Random compassion: One little girl was rescued - but why did it take so long, and what about about the rest?

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The Independent Online
THERE was nothing special about the mortar attack on 30 July which critically injured Irma Hadzimuratovic and killed her mother. The death of a middle-aged woman and the mutilation of a child was a commonplace event which did not rate a mention in the discussion of the latest, futile hopes for peace filed by journalists from Sarajevo that evening.

Bosnian Serbs kill three children a day in Sarajevo, according to the United Nations. The artillery assaults may stop briefly when the Serbs feel it is politic, but the shells start falling again soon after.

Two weeks ago, mother and daughter took advantage of what they assumed to be one such lull. They stepped out to get some fresh air in the market square in the suburb of Ottoka, but they were caught by the gunners. Elvira Hadzimuratovic was killed instantly. Irma suffered head, stomach and spinal wounds. Her condition was critical and it seemed more than likely she would soon be just another victim of the war, her passing unnoticed by any but family and friends.

Irma was taken to Sarajevo's State Hospital, commonly known as the French Hospital, and placed under the care of Dr Edo Jaganjac and Dr Vesna Cengic. Both did their best - the girl's bowel was completely rebuilt - but conditions in Sarajevo hospitals have gone from bad to appalling in the past two months and the two doctors knew they could not hope to save her.

Jaganjac is 36, has two young daughters now living in exile in Prague, and speaks to Westerners in a soft, broken English which conceals a restrained fury. On Saturday, 7 August, after reviewing Irma's case, he decided the only thing to do was take the 15-minute walk to the Sarajevo Holiday Inn and appeal to the press.

He went to see his friend Dina Hamdzic, who works as an assistant at the BBC office in the hotel, and told her Irma was dying and there was nothing he could do about it. Without electricity, he could not do a brain scan; without a brain scan, he could not operate.

He said that six days earlier he had applied to the staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Sarajevo - 300- strong in Bosnia - for Irma to be evacuated. A French UN doctor had come to see Irma, but nothing had happened. For a medical evacuation to a Western hospital to go ahead, the panel of four doctors - including one from UNICEF (the UN organisation for children), UNPROFOR (the UN protection force), the WHO (the World Health Organisation), and UNHCR - must meet and give their approval. But the committee meetings are infrequent because some of the UN doctors are not even based in Sarajevo.

Even when the committee is sitting, a potential evacuee must meet strict criteria. Patients must be sick enough to justify the cost of airlifting them out, but 'stable' enough to guarantee that they will not die on the way. Hopeless cases need not apply. Irma, Jaganjac had been told, was too ill to be moved.

Dina Hamdzic passed the story to BBC Radio's correspondent in Sarajevo, Allan Little, who went that evening to the State Hospital, with Reuters TV correspondent Sean Maguire. Irma lay in the dark, visibly fading from her shrapnel wounds.

That night, Little telephoned UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler, who told him to speak in person to the WHO chief for Yugoslavia, Sir Donald Acheson. But Sir Donald refused to come to the phone, and on Sunday flew out of Sarajevo to Zagreb.

By now the story was out. Little had filed his first BBC Radio report about Irma, and Reuters television pictures of her in her hospital bed were going round the world. Faced with growing press interest and criticism, Kessler denied that there was anything wrong with the system.

'This child is in a bad way. She might not survive a flight outside the city,' he said. 'Even if she was considered for evacuation, she would need a flying hospital. So far, our donor countries have not made one available.' He said that even if a flying hospital landed, Bosnian Serbs surrounding the airport might shoot it down, and added: 'Most countries are not willing to take someone so unstable.'

The UNHCR has a point. When this issue came to prominence last week, the leading question asked was: why have the Bosnian injured not been given swift passage to Western countries before? The answer is, in part, that the West did not want them. 'Any doctor in Sarajevo can refer a patient to the UN any time,' said Sylvana Foa, spokeswoman for the UNHCR. 'Our problem is that we can't get them out of Sarajevo unless a government and a hospital and specialists have all agreed to take the case. That's the delay.'

There are futher difficulties. Getting an exit visa, getting to the airport, getting past the road blocks, getting telephone lines out of the city to warn a hospital that a patient is on the way . . . nothing is easy.

But the UNHCR was clearly stung by the accusations. Jaganjac's account was disputed. Officials said that, in an emergency, a patient did not need to wait for a meeting of the UN committee; any one of the four doctors can authorise evacuation on the spot. The French doctor who saw Irma last weekend was not being brutal when he ruled that she was too sick to travel. 'He said if you move this child you will kill her,' a UN official recalled. 'She was leaking spinal fluid and all her bio signs were unstable.'

Off the record, aid officials whispered of darker forces at work. There were allegations that Bosnian government officials were demanding 100 litres of fuel for every exit permit - at the same time as their spokesmen were extracting every ounce of propaganda from the plight of the sick in Sarajevo. The accusers produced no proof, and in any case, no one was in the mood for such cynicism. Visual images of suffering have more impact than a thousand unattributable confidences to journalists, and television pictures were by now making Irma's plight an international issue.

ON THE BBC TV news last Sunday evening, Jeremy Bowen started his report with a discussion of the latest attempts to get the Serbs to withdraw from the mountains above Sarajevo - the 'hard news' in journalists' jargon - before switching to the story of the wounded girl. The pictures of Irma were shown, Dr Jaganjac told his story, and Irma's father was seen at the bedside and visiting his wife's grave. 'After so much bloodshed here,' Bowen told the viewers, 'it seems it still is not possible to save children like her.' It was moving, but hardly rabble-rousing stuff.

Vin Ray, the BBC television deputy foreign editor who saw the piece through, thought it was a good but unremarkable piece of journalism. 'We've always done a reasonable amount on individual cases of suffering in Bosnia; it's another way of getting people to understand what is happening,' he said. 'But we've never cynically concentrated on them. We had no idea that the coverage of Irma would provoke such a strong reaction.'

The next morning's newspapers had the same story and same pictures on the front pages. August is a quiet time for news so press, radio and television were all willing to give Irma's plight space; but, that aside, there was nothing extraordinary in their coverage.

What was extraordinary was the public reaction. The BBC received 60 calls on Sunday evening from people wanting to know what they could do. This may not sound much, but BBC officials say it was an unprecedentedly vocal reaction to a weekend news broadcast. More importantly, Downing Street's switchboard was jammed and Gus O'Donnell, the chief press officer, phoned John Major at home in his Huntingdon constituency. He found the Prime Minister had been watching the news, too. Another press officer - the events of the past week have been driven by journalists and press officers rather than politicians - called the Foreign Office to check if the reports were accurate.

The clamour for something to be done was soon overwhelming and the Sun - not a paper noted for its Balkan coverage in the past - offered to send a plane to the rescue. Major decided to act.

SUDDENLY, the obstacles vanished. An RAF Hercules flew to Sarajevo, picked up Irma, her father Ramiz, and her three-year-old sister Medina. They were transferred to a Lear jet at Ancona in Italy and brought to the Great Ormond Street children's hospital. Irma was treated for meningitis, had a brain scan and an operation to remove shrapnel from her back. Her condition remains critical.

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, was ready to reject claims that the rescue mission was a stunt rather than a part of an effective policy to help the Bosnian Muslims. 'Of course, that does not mean that by flying out this little girl we have saved other people or saved Sarajevo,' he said. 'But because you can't help everybody doesn't mean you shouldn't help somebody.'

As attention switched from Irma to the other patients in Sarajevo, Hurd's line ceased to be sustainable. By Tuesday, the Government's Emergency Co- ordination Unit, which is run by Jeremy Metters, the deputy chief medical officer, was considering how to rescue 41 Bosnians cleared for medical evacuation by the UN. On Wednesday, Major announced during a visit to Sweden that they would all be saved and 20 would come to Britain, where hospitals across the country were offering beds.

Inevitably, the Government's good intentions did not survive the realities of life in a city under seige. The 41 could not be found straight away, but equally deserving cases who were not on the list were shown by local doctors to the RAF medical staff. When the news came out of who was to be taken out and who was to stay, Major was appalled that all but four of the UN-approved patients were adults. Sylvana Foa responded to the increasingly angry denunciations of the UN from London by accusing Britain of wanting photogenic children and of using Sarajevo as a 'supermarket'.

Government supporters pointed out yesterday that the slanging match has obscured the fact that Major's initiative had led to countries as diverse as Finland and Israel offering hospital beds to Bosnians. Paddy Ashdown, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, was less impressed. He explained the outcry about Irma by saying the Government had 'consistently underestimated the compassion and concern' of the British people for Bosnia. The plight of the Muslims was an issue waiting to explode. To intervene in response to news pictures was 'absolutely typical' of Major's style of leadership, he added. 'Yet again we see another short-term policy from a prime minister without strong convictions of his own. Here is man who will save one girl, but abandon a whole city.'

Ramiz Hadzimuratovic made the same point at a news conference last week, appealing to the West to stop the fighting. 'If it is not stopped, the killing will be more and more. More children like my daughter will be killed.'

WHATEVER the arguments, 20 injured Bosnians and their families will be flown to Britain. But what will become of them? If they live, they will become refugees. They will transferred to Home Office-funded arrival centres, run by the British Refugee Council and Red Cross, and then be moved on to housing association flats. In this process, according to the officials who receive them, they will find that Whitehall's confusion about how to handle Bosnians did not begin last week. It has been an unhappy feature of British policy since the start of the war.

Despite the outpouring of ministerial and public concern in the past week, there are very few Bosnian refugees in Britain. Since the start of the war, Germany has accepted 250,000 exiles from the former Yugoslavia; Switzerland has taken 80,000, Austria 73,000; Sweden 62,000, and Hungary 40,000. Britain, by contrast, has 5,700 former Yugoslavs claiming asylum (France, the Netherlands and Norway have received similar numbers). They arrived here under asylum regulations which have since been changed, and they may remain here for the duration of the war. One reason for Britain's low place in the European league table is that the Government has done nothing to encourage exiles to believe they can find sanctuary in Britain. The break-up of Yugoslavia has coincided with a tightening of the rules governing asylum. At one point in the first half of last year, Government attitudes became so inflexible that the Home Office sanctioned the deportation of 46 Yugoslav asylum-seekers to Germany and the Netherlands.

An international outcry forced it to stop the expulsions. But on 5 November 1992, the Home Office responded with a far harsher measure. Kenneth Clarke, then Home Secretary, announced that a bureaucratic Catch-22 would be introduced immediately to stop any Bosnian claiming asylum in Britain: no one would be admitted unless he or she had a visa from a British consulate. As there was (and is) no British consulate in Sarajevo, refugees would have to leave Bosnia and try to get a visa at an embassy in central Europe. But if they succeeded the Home Office would still refuse them entry, since it operates a rule that immigration officers should turn back any asylum-seeker who has gone to a 'safe' third country on route to Britain.

'There is a danger of our receiving uncontrolled numbers of citizens of former Yugoslavia who are able to afford the air fare, and random groups organised by well-

meaning organisations,' Mr Clarke explained to the Commons. Only 150 former inmates of Serb detention camps, selected by the Home Office, and their families would be allowed to come to Britain.

Mr Clarke had misjudged both the public and the Conservative Party mood and was soon forced to make a concession. The number of former detainees to be allowed into Britain was increased to 1,000. When their families were taken into account, this meant, said the Home Office, that 5,000 Bosnians would be offered safe haven, in addition to the 5,700 Yugoslavs that are already claiming asylum.

This promise, as our front- page report explains, has not been kept. Last week, the British Refugee Council, which is looking after the former detainees and their families for the Home Office, said the programme had brought only 700 Bosnians to Britain.

While war rages in Bosnia and doors are belatedly opened to mangled children who have had the luck to get their faces on television, Britain has closed one reception centre for refugees, and another is under threat.

Additional reporting by Michael Sheridan and Stephen Castle

(Photographs omitted)

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