Imagine that you're last seen walking home at 11:00 p.m. on a Monday night near the Bratislava Old Town. You never reach home. You're discovered by the police unconscious at 5:33 a.m. covered in blood, with a fractured skull and a life-threatening concussion. The police call for an ambulance to take you away - but they don't report the incident, even though all necessary documents are in your wallet, and even though they are required to do so by law. Neither does the hospital, where you wind up in intensive care. Even though your family is trying to find you all day.
This is both a warning and an indictment of the kind of care victims of a beating can expect from the police and hospitals in Slovakia. The victim in this case was Štefan Kubovič, a 20 year-old who had an argument with a taxi driver in the early morning outside the Hviezda shop on Nám. 1 maja Square (about 200 metres from the Old Town). According to a witness, he threw a beer bottle at the cab; the cabbie drew a gun, Števo ran, and the cab screeched around the corner in pursuit of him. He was discovered half an hour later lying in a parking lot 50 metres away. No one knows if he was beaten up, or if he simply fell and injured himself.
He remains in intensive care, with doctors not willing to give a prognosis. In all the heartache of that long day, as his family tried to find out what had happened to him when he didn't return and neither the police nor the hospital had any record of him, he remains a terrifying example of what can happen to anyone - Slovak or foreigner - who falls afoul of Slovakia's more violent citizenry and its indifferent, medical and police care.
The first problem the family had was at the hospital. Having established he was there, they came en masse to be told by a nurse that he was off limits for visits, but that he had been 'under the influence of alcohol' when he arrived 10 hours earlier. She spat out the sentence with spite, as if it excused the hospital for not having registered Štefan as a patient until the afternoon. When the family met Števo's doctor at 7 p.m., he admitted that no blood tests had been done to ascertain the blood alcohol volume, and that in any case Štefan interested him more as a critically injured patient than as someone who might have smelled of alcohol - either consumed or poured on him after his accident.
The Kubovič family then called the police to find out why they had no record of Štefan's injuries, even though they had found him themselves over 12 hours earlier. Why they had not looked around for clues as to why he was lying in a parking lot unconscious. Why they had not thought to interview the citizen who called 158 - the police emergency number - to report a crime involving Štefan. Why they hadn't called the family, and had instead for 12 hours denied knowing anything of the case.
The reactions the family got varied from indifference to outright obstruction. They called both the city, regional and state police, but none could be bothered to tell them who had found Štefan - that nugget of evidence they had to discover themselves.
Once they had ascertained it was the state police, they then entered a tense confrontation between Bratislava I West and East state police as to on whose territory Štefan had been found - Námestie 1 mája Park lying on the border of both jurisdictions, and the family not knowing exactly where the police had picked him up in a 50 metre-long parking lot.
They finally located a Bratislava 1 East policeman - Staff Sergeant Biroš - who would at least acknowledge their case. Over the phone he recorded an indictment filed by Štefan's sister against the unknown perpetrator of her brother's wounds, and dispatched two policemen to the hospital to investigate.
The next day, however, the family discovered that no indictment had actually been recorded. The Bratislava 1 East station officer who grudgingly took their case let them wait half an hour before he descended the stairs to interview them, and then laughed heartily in their faces when they told him they had filed a complaint through the telephone the night before. Staff Sergeant Biroš was just filling in, he said, and could not be taken seriously. The family had to appear in person to lay charges, and in any case, where was the statement filed by the injured party? When they explained that he was lying, deaf and defeated, in intensive care, the officer laughed again and said that nothing could be done until the complainant appeared in person and filled out a report. They then told him they had also come to file a complaint against the policemen who had not reported the case. The officer disappeared inside for 20 minutes, while other green-clothed state police filed out and sniggered at them, obviously having been apprised of the purpose of their visit. The officer finally came back and told them dismissively that they had to file all such complaints at the regional police headquarters' inquiry department.
It was at this headquarters that the family finally met two tax-funded bureaucrats who were willing to help them. The officials said that the police who had found Štefan had indeed been obliged to begin an investigation, and that the family's complaint against them could have been filed at any police station in Slovakia. They said they were horrified at the treatment the Kubovič's had received, and promised to get to the bottom of the case.
But that doesn't help Štefan, my brother-in-law, who the last time I saw him cried brokenly to be taken home and held my hand awkwardly to his grossly swollen face. I had taken a camera to get a shot of him for the media who are covering the case, but when I saw the full extent of his misery I didn't have the stomach to do anything more than cry myself.
It doesn't help the rest of us either. Whether Slovak or foreigner, parent or sibling, we must forever worry that if the people we love get into trouble here, we may never hear of it - even if we speak Slovak, and call the very hospital where our loved ones lie, or the police who found them left for dead on the street.
I'm sure that those Slovak government officials who read this newspaper will reproach us for this letter, for what they feel is a bad advertisement for Slovakia. But we aren't an advertising agency, and if Slovakia wishes to improve its image it has to begin looking after what its citizens and visitors hold most dear - their health and security. Privatisation and political stability be damned if these concerns can't be guaranteed of improvement.
17. Jul 2000 at 0:00