An unlikely friendship between a British sergeant-major and a Bosnian schoolgirl is within months – and £15,000 – of reaching an extraordinary landmark at the London Paralympic games.
If Vic Ferguson, now 48 and a Yorkshire businessman, can close his fundraising gap, the woman he saved as a child from Srebrenica is almost certain to compete for her country at javelin, shot-put and discus from her wheelchair.
Hurmija Mujic's transformation from a dead-eyed 12-year-old in a urine-soaked hospital bed in Sarajevo, where Ferguson found her in 1995 while serving with Nato peacekeepers, to prospective Paralympian is complete, but for a last-minute glitch. Hopes of full sponsorship from within Bosnia have just been dashed and Ferguson's tile and specialist stone firm in Ilkley cannot afford to carry the remaining burden for flights and expenses in the UK.
"I've stuck my neck out and paid for visas so that she and three others in the squad can come to Leeds and train," he said, "and we've sorted hotel stays for three months thanks to generous help from others. But I'm worried that we're going to fall short of the full amount we need, including use of a disabled vehicle and specialist gym.
"The squad had high hopes of a Sarajevo bank helping out but that's now fallen through. Even if we can pay for the training on what we've got, I'm not sure we can get them all over here and back, ready for the actual Games."
Ferguson has acted as an adoptive, but usually long-distance, father for nearly two decades to Mujic, who is now 28 and trains daily at Sarajevo's SDI Bosna sports club, but often with homemade equipment put together from plastic pipes and tape. She was 11 and playing with her sister under an apple tree in Srebrenica when shrapnel from a Serbian shell tore into her spine. Her father, two brothers and two uncles were killed in the subsequent massacre.
Mujic was airlifted to the UK for treatment with four other young Bosnians a year later, after the Guardian and the Sun highlighted her plight, prompted by Ferguson, who spent his leave in Bosnia trying to help children caught up in the civil war. Treatment at Oswestry orthopaedic and spinal unit saved her from becoming bedridden and she is now an enthusiastic athlete, teamed up with her country's best Paralympians.
"The four we're hoping to bring over include Dzevad Pandzic and Dzenita Klico, who both competed in Beijing and have already qualified for London," said Ferguson. "Hurmija's almost there. She won three gold medals in Sarajevo at the end of last year and has qualified for the European championships in the Netherlands this summer.
"It will make the world of difference getting her to Leeds and the sort of training facilities she will have there. We're calling our campaign Olympic Dream and for her, that is exactly what this is."
Bakir Bungur of SDI Bosna said: "Hurmija is a strong girl, a spirit strengthened by suffering, reclusive towards strangers but warm and kind. She chose to conquer her disability through sport and much more so than most would dare attempt.
"Now her streak of achievements has a chance to gain an Olympic character, but, yet again, she is condemned to seek the help from others for this – the conditions in Bosnia are still horrible 17 years after peace finally came."
The club's president, Edib Rahmanovic, said: "The Olympic Games in London has a special meaning here in the Olympic city of Sarajevo, recalling the spirit of our Winter Games in 1984. I think that many British citizens will remember that year too, for the success of your skaters Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean. I hope that we can find help."
Ferguson, meanwhile, spends hours on the phone drumming up donations, while riffling through keepsakes from Bosnia at his shop About Stone, which is handling the appeal. He flicks back to notes in his army writing pad about his first meeting with Mujic and a label slips out from one of the toys he was delivering from UK wellwishers to the hospital.
"Here is a teddy for one of the children without any toys," it reads. "Please find one who can have it." Mujic didn't, but instead the visit started her journey towards London 2012.