'It is probably too late - it always is with the UN': In a crumbling Sarajevo hospital, Marcus Tanner spoke to the doctors who fought red tape for six days trying to get Irma out

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The Independent Online
ALL SHE COULD say was 'hurts'. Head wrenched back, fingers twitching feebly, five-year-old Irma Hadzimuratovic lay almost motionless in a dingy hospital in Sarajevo yesterday.

Around the bedside her silent father and anguished doctors waited for United Nations bureaucrats to unravel the red tape which for six days held up her evacuation from the beseiged city.

At 2.15pm a UN armoured personnel carrier finally turned up to take her to Sarajevo airport, and on to a C130 Hercules bound for Britain. 'It is a crystal clear case: she dies if she stays here; she may live there,' said Dr Vesna Cengic. 'Our scanner does not work and in any case we have no power. We cannot know what is happening in her head. We can do nothing, except cry.'

It may be too late for Irma already. Convulsions in the morning left her unconscious most of the time. Once- favourite toys - a furry yellow rabbit and a small plastic doll - lay discarded on her bed in a dark ward.

Irma's life was blown apart by a Serbian mortar 12 days ago. It was a quiet day for Sarajevo. She was on a walk with her mother. A round exploded six yards away. Irma's mother was killed. The girl was hit by shrapnel in the head, stomach and spine.

Doctors at the French hospital appealed to the UN to take Irma out a week ago, when her condition deteriorated fast. But nothing happened until the television cameras arrived.

The UN medical evacuation committee first insisted that Irma could not be flown out as she was not medically stable. Then they said she could leave only on a specially equipped hospital plane. But none was available. Finally UN refugee officials claimed that even if a hospital plane tried to land at Sarajevo airport, Bosnian Serbs might shoot it down.

Foreign television cameras worked on the UN bureaucracy in Sarajevo, where six days of pleading from Irma's father and the doctors had failed. Within hours the conditions set by the UN bureaucrats had been set aside, and the Hercules was on its way from Ancona in Italy.

UN refugee officials in Sarajevo say it is better for patients to be treated in the city. They caution against removing people to an alien environment. Peter Kessler, the UN refugee spokesman in the city, blamed the Serbs. 'Three children are killed every day on average by snipers,' he said. 'If the siege continues, many of this little girl's friends will be killed.' The UN has evacuated 89 severely ill patients since April, he said.

But perhaps the officials forgot that while their own headquarters are a blaze of light at night, Sarajevo's hospitals are cold and dark.

At the French hospital, nurses fumble their way up the staircase by candle light. Torches are saved for operations. Oxygen machines and other hospital equipment gather dust in the wards. Serbian shells have blown out many of the windows. There has been no electricity for two months, and there is no diesel to start the generator. There is no piped water. Staff take turns to bring it in buckets from a pump. 'You should see what it is like in here at night, in pitch darkness, when we operate by torchlight,' said Dr Cengic.

Unusually cold weather hit Sarajevo last weekend. While the UN committee hummed and hawed over Irma's case, her life was ticking away in a dark and windswept ward.

Dr Edo Jaganjac fought to hold back tears of anger as burly UN peace keepers lifted the tiny bundle inside the vehicle. 'For this child it is probably too late - it always is with the UN. For the next child we will have to go through all this again.'