Leading Article: First a little girl, next a stricken city

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The Independent Online
FINALLY, a few minutes before midnight, the Western powers have made tentative moves towards relieving the Bosnian Muslims. The image of five-year-old Irma Hadzimuratovic was of such vulnerability that it penetrated both the indifference of the public and the cynicism of our leaders. The plight of civilians, though exhaustively documented over the past year, this week acquired a fresh and compelling reality. Viewers of that suffering also came to appreciate momentarily that their personal feelings were part of a powerful, collective anguish that could alter the course of events. John Major felt compelled to behave briefly like an ordinary citizen employed as Prime Minister rather than as the sceptical agent of realpolitik.

Meanwhile, on the ground, the Serb advance on Sarajevo was halted. Radovan Karadzic's troops ended the week milling around Mount Igman with the United Nations in a sad farce that could be titled Carry on Bosnia. But at least a year of posturing and seemingly empty threats from Western leaders has finally stopped the shelling of Sarajevo and provided a breathing space for its 300,000 inhabitants.

These developments stand out as achievements only when set against such unmitigated failures over the last 18 months. They are indeed slight when measured by what has yet to be created: safety for the inhabitants of Sarajevo and a secure route into the city; a unitary Bosnian Muslim state that is economically viable and militarily defensible; stiffening of Western resolve that aggression against sovereign states will not be tolerated and will be defeated. Against these aims little has so far been achieved beyond saving all too few of Sarajevo's sick children and the playing out of another chapter in the West's phoney war with the Serbs. Despite all the publicity, it remains the case that Sarajevo's hospital still lacks electricity and many of the basic tools needed for the treatment of physical trauma. Why, one wonders, has the UN failed to establish and staff a field hospital in the city to care for casualties?

The question now is: will the public once more retreat into passivity, while politicians take refuge in cynicism? Will the West again hand the initiative back to the Serbs? Those concerned to build on this week's tentative progress must focus on a first aim, the relief of Sarajevo. This requires opening the route from Mostar through Croatian-held territory into central Bosnia. Military experts estimate that the route can be secured with 1,800 troops, as long as the opposition is limited to brigands. Only this way can sufficient humanitarian supplies be transported in the city to restore its inhabitants to health.

In this task, discussion of air strikes is something of a distraction. The fact that they continue to be the focus of attention exemplifies the lack of clarity of policy. Air strikes may be a dramatic and apparently painless way (to the West) of teaching the Serbs a lesson, but it is unclear what they would achieve in the long-run without ground troops pursuing a concrete objective. Bombing from the air may be needed if the Serbs attempted militarily to frustrate the opening of the Mostar road. However, as long as the Serbs hold their fire, the UN tasks must be to repair the road and negotiate a ceasefire between Croats and Muslims whose battle for territory around Mostar is throttling the supply route. French UN forces have begun work on the road, but the Bijela bridge still has a 77-metre gap. So it could be weeks before Sarajevans can hope for UN trucks to be rolling in by this road.

The saving of Sarajevo will be a complicated and frustrating enterprise. It will require the type of energy and commitment that in a single day took Irma Hadzimuratovic from her Bosnian deathbed to Great Ormond Street hospital. As yet, there is no clear indication that leaders such as John Major are prepared to invest such energy in the task. Their decision will depend on how fiercely ordinary Westerners demand that politicians cease their vacillation. Who knows whether, having been galvanised by Irma's plight, public opinion can remain attentive to the problem at hand in the face of summer's distractions? The last hope for the Bosnian Muslims seems to be the outrage of Europe's citizens. If that outrage can work for Irma, perhaps it can work for Sarajevo.

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