Early in the war, Vice President Gore recommended that I read something he said had helped clarify his thinking: Robert Kaplan’s newly published Balkan Ghosts. “Whatever has happened in Beirut or elsewhere happened first, long ago, in the Balkans,” Kaplan wrote, in a dangerously broad historical sweep.1
Forgetting that peaceful coexistence has marked most of the region’s history, commentators often portray southeastern Europe as a tinderbox. But Bosnians do not have a long history of intolerance; in fact, they have generally taken pride in their “multiethnic” society. (Since most Bosnians are descended from the same Slavic tribes that invaded the Balkans in the sixth and seventh centuries, it would be more accurate, although cumbersome, to speak not of “ethnic” but rather of “ethnoreligious” groups. Religion is what really distinguishes the factions.)
Many outsiders persisted in describing the conflict of the 1990s as a “religious war,” although Bosnians were not given to regular attendance at church or mosque, practicing their religion mostly on holy days. At religious feasts, organizers were careful not to serve food prohibited by another faith. Calls to prayer from Sarajevo’s mosques mingled with pealing bells from Catholic cathedrals and Orthodox churches that stood within a few blocks of each other.
Repressed during fifty years of communist rule, religion was revived yet abused during the breakup of Yugoslavia. First, religion was used in the Balkans, as it has been throughout the world, to cloak a political power grab. Then, after the war, Balkan religious leaders had a politicized base on which to build their contemporary religious communities. Many Bosnians who had never identified with any particular faith felt compelled to do so. However tragic the motivation, they now claimed a religious identity. Churches and mosques were built or rebuilt everywhere.
Bosnia’s religious history was of particular interest to me, since I’d spent eight years in theological training. The country became Christian under Roman rule, but ensuing foreign invasions eradicated that early influence. After the failure of Dominican missionaries sent from Rome, the Franciscan order put down roots in 1340. Close to the common people, Franciscans were the main disseminators of Christianity during the Middle Ages. In time, sixteen Franciscan monasteries were established in Bosnia. But the Franciscans were not without blame. It was one of their priests—later defrocked—who headed the World War II Croatian death camp at Jasenovac, where hundreds of thousands of Serbs and Jews died. In 1994, Pope John Paul II installed a cardinal in Sarajevo, but Vinko Puljić’s voice was often drowned out by fiery priests supporting hard-line nationalists who advocated the annexation of Herzegovina (the southern part of the country) to Catholic Croatia. Their hate speech was a great embarrassment to other Catholic priests, including Franciscans, in Bosnia.
Across the region, the Orthodox Church was identified with nationstates: hence, faith groups called themselves Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, or Serbian Orthodox. The Great Schism of 1054 left Serbs divided between the Catholic Church and Orthodox Church; but by the early thirteenth century, Serbian principalities had been united under Orthodoxy. By the fifteenth century, the Serb Orthodox Church was at the height of its power and prestige. One hundred years after Serbia fell to Ottoman rule, the Serbian patriarchate was restored by the Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, whose grand vizier was, remarkably, a Serb. As one would expect from a faith so identified with the state, in the 1990s, Orthodox leaders backed the Serb nationalists, refusing to speak out against their aggression. Throughout the war, the Orthodox Church insisted that it was caring for the victims of aggression.
Islam arrived in Bosnia with the Ottoman conquest of 1463. Favorable tax laws, more than religious zeal, encouraged many Bosnians to convert. Islamic life was increasingly liberalized from the late 1800s, without the prohibitions against alcohol and images of living things rigorously observed. Secularization was slow and steady, as Bosniaks left home to attend universities in Vienna and Budapest, especially during Austrian rule. Muslim women worked in Sarajevo factories in the 1920s; and the reis ul-ulema,2 the highest Muslim religious leader, insisted that veiling was not a religious duty but a custom.3 Given this history, anxious talk in the 1990s about “an Islamic state in Europe” was perplexing to most Bosnians.
Jews played an important historical role in Bosnia as well. Most European Jews were Ashkenazi, part of a medieval diaspora. But Bosnia’s Jewish community descended from some of the two hundred thousand Jews driven out of Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. These Sep- hardic Jews were welcomed by the Ottomans: remarkably for Europe, the Jews’ civil, legal, and social positions were left unregulated by the state, and they were free to build synagogues and schools. During Austro-Hungarian rule, they enjoyed equal rights. Many spoke Ladino, a form of medieval Spanish; some claimed to have passed down ancient keys to Spanish homes, in the hope that one day they might return. Although ten thousand Bosnian Jews were killed by the Nazis, notably, nearly all who fled returned after World War II. In the 1990s, Bosnian Jews were known for feeding the vulnerable of all faiths and organizing convoys for the elderly and children to leave.
Given Bosnians’ history, religion was an extremely weak explanation for war. Furthermore, a large portion of contemporary Bosnians simply didn’t identify themselves as belonging to one ethnicity or another. They were simply Yugoslavs. Some 40 percent of marriages in Bosnian cities were ethnically mixed. Without differences of skin color or language, and with religious affiliation observed mostly in rites practiced just a few days a year, “ethnic differences” were limited to alphabet (Serbs mostly use Cyrillic, while Bosniaks and Croats mostly use Latin letters) and names. Even those with Bosniak names often had a Serb or Croat mother, and vice versa. Ultimately, though, ethnicity was only one of a host of identities incorporated in the lives of Yugoslavs, along with class, party membership, and home region.
Not a religious or even an ethnic war, the Balkan conflict instead emerged from events and conditions set in motion at the end of World War II. Yugoslavia suffered devastating losses during the war—more than one million dead4—most caused by struggles between the competing Ustaše, Chetniks, and partisans (respectively, Croatian nationalists, Serb nationalists, and anti-Nazi communist sympathizers). At the end of the war, the charismatic partisan resistance commander, Josip Broz (known as Marshall Tito), assumed leadership of what would become the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), composed of six republics (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia) and two semi-autonomous areas (Kosovo and Vojvodina).5 Tito became Yugoslavia’s “president for life.”
Tito split with Stalin in 1948, and Yugoslavia became a leader among the nonaligned countries, which remained neutral in the cold war. While Tito’s policies did result in a staggering number of deaths—estimates are 250,000 during his first year—Yugoslavia became the least repressive of the many socialist regimes in Eurasia. Yugoslavs enjoyed considerable freedom; they could work and travel abroad. Still, in the strong-arm manner of communist leadership across Eastern Europe, Tito cemented his control by silencing dissent and suppressing differences within the country. Tens of thousands of political prisoners, professed nationalists, and sympathizers with the Soviet system were sent to Goli Otok (“naked island”), a prison on a small island in the Adriatic Sea.6
Conventional wisdom holds that conditions leading to the Yugoslav wars of secession developed as a result of Tito’s death in 1980, since he had kept a lid on ethnic differences. This analysis is only partially correct. True, his death catalyzed the conflict; however, the cause was not an eruption of ethnic strife that had been repressed during his rule. Instead, the region’s exploding nationalism seemed to be the reaction of a country in political and economic crisis.
To reward Tito for refusing to be a Soviet puppet, the United States had poured financial aid into Yugoslavia, creating an unsustainably high standard of living.7 When communism imploded, starting with Gorbachev’s assumption of power in the Soviet Union in 1985, America no longer needed to encourage an independent regime in Eastern Europe. US support and other foreign loans to the region decreased dramatically, and the Yugoslav economy suffered. Factories everywhere were running at a loss, real wages were plummeting, and costs were soaring—up to 250 percent in 1988. From this point forward, Yugoslavia experienced a protracted period of inflation and hyperinflation without historical parallel. Eventually, a 500,000,000,000 (five hundred billion) dinar note, the highest denomination note ever, would barely pay for a cup of coffee. Meanwhile, the federal government owed the largest part of its debt—twenty billion dollars—to the West in hard currency.8
The economic crisis was compounded by a dysfunctionally complex political landscape. Tito had left the country without a stable plan for succession and with a collective presidency (representatives of the six republics plus the two autonomous regions rotated into the position annually). It was a weak structure later exploited by the unscrupulous. In the late 1980s, when a schism developed between reform-minded elites and old-guard factions, a wily opportunist, Slobodan Milošević, crept into the political void. The discontented populace was ripe for his decisive, if heartless, leadership. Thus the story of the Bosnian war is the story of an evil genius—one who seized a moment of uncertainty in a nascent democracy, disoriented by a political vacuum and the grueling economic transition to a free-market economy that was no longer supported by American largesse.
Representing conservative forces within the Communist Party, Milošević began to fuel ethnic conflict to marginalize the party members who were pushing for democratization.9 His decade-long propaganda campaign was reminiscent of the Nazis’ push for power in Germany in the 1930s, likewise launched through state-controlled media. Newspapers, radio, and television extolled the superiority of Serbs and emphasized the Muslim threat, creating a climate of fear for everyone—for those who had nothing to lose as well as those who had everything to lose. With hate-mongering speeches and vicious media attacks, Milošević fanned the embers of war.10
In a nation without clear political direction, the armed forces had taken on increased importance. The army that Tito had built, with ample support from the United States, found itself fighting for Milošević’s corrupt political regime.” Milošević purged the ethnically mixed Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), leaving its leaders almost exclusively Serbs.
Alarmed by the pro-Serb propaganda and Milošević’s encroachment, the Republic of Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia in December 1990,11 after a referendum garnered 88 percent support for that move; the Republic of Croatia soon followed. In response, the JNA moved to dismantle republic-based forces in favor of a centrally directed system of defense. Slovenia resisted, refusing to disarm and instead setting up an underground alternative command structure. Those measures were successful in rebuffing Serb attempts to take over the republic’s defenses.
Having failed to consolidate the forces, Serbia launched a military offensive against Slovenia. But the lack of Serbian residents in Slovenia led to a two-pronged problem: Milošević had to rely on the JNA alone, and soldiers in that army did not have the same motivations for fighting that they eventually would find where there were Serb cousins to “liberate.” In the face of these constraints, the Serbian aggression lasted only a few days before collapsing.
Turning their sights on likelier successes, the JNA next targeted Croatia by encouraging resident Serb insurgencies. Serbs in the JNA united with Serbs in local paramilitaries to launch an offensive of rape, murder, demolition, and terror until they claimed a third of the new Republic of Croatia. Tens of thousands of Catholic Croats fled their homes, streaming into Zagreb, the capital, or into nearby countries like Austria for refuge.
In January 1992, Croatia and the rump Yugoslavia (dominated by Serbia) established a cease-fire.12 Shortly thereafter, Bosnians voted overwhelmingly for independence in a referendum that the Bosnian Serb minority largely boycotted. Bosnia’s president, Alija Izetbegović, a former lawyer imprisoned in 1983 for allegedly advocating a Muslim insurrection, was reluctant to acknowledge that a peaceful solution to the crisis was impossible. But in April, a Sarajevo peace rally ended in six deaths when Serb snipers opened fire on the one hundred thousand marchers. War had come to Bosnia.
The ensuing siege of Sarajevo was brutal. The high-rise housing and office buildings were without electricity or running water for months at a time; without the use of their elevators, residents hauled water in whatever containers they could find, up endless flights of stairs. Shelling was relentless. The civilian death toll climbed every day.
A UN arms embargo, designed to keep the region from becoming more violent, only froze the military imbalance in favor of the Serbs,13 leaving Bosnia, the poorest of the six republics, with only a badly equipped, ragtag semblance of an army. During this period, Belgrade created the Bosnian Serb Army to do its bidding, providing paramilitary forces, regular soldiers, guns, and tanks. Working in parallel with these paramilitary gangs, which included psychopaths pulled out of prison, the army followed a strategy of war crimes that drove millions of non-Serbs from their homes.14 The appearance of a separate Serb military force inside Bosnia would mislead some policymakers into thinking that the Bosnian conflict was a civil war of parallel parties. In reality, it was an aggression waged on a newly independent state that had gained membership in the United Nations in May 1992.
Meanwhile, the homeland defeat of Franjo Tuđman, the Croatian president and a former general, by the Serbs created pressure for him to be victorious elsewhere. He turned to neighboring Bosnia. In his plan for a land grab, Tuđman found an unlikely role model in his enemy, Milošević, whose proxy aggression was paying off as Bosnian Serb forces pushed non-Serbs off their farms in eastern Bosnia. While publicly denying complicity, Tuđman struck a private deal with his erstwhile nemesis to divide Bosnia between their two states. The western portion would be annexed by Croatia, the eastern half by Serbia.
Using the same ethnically targeted approach as the Serb nationalists, Tuđman encouraged and supported Bosnian Croat extremists as they expelled non-Croats out of areas near Croatia. He turned the Croatian army loose on the Bosniaks, who were now being attacked from two directions in a genocidal squeeze. Thus embattled, Bosnia began at last to create a real army.
It was almost inconceivable that such human devastation was taking place almost within a stone’s throw of Venice and Vienna, even though those cities had been engaged in a savage conflict a mere half-century earlier. But many factors conspired to create psychological distance between the carnage in Yugoslavia and Western Europe’s polished elegance.
For one thing, Milošević had been successful, preaching the power of ancient hatreds. Over time, the political environment became psychotic: misperceptions metastasized and delusions flourished. Outsiders were reluctant to intervene, innocently or willfully imagining that ethnicity was the primary sorting mechanism of the society.
Another factor was history, which had done its own sorting. The early years of the conflict saw the international community split along World War II lines: Germans and Austrians supported Croats; French, Russians, and the British supported Serbs. Islamic countries, understandably, supported Bosniaks. At a more abstract level, US support for victims of Serb ultranationalism had historical roots in the American melting-pot experience and commitment to diversity (if not equality) as a national value. And at a gut level, Americans knew bullying when they saw it. They knew the good guys from the bad guys, even if most policymakers didn’t.
Within the foreign policy establishment, discussions revealed yet more paralyzing divisions: Pentagon resistance ruled out deployment of US ground troops in the Balkans, although some in Washington advocated the use of air power against the Serbs. But several European allies were concerned that bombing might endanger their own troops on the ground, committed as UN forces to protect deliveries of humanitarian aid. The Russians still clung to their support of the Serbs, in part because they were cousins in the Orthodox faith, and in part because the splintering of Yugoslavia might encourage secessionists like those in Chechnya.
This ongoing policy debate stifled the voices of the Bosniaks and others for whom the consequences of inaction were catastrophic. By the end of the war, nearly eleven thousand people would die in Sarajevo and more than one hundred thousand in Bosnia overall,15 which had a prewar population of less than four million. The demographic breakdown of the injured and dead reveals the terrifying objective of Milošević’s plan. Although Bosniaks were only 40 percent of the population, they accounted for 88 percent of civilian casualties.
Today, Bosnia is in the late stages of multiple transitions: from war to peace, relatively liberal totalitarianism to troubled democracy, controlled economy to free market, international ward to self-reliant society. Still, as Bosnians move forward, they face a wall of stereotypes. The world at large seems to have given up on lasting peace in the Balkans, which reinforces Milošević’s false claims that people in the region bear intractable and ancient hatreds.
A decade after the guns were silenced, perhaps enough time has now elapsed to allow those of us who had influence to make an honest appraisal of what happened. For four years we tried and failed to stop the killing. The best we can do now is learn from the past.
The war ended in several steps. In 1994, I helped usher in the Washington Agreement to end fighting between Croat forces and the Bosnian army and to create a joint military and a political federation. A year later, the Dayton Peace Agreement16 brought the overall war to a halt. But, ironically, that pact realized the warmongers’ goals by dividing the country into two entities along new, ethno-religious lines: the Bosniak-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska. Bosnia has since been laboring to gradually dismantle Dayton, so that it can become a stable democracy like its neighbors in the European Union.
Vice President Gore read widely about the Balkans—from Rebecca West’s 1941 classic, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, through modern reports—seeking more than a surface-level understanding. Though I admired his thoroughness, I did not agree with his assessment that conflict in the region was inevitable.
Staring at an apartment building on the front line in Dobrinja, it was easy to imagine families crouching in the hallways behind their homes, terrified for months—even years—by the intermittent shower of shells and bullets.
Like segments of an Alexander Calder mobile, crushed cars were piled up as barricades against the shelling of Sarajevo. Symbols of prosperity converted into a defense against barbarism.
Briefing President Clinton, along with Secretary of State Christopher and Communications Director Dee Dee Myers. The exchange was, as usual, rapid-fire, with no time for social graces. Just bullet points: Waldheim, no; Bosnia, yes.
This volume is not an indictment of those in the international community whose policies allowed years of hardship and who ultimately crafted a flawed peace agreement. We were balancing competing values, guessing what might come of one choice or another, trying to anticipate consequences. In hindsight, wretched mistakes were made by well-intentioned people who were distracted, lost their nerve, and misjudged actors and events. We did not do the good that was in our power to do.
Those were dark times, and we were all groping. If there had been a lighted path, we would have found it. Sitting at our big desks as we made decisions that affected every level of Bosnians’ lives, those of us in the policymaking community had no inkling of the extent to which we were worlds apart