so, and also because of the fact that I wouldn’t have survived an additional operation. All the operations performed in order to save my life lasted for many hours; I was later transferred to the Military Academy Hospital (VMA) in Belgrade.

VMA – My condition at the hospital

We arrived at the military hospital around midnight. A team of distinguished surgeons continued fighting for my life upon my arrival. The operation lasted all night, because it was necessary to process all the wounds again to prevent me from developing sepsis, which would have been fatal, considering the state I was in.

I was constantly on life support machines. The expectations of my recovery were quite grim, because no one believed I would pull through, not even my doctors.

I was in a coma for four days and although I still couldn’t see anything, I could soon hear voices of my colleagues who would come to visit me. After the initial crisis was over, my recovery lasted for another four years at the military hospital, where I underwent over 25 extremely challenging operations which included nerve sparing surgery, skin grafting, and eardrum surgery, operations performed in an attempt to save what had remained of my leg and other similar surgical procedures.

Visits at the military hospital

That part of my recovery was marked by an increasing interest of the media in my engagement with defusing cluster bombs, which helped save hundreds of thousands of civilian lives. As my condition improved, the interest in my case also grew. This isn’t something very common for the media.

The medical staff at the military hospital, monitoring my improvement, were always near by, in case I needed them, despite the difficult conditions; they proved they were up to the situation at hand. They would patiently direct numerous citizens interested in my case to my room, so they could visit me and offer they support. The media had obviously gone out of their way to present my story to the public. This is why I would, why I had to meet visitors from the early morning hours, until late at night. Many came to see me; TV crews, prominent people, people who had come from abroad to see me and offer their support, various organizations, and even school children. The latter did something I would never forget.

They made me a song, and they sang it during one of their visits; people at the hospital, including the staff were perplexed, because they didn’t know what was going on; the sound of them singing echoed through the whole of the floor, and the rest of the hospital. I was so touched by their gesture; these little ones were so young, in the fifth grade, and they saw me as a hero.

Unfortunately, I can’t really remember everything that had happened in that period, because there was so much, but I would like to state that thousands of people came to see me, including some famous people, who didn’t seem to be there only for their own promotion, but because they were and still are actively doing humanitarian work. It meant a lot to me to have their support. One of the things I do remember well was the group of monks from the Hilandar monastery that came to visit me, as well as another group of church priests from the faraway Canada. Those who couldn’t come to offer their support, but had heard about my story from the news, sent thousands of support letters. These letters were coming from all over the world; some even from certain embassies, because obviously, they, too, had followed my case with interest.

My recovery at the Military academy hospital lasted for four years, and was devised in several phases. After 2 years, all the wounds had healed, and the hospital treatment could be over. However, that isn’t what happened. Having my situation in mind, doctors also considered my integration in the society, and getting back to the normal life. Many other medical centers would have most likely discharged me from the hospital which would most certainly have ended fatally (as I had concluded later on in life). I will give further explanation for this in the following lines.

My first arrival at the flat

After the first two years, the doctors let me leave the hospital for the first time, and after that , I was able to do so every other week. At the time, I was given a flat from the military, for the service I had performed.

My first visit to the flat was a very traumatic and emotionally devastating experience, because the society’s attitude towards people with special needs turned out to be extremely negative, in terms of not assisting them on the street, ignoring or pretending not to see them. All this happened to me. After settling in my apartment, one day I went out in my wheelchair, because I wanted to get to know the neighborhood I didn’t know, and considering the fact that from then on it was to be my home, I needed to know some basic information like where the nearest store, pharmacy, etc, were. I came up to a passer-by, and asked him about the nearest supermarket. He just turned and went away, although he had to have heard me. I thought he must have been lost in his own thoughts and couldn’t hear me. I encountered another person, but the same thing happened. I was already starting to feel bad because of this, but after it had happened for the third time, I got angry, thinking how people had to think I had leprosy or something, to turn their heads like that. Still, I managed to find a supermarket, because I knew I had to buy bread the next morning. I checked if they had an access for the physically impaired and disabled people, because I am sorry to say that a lot of buildings, including the government institutions, didn’t, and still don’t have these.

I was discouraged, but I continued to get to know the neighborhood, and soon I found myself in a small market place. I decided I would get some fruit, and I went to a fruit stand. I asked the man at the stand about the prices. He didn’t even look at me; instead, he serviced other people there. Thinking how they had been there before me, I patiently waited for my turn, but after he had ignored me for the second time, I realized the history had been repeating itself. I felt miserable, thinking I shouldn’t even be there. With tears in my eyes, I turned around and left. That was my first step into the world.

It was very hard for me to understand that there were people out there who pretended like I didn’t even exist. The weekend was over, and I went back to the military hospital. Luckily, the atmosphere there was completely different. The staff greeted me courteously, and they treated me with outmost respect; it helped me regain my confidence, and the will to live. What was most important, everyone there was equal, and to me and everyone there besides me, this was crucial. There were no apparent differences that could set one person apart from the other, as it was the case with the outside world. This can lead to seriously traumatizing experiences. I say traumatizing, because evidently, people rarely think of the physically impaired and the disabled as their equals, which as a result has the difficult process of reintegration. Many of the people I befriended during the 3 years I had spent at the military hospital supported me just as much as I supported them. We encouraged each other to hold on, and endure the ordeals we all shared. I spent my weekends at the flat, and this happened on regular basis, as well as the negative experiences that occurred over and over again, due to the fact that no one paid much attention to the handicapped, and this unfortunately affects our recovery and the reintegration into society.

It took me two years to get used to life outside the hospital, and after this time, the doctors concluded I was ready for a life on my own. I would like to point out something I consider crucial to my recovery. I believe we were all successfully treated for our injuries, and well looked after by the qualified staff and eminent specialists, which helped us cope with the difficult and unpleasant reintegration into society. This is of the outmost importance, because the rate of those who would close up, and keep to themselves, and in some cases, commit suicide, would be drastically higher, which is the case with a number of countries which do not apply the same approach to the problem. For the injured, such as myself it is hard to handle this, and without this kind of approach, it would subsequently be much harder for them to re-enter society. For this reason I am deeply grateful to all those involved with my medical treatment, in and out of the hospital, because they helped me start a new chapter of my life.

Hospital discharge

I was discharged from the hospital in October 2004. Since then, I have had a lot of help from my loved ones, especially in the first few years after I had left the hospital. Unfortunately, my father was not one of them, because he had passed away, probably because of everything that had happened to me. I take his death very personally and I consider myself guilty for it, because if I hadn’t been in that kind of work, he would have probably still been alive, playing with his grandchildren. The end of 2005 was another turning point in my life. I had decided then I could no longer let any of those closest to me run to help me every time I needed something. I was aware of how much it had affected them, and I wanted to make it easier on them to live a normal life. I am not someone who gives up easily, so I knew it would be hard, but I also knew I would eventually succeed.

From that point on, I was more relaxed, and I lived my life with a sense of freedom, spending time with people without prejudices, and getting to know my environment. I also spent time with people I had met during my time at the hospital. I would meet knew people every day. As the time passed, the people in my surrounding got used to me, so I started having lesser problems in my neighborhood. All difficult things in life take time, and so the community eventually accepted me and treated me as one of their own.

My participation in the documentary film “Yellow killers”

One morning my telephone rang, as I picked up the receiver I could hear a pleasant female voice. The woman said her name was Jelena Vicentic, and she worked for a non-government organization called Norwegian People’s Aid. She wanted to discuss my potential involvement with the actions concerning the ban of cluster munitions, a project started by the Norwegian government in particular. During that conversation, she asked me about my participation in the film “Yellow killers” which would show the public the events that took place in Nis, and resulted in human losses. Her idea was to get me involved in the project, because of everything I had gone through, but I was initially suspicious, because I had a certain negative opinion on the subject of non government organizations and their work. It took some time before I started trusting her, and appreciating her work. After our meeting, I agreed to participate in the film, as well as in the future project on the ban of cluster bombs, which I hated above all. Like so many other people in the world, they had put me in the situation in which I am now.

The film’ Yellow killers’ was funded by the Norwegian People’s Aid organization, and all the participants were enabled to tell their story. The emphasis was put on the devastating effects cluster bombs had on civilians and especially children. The film is available on this site, and I would like to ask you to see it, because that’s the best way to convince you of everything I have stated earlier.

The same film was played at a number of international conferences. The goal was to show the Ministers to what extent cluster bombs posed a danger as the nonselective weapons, used on a wide area. They would hit not only military objectives, which led to civilian losses amounting up to 95% of all casualties, the third of which were the children. A great percentage (10-30%) of all unexploded cluster bomblets scattered on the terrain stays active for a number of years after the war actions have ceased, posing a danger to the civilians. An accident waiting to happen. Some of those bomblets stay active for 30 years of so, which is the case with today’s Laos and Vietnam. Only a small part of human losses are the members of the military forces. This is a crucial indicator of the devastating effects cluster bombs have on civilians.

Once again, I implore you to see this educational and more importantly, true film.

My participation in international conferences

I would like to say a few words about my work on the ban of cluster bombs so far.

I have been actively involved with this work since the Oslo conference, held in February 2007. This was also my first participation in an international conference. I hope I have helped prevent losses of numerous civilian lives during my time in the military. The work I do now is the logical next step in that battle, only now it is done in a different way.

It is my great wish that these weapons are banned from use all over the world, and I will do my best to do so. It is necessary to ban these monstrous weapons and to destroy all the stockpiles. I intend to devote the rest of my life to this fight, because I hope it will eventually lead to saving many children’s lives and the lives of the civilians which could get killed in any future conflicts. I honestly believe no one will ever use these weapons again, because they have proved to be the most monstrous weapons of today!

I will continue to fight and I hope that on my way I will get your sincere support.

You can follow me and my work on my blog where you will find relevant information on my participation in conferences and side events. All this will help you understand the way I use to fight against these weapons.