WORLD

TO THE RESCUE

THE PLIGHT OF A LITTLE GIRL SPARKS WESTERN ASSISTANCE FOR INNOCENT VICTIMS OF BOSNIA’S CIVIL

SCOTT STEELE August 23 1993
WORLD

TO THE RESCUE

THE PLIGHT OF A LITTLE GIRL SPARKS WESTERN ASSISTANCE FOR INNOCENT VICTIMS OF BOSNIA’S CIVIL

SCOTT STEELE August 23 1993

TO THE RESCUE

WORLD

THE PLIGHT OF A LITTLE GIRL SPARKS WESTERN ASSISTANCE FOR INNOCENT VICTIMS OF BOSNIA’S CIVIL

Shattered accords. Failed ceasefires. Stalled peace talks. To outsiders, the 16-month-old civil war in Bosnia often seems little more than a remote, insoluble feud in a land far away. But occasionally, for a world grown weary with diplomatic stalemate and never-ending fighting, there emerges a reminder of the war’s human face—not the swagger of generals or the bickering of politicians, but the pain of innocent children.

Last week, five-year-old Irma Hadzimuratovic was such a reminder. Her body grotesquely disfigured by a recent mortar attack, she flew from the besieged Bosnian capital of Sarajevo on a British relief plane to London, her dolls gathered around her on an inflatable stretcher. For several days, her Bosnian surgeon, Dr. Edo Jaganjac, had tried in vain to persuade UN officials to fly the comatose Muslim girl, who sustained severe head, abdominal and spinal injuries, abroad for treatment unavailable in Sarajevo, where electricity, fresh water and medical supplies are in short supply. Frustrated, he took her story to the international media. The attention generated an outpouring of public sympathy and not only help for Irma, but a flood of offers from Western governments—including Canada, Britain, Sweden, Ireland and France—to evacuate more of Bosnia’s sick and wounded civilians. Declared External Affairs Minister Perrin Beatty: “The suffering of victims in these poorly equipped and overtaxed hospitals has touched us all.”

Beatty and Defence Minister Thomas Siddon announced that, in consultation with UN medical experts, the Canadian Forces will airlift as many as 20 Sarajevo hospital patients needing immediate treatment to Canada. Suitable candidates will arrive, perhaps as early as this week, on a Trenton, Ont.-based 707 jet that will serve as an ambulance for the evacuation. The Canadian Red Cross will handle arrangements for the patients during their stay, and hospitals in Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario have offered assistance. The federal government also donated $500,000 more to the Canadian Red Cross Society for emergency medical care in the former Yugoslavia.

The humanitarian action by Canada and other sympathetic nations followed media criticism and public outrage directed not only at representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which the UN has authorized to approve all medical evacuations from Bosnia, but also at several Western governments. In Geneva, UNHCR representative Sylvana Foa, facing accusations that the relief organization is dragging its feet, conceded that UN bureaucracy sometimes delays transport of the wounded. But she added that individual governments, which must arrange the flights as well as cover the costs of hospital care, were failing to provide enough help.

Private relief organiza-

tions also turned up the heat. The Torontobased Bosnian-Canadian Relief Association, for one, which enlisted volunteer doctors and last week received dozens of telephone calls from people offering cash donations

and other help, appealed to Ottawa to do more. “Canada has a responsibility to take a leading role in bringing some of these children over,” said organization representative Mariam Bhabha. “We have the know-how and the facilities.”

But the evacuation efforts were not universally welcomed. Chris Cushing, a Canadian relief worker with the international aid organization Médecins sans Frontières, questioned the cost effectiveness of the plans. “I am sure the sincerity of the people making this gesture is real, but I don’t think they have thought through the whole situation and I don’t think they are that familiar with the situation on the ground,” said Cushing, who recently returned to Toronto after spending three months based in Sarajevo. “It is very sexy, and everyone feels great bringing these poor little kids over to Canada, but the greater need is with the majority. It seems to me that the money could be much better spent supporting the local health system in Sarajevo.” Cushing added that foreign governments must also put more pressure on Bosnia’s warring parties to end the fighting. ‘Technological quick fixes are meaningless and misguided unless you deal with the larger, and much more difficult, political issues,” he said. “If you want to stop the Irmas, then you’ve got to stop the war.”

That is precisely what special envoys Lord Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg have been trying to do. But last week in Geneva, peace talks were put on hold as Bosnian Muslim President Alija Izetbegovic refused to come to the negotiating table, instead accusing Bosnian Serbs of failing to complete a promised troop withdrawal from Mount Bjelasnica and Mount Igman, two strategic peaks overlooking Sarajevo. And Owen confessed that although he had deep reservations about a plan to carve up Bosnia into three sections along ethnic lines, it was probably the most realistic solution. “This is a peace made not in heaven but in hell,” he declared.

Meanwhile, NATO ambassadors, meeting in Brussels for the second time in a week, demanded that the Bosnian Serbs, who had effectively shut Sarajevo off from the outside world, lift their siege of the city “without delay.” And they approved plans for possible Bosnian air strikes to back up their demands. The diplomats from the 16-nation alliance stressed that any air strikes would be limited to supporting humanitarian relief efforts and must not be interpreted as a decision to intervene in the conflict. And, as requested by Canada, Britain and France, they pade the attacks conditional on future actions by the Serbs as well as other Bosnian factions, and gave UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali full authority to approve the attacks. Analysts said that BoutrosGhali may decide to do so if supplies into Sarajevo are blocked or if civilians are deliberately targeted.

For Izetbegovic, the attacks cannot come too soon, but Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic warned that any air strike would “spoil all chances for peace.” That was a prospect that deeply disturbed some re-

lief workers. Warned Cushing: “If you start to attack the Serbs, they are going to retaliate against UN peacekeepers and aid workers, and you can say goodbye to any humanitarian aid going anywhere in Bosnia.”

At week’s end, a British medical team arrived in Sarajevo to help co-ordinate the evacuation of 41 sick and wounded civilians already given UN clearance. But team members quickly discovered others—including more children—who they said would better benefit from immediate evacuation and medical treatment. Among them: a severely wounded threeyear-old girl. Pointedly, team member Dr. Andy Mitchell called her “another Irma.”

SCOTT STEELE