Leading Article: When helping, try a little modesty

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The Independent Online
AND SUDDENLY everyone is furious. John Major is furious. The Sun and other newspapers are furious, and claim fury on behalf of the people of Britain. The Ministry of Defence is furious. An RAF doctor who has spent only a few hours in Sarajevo is furious. Anger stalks the leader pages, flies in faxes between the Sun and 10 Downing Street, is spatchcocked into the television news. This morning last week it is a fair guess that most of us cared only in the most generalised way for the fate of the wounded and sick children of Sarajevo - if (look into our hearts) we thought of them at all. Then we woke up and cared and sorrowed passionately. Now some of us, the politicians and their allies, are spitting blood. A strange declension of feeling to be fitted into the space of seven days; a positive helter-skelter of emotion. What is going on?

One thing that is going on is August; the slackest month for domestic news, when stories from abroad probably get more newspaper space and television time than (Gulf wars permitting) they do during any other month of the year. Another thing, or rather small human being, that is going on is Irma Hadzimuratovic, the five-year-old girl who was flown last week from Sarajevo to Britain suffering from terrible injuries. Yesterday she was still alive, though critically ill, at the Hospital for Sick Children in Great Ormond Street, London. If she survives, she and her family will have many people to thank: doctors and nurses, obviously; but before them the compassion and journalistic instinct of BBC reporters; a television audience that can still be moved by suffering; and a British Prime Minister who acted to save her life. The motives of such a good act do not deserve scepticism and until Friday last week it was possible to find merit in the Douglas Hurd defence that 'because you can't help everybody doesn't mean you shouldn't help somebody.'

In the last two days, however, the mask of altruism has slipped to reveal, all too clearly, political self-interest on the face beneath. John Major is furious, so we are told, because he wanted to bring home more sick children from Sarajevo, dispatched aircraft and medical teams to this effect, and then discovered that adults comprised 15 of the 17 patients scheduled to be flown to Britain today. The list of the sick was compiled by doctors working under the direction of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), hence the fury of Baroness Chalker, Minister for Overseas Development, at the UN's 'red tape' and 'bureaucracy'. The plane that is to carry them has been chartered from Russia, hence the fury of the Ministry of Defence that it is not a splendid British aeroplane.

All this might be wryly amusing, if it were not so tragic and contemptible. When on Wednesday Mr Major announced his airlift, the Government had not seen the list of patients who are to be shared between Britain, Ireland and Sweden. And now: draw up a new list and get more children on it. As the Sun, the Prime Minister's ally on this particular question, says: 'WE'VE GOT THE TEDDIES, WHERE ARE THE KIDS WE HOPED TO SAVE?' Men and women, perhaps more seriously ill, potentially the begetters of orphans, do not make such good stories. They, as prime ministers and beggars know, touch us less. By helping them we do not sufficiently dramatise our own compassion. The clearest, and perhaps the wisest, words on the Prime Minister's stratagem come from Sylvana Foa, press officer for the UNHCR in Geneva. 'Sarajevo is not a big supermarket where you go and say, 'I'll have one of those and one of those and one of those,' ' she said last week. 'Does that mean that Britain only wants children? Maybe you also want only blond and blue-eyed children, maybe also only children under six, maybe only orphans.'

HUMANITARIAN aid aside, Britain does not want to intervene in Bosnia. Together with its Western allies it thinks that the defence of the present legal boundaries of the Bosnian state is a military impossibility; that what is happening there is a bloody civil war; and that even smaller objectives - the relief of Sarajevo, for example - carry risks and require a long-term commitment far beyond the public purses and popular wills of Western democracies. The Government is probably right to think so, and it would be wrong to accuse it of humbug because it combines a non-interventionist stance with a willingness to alleviate suffering where and when it can. But in the refugee question the Government certainly wants to have it both ways; to have, as it were, its refugees and eat them.

As we report on page one, Britain actually closed a centre for Bosnian refugees a few weeks ago, because the Home Office had failed to fulfil a promise made last year that Britain would provide sanctuary to 1,000 former inmates of Serb 'concentration' camps and their families - between 4,000 and 5,000 Bosnians in all. These are not large numbers compared to those accepted by other European countries, but still we have fallen short of our quota. Why? The answer is bureaucracy and red tape - British bureaucracy, the red tape of old Albion - and also perhaps a political unwillingness which has the word 'immigrants' at its root. As for the sick of Sarajevo, Mr Major has known about their plight for months. What the last few days should teach him is that nothing becomes compassion so much as modesty. With Bosnia, he and we have much to be modest about.