Leaving the Inferno

updated 08/30/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/30/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IT BEGAN LIKE ANY OTHER DAY IN WAR-shattered Bosnia. On July 30 a Serbian-fired mortar shell exploded in a Sarajevo courtyard, killing Elvira Hadzimuratovic, 30, and gravely wounding her 5-year-old daughter, Irma. The little girl's spinal and abdominal wounds were attended to at the city's State Hospital, but her condition quickly deteriorated. She soon contracted bacterial meningitis, which could not be treated because the hospital lacked a working lab and brain scanner—both necessary to save her life. "This child doesn't have to die," says her doctor, Edo Jaganjac. "In any normal hospital in the world, she would certainly live."

For four days, Jaganjac pleaded unsuccessfully with United Nations officials to gel Irma on a medical evacuation plane. Finally, in desperation, the 36-year-old surgeon asked journalists to publicize Irma's plight. Heartrending photos of the girl, her body frail and contorted, were telecast around the world. Britain's Prime Minister, John Major, was so moved that he promptly dispatched two doctors in a Learjet to bring her—along with her father, Ramiz, 36, and a 3-year-old sister, Medina—to London for emergency treatment. After several operations she remains in critical but stable condition in London's renowned Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children.

One angry doctor in Sarajevo, who had been begging for medical aid and equipment, called Irma's rescue "a big show of a few token evacuations." Indeed, the poignant tale of the helpless little girl had London's tabloid press hyperventilating. But Irma's story managed to transcend politics as she pricked the conscience of the West. Britain and Sweden reversed their policy on taking in Sarajevo's injured and announced plans for an emergency airlift of wounded children. The move did not please everyone. "It looks as if the West has a giant guilt complex and now they want to assuage it by taking a few people with no legs," said Sarajevo's mayor, Muhamed Kresevljakovic. "Strange. Very strange."

On Aug. 15, "Operation Irma" began. Two Hercules transport planes—one British, one Swedish—flew to Sarajevo, and into a morass of bureaucratic squabbling. An embarrassed United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—who until that point had managed to clear for evacuation fewer than 200 of some 50,000 Sarajevo wounded—insisted that the rescue mission would take only a few children. The rest, said Patrick Peillod, the French doctor who heads the UN medical evacuation committee, would most likely be adults needing attention too. "I don't think Sarajevo is a supermarket where governments can come and pick up the cases they want," he said. "I can't ask the Serbs to [injure] more children."

Western doctors challenged UN policy, scouring local hospitals looking for children. At one point, Swedish and British officials wrangled over which country would get to evacuate one seriously injured child. "It became a meat market," complained Sarajevo UNHCR head Tony Land. By the end of the day, 11 children were put on the flights, along with 28 adults and 38 accompanying relatives. One group of evacuees flew directly to Sweden, and the other stopped at an airbase near Ancona, Italy, changed planes and continued to London.

Those on board had stories every bit as grim and moving as little Irma's. Edhem Dedovic, 11, lost his left eye and part of his right cheekbone after being hit by a mortar round. "I was riding my bicycle, and there was a whistling sound that shells make, and I fell down," he says. "I didn't feel anything, but I saw blood on my arm, so I knew I was hurt. I got up and started walking toward the police station to get help. The first guy I met ran away when he saw my face. Then another guy grabbed me and look me to the hospital."

Before his evacuation, Edhem lived with his mother, father, sister and four relatives in two cramped rooms of a rickety house in an area frequently shelled by Serbian gunners. He was taken to London's University College Hospital, where he has been told that his eye is lost forever. Even so, infection had set in, and British doctors may have saved his life. If nothing else, says his mother, Alija, 34, who accompanied him to London, he will now have a measure of peace while he recuperates. "He was very scared of noises during the night," she says.

Operation Irma has inspired plans for more evacuations, nearly 1,300 in all, with the largest offers coming from Italy (which plans to accept 454 patients) and the United States (350). There is no lack of injured to choose from. Among those left behind by Operation Irma was 12-year-old Dzenita Kasmo, who was one of the few to survive a mortar attack outside her apartment building July 26. "There was this huge explosion," she says calmly from her tiny dining room. "My mother went out to get help for me, and she had to walk over all the dead bodies."

Shrapnel struck Dzenita in the head and collarbone, leaving a tiny sliver of metal in her right eye. Her vision has grown steadily worse, and she can now see only light and dark. "If she could be evacuated, maybe she has a chance," says her doctor, Ljiljana Milanovic. "But it would have to be within a week or two." Meanwhile, Dzenita waits to have her case reviewed by the UN committee that approves evacuations. "They cannot treat her here," says her mother, Fatima, 56. "There is nothing we can do."

RON ARIAS
JOEL BRAND in Sarajevo, VIRGINIA GINNANE in London, GABRIELLE SAVERI in Ancona and bureau reports

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