U.S. saved just 8 children on Bosnia's list of 13,000


August 18, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

The United States has done very little so far to rescue the wounded children of Sarajevo.

An estimated 13,000 children have been wounded and 1,400 killed in the civil war that still rages there.

Yet our State Department confirmed for me this week that the United States has accepted exactly three children from Sarajevo for medical treatment in this country.

Which brings the number of wounded children we have rescued from Bosnia-Herzegovina as a whole to eight.

But we are not a heartless country nor an indifferent people.

And the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) announced this week that it is in the final stages of a plan to rescue Bosnian tennis players and swimmers.

According to the Washington Post, 28 athletes and two coaches will be flown to the United States in the next few weeks.

"The idea is to save a generation of athletes in Bosnia," Harvey Schiller, USOC executive director, said. "These athletes are trying to train in a war zone. We've all read the stories coming out of Bosnia, and this is our way of trying to help."

Other countries are trying to help wounded children rather than healthy athletes, however.

On July 30, Irma Hadzimuratovic, 5; her mother, Elvira, 30; and her 3-year-old sister, Medina, were caught by a mortar attack in a market square in a suburb of Sarajevo.

Elvira was killed instantly, her body absorbing enough of the blast to save Medina from injury. But Irma's spine and abdomen were pierced by shrapnel.

Irma was taken to Sarajevo's State Hospital where doctors did their best for her. But because Sarajevo lacks reliable supplies of both water and electricity, hospital conditions can range from primitive to appalling.

Irma's doctor, Edo Jaganjac, was unable to get antibiotics to treat her, was unable to perform all the surgery she needed, and was unable to get the United Nations to put Irma on one of the 20 Western military planes that fly in and out of Sarajevo every day.

So he walked to the Sarajevo Holiday Inn, where many foreign reporters stay, and made a plea for any nation, anywhere to save Irma.

"This child doesn't have to die!" he said, his face tight with anger.

British radio, television and newspapers carried the story, and there was an outpouring of phone calls to 10 Downing Street.

And Prime Minister John Major, who had been watching the story on television, ordered an RAF Hercules transport plane to fly to Sarajevo, pick up Irma, her sister and father, and fly them to a London.

Today, Irma has had two operations and is in critical but stable condition in a London hospital.

Irma's suffering touched people. And 17 nations ranging from Italy to Ireland to Israel offered to accept more wounded children from Sarajevo. And Saudi Arabia offered to pay for air ambulances.

But in the United States, there was at least one, more curious reaction.

"You see the pictures of what's happening there and we'd all like to reach through the TV set and pull those people out and help them," Alfredo LaMont, U.S. Olympic Committee director of international relations, said. "Well, this is our chance."

LaMont was not speaking of a chance to rescue small wounded children, however. He was speaking of a chance to rescue strapping teen-age athletes and adult coaches in the pink of health.

But let's be fair: While the United Nations estimates that three children per day are being killed in Sarajevo and more are losing arms, legs, eyes and ears, we should not overlook the fact that shelling also makes it difficult for Olympic athletes to train.

(Have you ever tried to concentrate on your topspin lob with mortar shells going off? Have you ever tried to perfect your butterfly stroke with sniper fire going on? Have you?)

Don't get the idea that USOC cares only about tennis players and swimmers, however.

Later this year, our Olympic committee intends to rescue a second wave of athletes, including, according to the Post, "one speed skater, a handball team, up to a dozen gymnasts and, perhaps, some basketball players and lugers."

But what about those thousands of children trapped in Sarajevo who are not Olympic athletes?

Well, my advice to them is to take up handball.

While they still have hands.

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