Losing Little Irma

UPDATED 04/17/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/17/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

THE WHOLE WORLD, IT SEEMED, WANTED to help little Irma Hadzimuratovic. Two years ago, with United Nations-sponsored evacuations from embattled Sarajevo snarled in red tape, the severely injured 5-year-old suddenly became a symbol for the suffering of all Bosnia. Eventually, British Prime Minister John Major sent a Learjet to bring her to London, where surgeons operated on her several times, trying to repair damage from shrapnel that had pierced her spine and abdomen when a mortar round exploded, instantly killing her mother, Elvira, 30. In the months that followed, she received thousands of cards and gifts and even a visit from Princess Diana, but in the end her injuries proved lethal. On April 1, Irma died in her sleep, finally succumbing to a blood infection.

Her 20 months in intensive care were not easy. She was paralyzed from the neck down and could breathe only with a ventilator. The hospital tried to fashion a normal life for her, providing English classes (she became fluent) and arranging outings in a specially equipped wheelchair. Her father, Ramiz, 37, and sister Medina, 4, who accompanied her to London, lived in a nearby apartment and visited regularly. "I feel pain knowing she will never be the same," Ramiz wrote in his diary in September 1993. "It is a harder time for me than ever before. How can I watch her suffer as I suffer with her too? It is killing me."

In his agony, her father had little use for those who questioned the impulse behind Operation Irma, an effort by Western governments—including the U.S.—to evacuate hundreds of injured Bosnian children. Critics charged that the rescue mission was undertaken only to mask an inadequate response to a war that has claimed 200,000 lives, 17,000 of them children. "My Irma is an innocent victim of this war," Ramiz wrote. "She is paralyzed from the neck down. The only reason for this is late evacuation. It is important that other children should be evacuated on time."

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