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SECTION 1   Officialdom

1. INSIDE: “Esteemed Mr. Carrington”

On 3 July 1992, a plane landed in Sarajevo, carrying the diplomat Lord Carrington. He had a string of illustrious titles: former British defense secretary and foreign secretary, former secretary general of NATO. That summer day he was representing the European Community.

Only six hundred feet from the ramshackle airport, where a disabled Russian transport plane lay nose down, lived Nurdžihana Ðozić. Her apartment was on a front line, under constant attack from Bosnian Serb forces. A journalist, born in eastern Bosnia, Ðozić had worked in Belgrade for years before moving to the now-blighted neighborhood of Dobrinja, on the edge of Sarajevo. Ironically, her apartment had been built as part of the Olympic Village—a symbol of multicultural dexterity and discipline. She and her neighbors had been crouched in their cellar since the beginning of the fighting three months earlier.

Ðozić gave me a copy of the letter she had drafted to the visiting British dignitary. She’d braved heavy shelling and snipers to run across the street to a fabric store, now a makeshift press center. There she read her letter into a microphone for radio broadcast:

Esteemed Mr. Carrington,

We, the citizens of what is probably the largest concentration camp in the world, beg you to keep in mind that 30,000 inhabitants of this neighborhood have awaited your arrival. We are Muslims, Serbs, Croats, and other nationalities. Those who think we were attacked because we are not Serbs are deluded. Deranged Serbs attacked Serbs here, deceiving their own nation with their moronic ambitions.

Impatiently, in cellars and shelters, we turned on long-distance transistors to hear the results of your peace talks, to find out whether we will soon be able to take a step into the street without fear that we have stepped into death. Our hopes were in vain.

Can you imagine what it’s like to live almost ninety days in a cellar, with manic artillery volleys overhead, demolishing and burning indiscriminately? Can you imagine what it’s like to live without electricity, water, food, air? Without dignity? Can you imagine what it’s like to give birth, become ill, and die in the same cellar?

When the artillery rounds abated for a short time during your stay in Sarajevo, we hurried to the nearest parks, shielding ourselves from snipers. Making coffins from pieces of furniture, we quickly buried, with as much dignity as possible, the newest civilian victims. Tears of pain and anger flowed down the faces of mourning mothers, children, and the elderly. Tormented and degraded by hunger and exhaustion, we were powerless to silence the nests of machine guns, much less the shells and tanks. Meanwhile you, Mr. Carrington, were negotiating with our killer, with Radovan Karadžić. After all we’d endured, that news wounded us even more.

Finally, Sir, we don’t know “the warring sides,” nor “the three sides who have been called by you to the negotiating table. There are those who kill us (and they will never kill us all) and those who at least endeavor to protect us. Given this, Mr. Carrington, if you come to Sarajevo again—and we sincerely hope that you will—pass by at least a few of these destroyed buildings, and see the innocent blood on the streets. Do that as a small gesture from a wise, worldly diplomat, but also to instruct your conscience.

No one has the right to take away an entire season from us. No one has the right to do that: not politicians, not the Yugoslav People’s Army, not mercenaries, not domestic traitors and criminals. Nor do you have the right simply to observe without understanding what is really happening.

Respectfully, and with the conviction that we will try, with help, to find an escape from the dark, damp cellars, where we have been driven, right before your very eyes,

The Inhabitants of the Sarajevo
           Suburb of Dobrinja

2. OUTSIDE: A Convenient Euphemism

International journalists were in a hole, reporting on events too tragic to be believed and policymakers too unfocused to respond. After all, the busy officials had a host of other problems on their minds, such as European unification, money laundering, NATO expansion, and genetically modified foods.

It was easy to forget, looking out over the broad landscape, that each marker represented someone’s son, husband, father, brother—a lifetime of hope and of promise. Use the wood as fuel to keep the living warm, or as a marker for the dead? A terrible choice.

Many reporters hoped that “if the audience perceived events as real, they would have to act.”1 To avoid that pressure, some international officials de facto colluded with the aggressors by barring reporters from scenes of the worst atrocities. The officials claimed that journalists would further destabilize a chaotic situation; but in truth, damning accounts might have forced officials to admit that death camps existed.

In fact, the US Department of State narrowly avoided just such a predicament. John Fox, an Eastern European specialist on the policy planning staff, granted that “the US government had in its possession credible and verified reports of the existence of… Serbian run camps in Bosnia and elsewhere, as of June, certainly July, 1992, well ahead of the media revelations.”2 But it was only after an August 2 exposé of the camps by the investigative reporter for Newsday Roy Gutman that a State Department spokesman acknowledged the camps’ existence.

The next day, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Niles retracted the confirmation in a statement to Congress: “We don’t have, thus far, substantiated information that would confirm the existence of these camps.” Representative Tom Lantos (D-CA) decried the secretary’s “diplomatic double talk.” According to John Fox, who was painfully aware of the contradiction, “I was told that we couldn’t afford to continue to confirm the existence of these camps.” Those instructions, he claimed, came from the very top—Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, who had been ambassador to Yugoslavia. But Warren Zimmerman, another former ambassador to Yugoslavia, agreed that there was a deliberate effort to “downplay the importance of these camps… [because of] the desire not to create a situation where we would have to respond.”3

The concealment effort involved more than Foggy Bottom, as the State Department is known. Occasionally the public was given poorly informed oversimplifications, such as President Clinton’s remark that “until those folks get tired of killing each other over there, bad things will continue to happen.”4 Granted, the president was in a bind—wanting to avoid US military intervention, but needing to appear decisive. He also had to be aware that the Russians would construe US military involvement as a threat to their security. The last thing Clinton needed was for that important relationship to be damaged.

On the other hand, concerned members of Congress reminded the White House that leaders of rogue states were watching the new administration. If the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or the National Security Council ignored the extermination of Bosniaks, their inaction might be interpreted as a sign that the United States would not confront other threats, such as the development of biological weapons in Iraq or the training of terrorists in Sudan.

And the United Nations? The UN war crimes panel in early 1992 delayed looking into allegations of genocide. Instead of full research and disclosure, empty resolutions and ultimatums abounded. Resolution 713. Resolution 815. Resolution 819. Resolution 824. Resolution 836. Resolution 844. Resolution 908. Resolution 913. In the first eighteen months of the war, the UN Security Council passed forty-seven resolutions and the president of the council issued forty-two statements related to the war.5 Meanwhile, as the Serb police chief in the northwestern city of Banja Luka confirmed, droves of civilians were being deported in railway cattle cars.6 That image evoked Jewish deportations from the same city during World War II, the very crime in which Kurt Waldheim—who went on to be UN secretary general and president of Austria—was eventually held complicit.

In fact, Austria was the first member state to beseech the UN to establish “safe areas” inside Bosnia—enclaves in which Bosniaks could find protection. But objectors worried that UN troops would be required to protect the areas. Some said the term implied that other places would not be safe, thus inviting Serb attacks there. Lord Owen of Britain and Cyrus Vance of the United States, respected co-chairs of the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia, expressed reservations, with Owen noting that the safe areas were “flawed in concept” and would encourage “ethnic cleansing.”7

“Ethnic cleansing” is a code for murder or expulsion because of lineage. Those two words, having entered the English language in the 1990s as the translation of a phrase often used by Yugoslav media, were becoming commonplace in sanitized discussions about the war. But this Orwellian word twist was nothing new. As early as the 1930s, Soviets had referred to the “cleansing of borders” when forcing Poles from their homes. Nazis, too, used the expression. An area from which the entire Jewish population had been expelled was said to be “cleansed of Jews.” During World War II, the idea entered Yugoslav military doctrine. An Ustaše commander referred to “the prearranged, well-calculated plan for cleansing our Croatia of unwanted elements.” On another side, a Chetnik urged his compatriots to “cleanse [the territory] before anybody notices and with strong battalions occupy the key places… freed of non-Serb elements.”8

Although the notion of ethnic cleansing was known to be a distortion of an evil reality, the term still took root as the war progressed, spreading tendrils into the international media. An attentive reader objected to the New York Times: “We should not invite into our language terms which obscure political realities…. For the Nazis, to murder became to ‘grant a mercy death,’ genocide was ‘the final solution.’ But none of us is free of the danger of self-(and other) deception through language corruption…. Soldiers ruthlessly killing innocent civilians or brutally expelling them from their communities out of ethnic hatred is not ‘cleansing.’”9

Officials in the international community no doubt wished they could grapple with the trouble that had appeared on their watch. But ultimately, overlooking or euphemizing the grotesque cruelty in the southeast corner of Europe was a moral sacrifice most seemed willing to make. Many took time for no more than a paternalistic shake of the head over Balkan troublemakers.

3. INSIDE: Angels and Animals

Sitting at my kitchen table, Drago Štambuk leaned forward, his chin propped on his palm. He was anxious to give me his perspective on the war—through a Croatian lens, but still nationalist. A medical doctor and published poet, Štambuk had grown up on the Dalmatian coast. He was close to President Tuđman and had served as Croatia’s ambassador to India and Egypt. During the war, he was posted as ambassador to Britain.

“I was galvanized when I saw the bloodshed and destruction,” Štambuk told me. “So I telephoned the British Foreign Office and said, ‘I’m very worried about what’s going to happen in Yugoslavia. May I speak with somebody?’ The person said, ‘I can meet you for lunch in a pub.’ So we met, and I told him, ‘I believe in preventive medicine. Can you do something politically and diplomatically—you meaning the British government, or the West altogether—to prevent this war? Because it’s going to be terrible.’ He listened but made no comment. That’s how the meeting ended.”

Štambuk told me he tried to make politicians and journalists comprehend what was happening:

Why couldn’t they have listened to people like me who understood the country and knew what would follow? The signals were all there. You just needed to read them and draw the conclusion. And it was a terrible conclusion.

When Tito created Yugoslavia, he insisted on equality among ethnic groups. He would kick one on the head and another in the eye. So, regarding ethnicity, we were all more or less equal. But when he died, this equality wasn’t good enough for the Serbs.

According to the former ambassador, Milošević and his cronies had actively fomented the strife. The Academy of Arts and Sciences, an influential group of Serb intellectuals, published an inflammatory memorandum in Belgrade in 1986.1° “It was clear what would happen,” Štambuk said. “From ideas, to words, to deeds. Milošević stirred up normal people around the country. Then Serbs in all the republics started taking over institutions. They manipulated the law to put the whole budget of Yugoslavia into the Serbian kitty. Serbia was trying to take over the country from the inside. It was like marriage rape.”

A key moment in Milošević’s political power grab, Štambuk explained, was an incendiary 1989 speech “to a million people gathered in Kosovo, calling on all Serbs to unite. People in the other republics started focusing on their own people, like the Croats in Croatia. Elections with nationalist parties were organized. The Serbs in Belgrade looked at the other republics and claimed, ‘These are separatists!’ That simply wasn’t the case. Separatism was born in Belgrade.”

“Before the war,” he mused, “I never thought of myself as this or that ethnic group. And then all this started happening…. You begin to think, ‘Where do I belong?’ And it’s natural to try to find your own group.”

Once people are divided into groups, conflict grows in the gaps between them. He said, “It’s so easy to react, to kill in revenge, to do the same things to the other side. But for me, just common humanity was most important.” Štambuk looked away, sighed, then continued: “One of my friends said, ‘I can forgive Serbs everything, except one thing. I cannot forgive them for making me fight.’”

Drago Štambuk was interviewed on TV in response to an April 1993 massacre of more than one hundred Bosniaks—mostly women, children, and elderly men—in the village of Ahmići. He recounted the experience to me:

Even though Muslims and Croats had lived peacefully together, all the Muslim homes were destroyed, while the Croat section was untouched. Croat militia burned some of the victims alive.

I was representing Croats in the UK. I saw the burned bodies of the Muslims on the television, and I was horrified. The announcer said “Croats did it.” Then the interviewer leaned toward me and said, “Now Croats are like Serbs.”

Margaret Thatcher had told me, “Stay with what you want to say. You don’t have to answer their questions.” But I couldn’t do it. I was so shattered. There I was, standing for people doing horrible things. And I said—it just came out—I said, “I’m ashamed to be here.” That was the only human thing I could say. “I’m ashamed to be here.” I repeated it twice, because one time wasn’t enough.11

Not everyone supported Štambuk’s frankness in the studio that night, he told me:

A few Croats called and said “Why didn’t you lie on television last night? Serbs always lie.” I said, “I didn’t, because then I’d be like them.”

I thought if I managed to convince people of the truth, that would be enough. They’d be on the side of the victims. It was a huge disappointment when I realized that wasn’t the case. In the real world, interests are more powerful than principles. That was a great awakening for me. There were always agendas I didn’t know about. I had to play to politicians’ interests. That was the terrible lesson, that politics is rooted in selfishness and greed. Sometimes politicians set a house on fire, then extinguish the fire to get credit, rather than preventing the fire in the first place.

“So the war was allowed to go on,” the poet continued. “And when I met with refugees brought to England, their stories were terrible. What is it with human nature? How can people become so bestial? Is it only that they lose their sense of shame? Or is it that we are, inside, capable of wonderful, angelic deeds, but also heinous crimes? If you say that part of our nature is animalistic, I think you are not being kind to animals.”

  • The way the sea
  • embraces the island
  • gradually, steadily,
  • so will we,
  • children of God’s providence,
  • come to love ourselves again.12

4. OUTSIDE: Carter and Conscience

Former President Carter greeted me with a cherubic smile. I had met him just the night before, and he had spontaneously invited me to lunch the next day with a few friends at his suite in the Waldorf-Astoria, in New York.

An earnest aide, seemingly relieved that I had shown up, opened the door. We went right into the dining room and sat down at a formal table set for ten. On one side of the former president sat Mary Tyler Moore, the actress and activist. I was next to Jimmy and across from his lifelong partner, Rosalynn.

Most of the guests were related to Carter’s world-renowned humanitarian center. Our conversation quickly turned political. Across the Atlantic, the soft underbelly of Europe was being ripped apart. For a year, reports of atrocities had been trickling out as Serb troops cut across multiethnic parts of Yugoslavia.

Bill Clinton, the new US president, was having a terrible time determining what to do about Bosnia. His forceful campaign rhetoric accusing President George H. W. Bush of impotence in the face of aggression had itself been rendered feeble. British Prime Minister Thatcher had urged Clinton’s predecessor to take action, saying that “Serbia should be given an ultimatum” to cease its nationalistic aggression or face “military retaliation.” Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, had insisted: “I would begin with air power against the Serbs, to try to restore the basic conditions of humanity.”13

Rosalynn Carter was known to be one of Jimmy Carter’s most trusted advisors, while he was president and afterward.

But a year later, Clinton in turn was being pummeled in the press. The New York Times columnist William Safire was particularly vocal: “No doubt the Bush acquiescence two years ago in the U.N. cutoff of arms to the Bosnian Muslims was a diplomatic blunder. But this year’s false starts belong on Bill Clinton’s doorstep Time is running out, Mr. Clinton. Avoid the U.N. trap. Send Europe the message: Bosnia alive or NATO dead.”14

Clinton had recently consulted with Carter—not a common occurrence, since the new president’s aides seemed determined to keep as much distance as possible between him and his Democratic predecessor. Over lunch, Carter repeated what he had told Clinton: “Nothing I faced in my four years was this difficult.”

Perhaps Jimmy Carter had watched the same C-SPAN coverage I had, with Lawrence Eagleburger, President Bush’s secretary of state, offering Congress a sophisticated critique of the Balkans that unfortunately echoed the line Serb nationalists had been promulgating for six years. Eagleburger should have known better. While US ambassador to Yugoslavia and living in Belgrade, he had even labeled Milošević an “alleged war criminal” as early as 1992. Despite this concern, perhaps his view was skewed, since Yugoslavia’s political leadership, like their powerful army, was dominated by Serbs. The oft-repeated justification for nonintervention was simple, easy for decision makers to understand—and stunningly wrong: ethnic and religious hatreds run deeper than we can imagine, and we’d best stay out of the quagmire.

“We shouldn’t get involved in a religious war,” concluded President Carter. “But Jimmy,” Rosalynn countered, “We can’t just turn away.”

I sat pondering the discrepancy between this conversation and my tutoring by Balkan experts at the State Department. “Religious war” was not their explanation. They laid responsibility for the atrocities at the feet of politicians, not priests. But even more striking that afternoon with the Carters was the general feeling of helplessness, the sense that we could go round and round this topic for the rest of the day, for the rest of the week, and not get anywhere. No one had an answer.

Having said my goodbyes, I stepped into the elevator and stared absently at the wood-paneled walls. In the lobby, I walked briskly over intricate floor mosaics, my mind churning. Soon I would be assuming my post in Vienna, the self-proclaimed birthplace of diplomacy. If the problems of the war came my way, would I take them on? Might I even seek them out?

The urgency behind Rosalynn’s words stuck in my mind. Then I shook myself. No more time to think about it. I was off to another meeting—ironically, with my predecessor in Vienna, Henry Grunwald, the former editor of Time whose family had fled the Nazis. There was so much to learn about diplomatic life. I hopped in a cab and sped across Manhattan.

5. INSIDE: “If I Left, Everyone Would Flee”

In a crowded Sarajevo coffeehouse, I found it odd to imagine that the charming, elderly man sitting across from me had been president of Yugoslavia. I was meeting with every leader I could, trying to understand the internal forces leading to the war, and Raif Dizdarević had kindly agreed to my request for an interview. Owing to Tito’s impractical rotating presidency, Dizdarević had served only one year in office a decade earlier. He accepted some responsibility for the gradual disintegration of Yugoslavia, but he insisted that, if his advice had been heeded at the beginning of the war, he could have helped halt the slaughter.

Dizdarević told me it was the shelling of Sarajevo’s children’s hospital that prompted him to call Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The UN secretary general was meeting at that moment with the Security Council, discussing sanctions against Yugoslavia. “I explained that the Serbs and Milošević respect only force,” Dizdarević said. “I knew Milošević well and had a lot of clashes with him. I think I had some effect on Boutros-Ghali, because he sounded very sad and hesitant. But he disappointed me greatly.”

At sixteen, Dizdarević had joined Tito’s partisans, along with his six brothers. He said he was an officer by the age of seventeen. The elderly man expressed pride in his Communist affiliation and didn’t hold back his disdain for recent converts now filling political positions: “I’ve opposed fascism since I was a boy. That’s why I’m a Communist. You don’t change beliefs like you change a shirt.”

The former politician reflected on the couple who were key players in the breakup of his country: Milošević and his ideologue wife, Mirjana Marković. Dizdarević was close to Marković’s father, a long-time revolutionary: “When I was president and Milošević started rising and setting ablaze this nationalist fire, I was critical of his policies. Marković’s father called me to tell me that I had his and his friends’ support. From his sickbed, he said, ‘Stop Slobodan Milošević. He is a very dangerous man. And unfortunately, Milošević and my daughter are a perfect pathological fit.’”

Dizdarević took that advice and, in an address to the nation on 9 October 1988, made clear just how dangerous he thought the couple was. He warned that unchecked nationalist agitation could lead to a state of emergency. But such admonitions, unsupported by action, did little to slow Milošević’s progression to power.

Regarded as a failure by most Bosnians for not stopping the Serb hatemonger, Dizdarević gave me a poignant review of the collapse of the Yugoslav state and said: “After being in politics for half a century, it’s easy to see how I should have done things differently, back when I had the chance. But what’s important now is using wisdom from the past to affect the future.” As we spoke, he named—and took responsibility for—three strategic errors that had allowed a revival of nationalism to destroy his country: “First, we failed to replace a worn-out system; we should have concentrated economic decision making among only a few key players. Second, we should have strengthened market economy policies to keep the republics connected. Third, we should have developed democracy, which is more humane and is the future; we had a framework, even in my generation, but we couldn’t progress from our old ideas.”

When the war broke out, Dizdarević was living as a retiree in Fojnica, his hometown thirty-one miles from Sarajevo. One day, when he was smudged with soot and oil from trying to fix his broken furnace, a UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) vehicle pulled up. The soldiers asked if he could lead them to the former president of Yugoslavia, who was said to live around there: “I said I was he, but they didn’t believe it. It took fifteen minutes to convince them.”

Dizdarević’s son, an engineer, had bought a house on Long Island, assuming his parents would live with him. “He had tried to persuade me I could be more useful to Bosnia from New York City,” the former president told me. The UN soldiers asked why he stayed there, 550 yards from the front line: “I said this was my home, my father’s house. If I left, everyone would flee.”

As Serbian nationalists launched their attacks from the north and east, and Croat extremists began attacking from the west, Dizdarević sided with Bosnians trying to defend their state. Although he had refused rescue from the UNPROFOR troops, he tried to use his relationships with former UN colleagues to encourage international action, sending urgent messages to Ambassador Warren Zimmerman, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and European Union (EU) commissioners.

One day, Dizdarević told me, a commander of the Bosnian army approached his house. Even though the officer wore tattered clothes, the former president was impressed by the wisdom of his military strategy. After the commander left, he went to his closet and pulled out various uniforms, including one from World War II. He added his hunting gear and money and had everything delivered to the commander.

The situation became increasingly dangerous, particularly since Dizdarević was a Bosniak. He received threats, and his phones were tapped. One magazine named him the key culprit of the war. “Can you imagine a former president armed in his own house?” he asked me. “I could often hear people walking around outside. The neighbors knocked on my door to tell me they were guarding me. I didn’t know these people, but they did this dozens of times.”

Dizdarević eventually decided to move into the capital to show solidarity with his fellow citizens. He would be recognized at any checkpoint, however, and Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks all had reasons to dislike him. His solution came in early 1993, when a tunnel was dug under the airport. It was used for transporting the wounded to safety and bringing in military personnel and the meager supplies that were available for the more than three hundred thousand people in the city. One end of the tunnel was in Apartment 25 in Dobrinja, a unit with nothing to distinguish it from the rest of the shell-scarred neighborhood. The other end was a house next to a field that stretched to Mount Igman, long, flat, and tree-covered. The tunnel took four months to dig, with wheelbarrows used to remove dirt from five yards underground. It was laid with a track and supported with steel on the sides. As soon as it was usable, Dizdarević made his way through it into Sarajevo.

I wondered why, without appreciation or fortune, he had entered the besieged capital and stayed. The former president seemed desperately to want to compensate for his earlier failures. He sought involvement in high-level political discussions, beyond local UN military briefings. But among the new officials swept in during the 1990 elections, he represented the old regime. With a tinge of bitterness, he noted that no Bosnian—or American—diplomat, politician, or other leader ever asked him for advice.

6. OUTSIDE: None of Our Business

She was vintage diplomacy. Each time I met Pamela Harriman, I was taken with the exquisite competence and care with which she presented herself. In recent years, she had earned a reputation as a woman of substance, participating in policy conferences and leading delegations to Russia and China.15 Given a decades-long familiarity with France that started during her studies at the Sorbonne, she was perfect for her post as US ambassador in Paris—a prime example of a political appointee bringing into the diplomatic circle the skills, contacts, and instincts that enriched the US foreign policy machine. Her energy and drive matched those of someone decades younger, but it was her charm and finesse that made her welcomed by the famously testy French, who dubbed her “the iron lady in the silk suit.”16

During her confirmation hearing, Senator Jesse Helms had touched on the war in Bosnia, asking Harriman about France’s concern that its soldiers on the ground would be harmed if the United States took military action against Serbia. She handled the question deftly, noting the delicacy of the subject and assuring the senator that she would support any position her country took.

At a meeting of American diplomats, I asked Ambassador Harriman what she thought about the war in the Balkans. After all, she had a trove of connections to draw on. Her first husband, Randolph Churchill, had parachuted into Bosnia when he served as British liaison officer to Marshal Tito’s partisans. Later she became acquainted with Tito through her third husband, Averell Harriman—a railroad tycoon who became governor of New York, ambassador to the Soviet Union and ambassador to Great Britain, and was at the heart of cold war politics. In fact, the Harrimans attended Tito’s funeral in 1980.

Considering my question, she recalled that Governor Harriman had conjectured that Yugoslavia would fall apart when Tito died. After a long pause, she ventured: “Maybe we should just stay out—like we did in the beginning—and let them kill each other off. After all, there have been conflicts there for centuries. Eventually one side wins.”

I was dismayed by her response. The onslaught in Bosnia was barbaric to an extent almost incomprehensible in sophisticated, modern Europe. Only deliberate spinning could paint the conflict as anything but a violent land grab by both Croat and Serb forces. Clearly, Milošević had been successful in exporting his message of ethnic incompatibility to those in the international community looking for a reason not to get involved.

Ambassador Pamela Harriman was my mentor and friend, but we were in different places when it came to intervention in Bosnia.

Newspapers’ graphic reports of atrocities were interspersed with political pundits’ warnings that there would be no end to the fighting in this “civil war.” Still, I hadn’t expected Ambassador Harriman to unwittingly echo the Serb party line, especially given her background. For one thing, she knew that England had gone to war half a dozen times in the past two centuries. She even told me several times how, as a young bride, she played cards late at night in a bomb shelter with her father-in-law, Winston Churchill. The prime minister, of course, had ardently opposed the strategy of appeasing rather than opposing Hitler. He had declared Chamberlain’s 1938 Munich agreement “a total and unmitigated defeat”17 and had defined an appeaser as “one who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last.”

I wondered how Pamela, for all her personal tenacity, could give up on US intervention in the Bosnian conflict. Did she not connect this situation with Britain’s hope that America would enter World War II? Was one situation our business, but the other not?

I wished we could have the same empathy for Bosnians that we had had for the British. But perhaps that was asking too much, given that most Americans would not even be able to find Yugoslavia on a map of Europe.

7. INSIDE: Silajdžić

Haris Silajdžić didn’t suffer fools with easy grace. He often responded derisively to ill-informed questions. A refined intellectual, the Bosnian prime minister spoke beautiful Arabic and flawless English. He was a playwright and recited poetry to his friends as easily as others complained about the weather. The journalist Roger Cohen described him as “a brilliant, whimsical man, with a Hamlet-like tendency to speak in riddles.”18

As Silajdžić’s gaze reflected the flames in my fireplace, alliteration carried him into another realm: “Rusting and resting. While my helicopter flew over the Bosnian landscape, I looked down and saw trees rusting and resting…”

Silajdžić had come to our residence in Vienna around 10:00 p.m.—after a clandestine arms transaction, I suspected. I was in the living room on the phone with my husband, who was away conducting. The butler opened the door for the prime minister, who walked into the room and kissed me on the forehead. (Knowing Silajdžić’s romantic tendencies, I arranged for the butler to come into the room every fifteen minutes.)

We talked about the intolerability of what had become all too real: the wave of war crimes now taking thousands of lives at a time. Recent atrocities had nearly driven him to madness, he said, and he was working to the point of exhaustion. Although he asked for a sandwich, it sat in front of him untouched until midnight. Then, just before leaving, he wolfed it down as if he were starved. “Winter is coming,” he said. “I shall come back, for another dinner by your fire. It’s clear that you and I were meant to meet. We will be together, even if not in this world. We are two stars in the heavens, and the crossing of our trajectories was ordained. Goodnight, Baby.”

Fifty-year-old Haris was more than a moody, sultry ladies’ man. Foreign minister and subsequently prime minister and president, he was the Bosnian leader who most consistently held out for diversity within one unified state. That put him at odds with the politicians ripping open the Yugoslav heartland, and his principles set him apart from State Department officials willing to capitulate by partitioning Bosnia.

Nobody could doubt his credentials. With a Muslim religious leader as a father, and an Islamic scholar in his own right, Silajdžić spoke with authority for devout Bosniaks. Nonetheless, he was quite secular and had a hard time with conservative Muslims. In fact, his academic career included positions in the United States. After teaching Arabic at the University of Pristina and holding a professorship in the faculty of philosophy at the University of Sarajevo, he became a professor at Cornell University. He gave guest lectures at Harvard and think tanks such as the Carnegie Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson Center. Given this combination of Islamic understanding and personal moderation, Silajdžić was well positioned to be an intermediary with the West.

Haris Silajdžić’s party, The Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina, was abbreviated “TA” (“FOR” in Serbo-Croatian).

Drawn to stars and media, the minister was a man meant for the stage, not only as a playwright, but as an actor as well. One day, when I entered his office, he had red daisies waiting for me. “Who bought these, you or your secretary?” I asked.

  • “I did,” he lied.
  • “I’ve heard you’re in a funk, so I came to see for myself.”
  • “Not true,” he protested. “It’s just an act I’ve developed over the past five years—for special effects.”

8. OUTSIDE: Unintended Consequences

Humanitarian relief in Bosnia was not as it appeared. We constantly had to ask ourselves if our actions, however we intended them, were more destructive than helpful. The question of the ultimate utility of aid efforts turned up in conversations throughout the war.

A year into the war, as the situation in Bosnia was going from bad to worse, an internal report commissioned by the State Department found that 23 percent of air relief had been confiscated by Serbs. Instead of preventing genocide, the report said, the UN “may actually be facilitating its implementation.” Could that be? Could food assistance abet genocide? Yes, it turned out, in at least three ways.

First, Serb troops demanded a portion of shipments as a sort of tax in exchange for letting the cargo past checkpoints they erected throughout Bosnia. Every load of food and other goods ended up supplying the aggressors.

Second, international aid workers on the ground were essentially hostages. Key policymakers warned that the UN employees’ lives would be at risk if NATO forces stepped in to stop the killing. Thus, the very people who were trying to save lives by delivering humanitarian help became excuses for the delay in the international military response.

And third, some policymakers argued that NATO intervention could cause the delivery of humanitarian aid to be interrupted. Specifically, the Serbs might retaliate for air strikes on their heavy weapons by preventing UN trucks from delivering food to besieged towns. That leap of logic was laid out before me by a representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Zagreb. During an hour-long meeting in early 1994, he explained this deadly dilemma. But it made as much sense as a surgeon refusing to remove a cancer because the operation would inhibit the uptake of daily pain medication.

After laying out the policy, the official got up from his desk and closed the door. He came over to my chair and, leaning forward, whispered: “I’ll tell you the truth, Ambassador. The UN ought to clear all of us relief workers out and bomb the Serbs. As it is, we’re only fattening the victims for the kill.”

9. INSIDE: The Bread Factory

“Go to the bread factory, Madame Ambassador. The people who work there are the true heroes of the war.” I took the advice of Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović, a vibrant intellectual weathered by the war. Cautiously, I headed over to the Klas Bread Factory, a source of sustenance throughout the siege of Sarajevo.In an armored Humvee from the embassy, we drove past commercial buildings with pieces of metal roofing now hanging like Spanish moss. When we pulled up to the bakery, six managers met me at the front door with considerable ceremony. All were men between the ages of forty and sixty, and they represented the ethnic diversity that made the city a beacon of multiculturalism: there were two Bosniaks, two Serbs, one Croat, and one from a mixed marriage. Their harmonious working relationship belied the warped paradigm of ethnic purity. In the office, I sipped coffee from a petite Middle Eastern cup and sampled cookies from the bakery, tasting the blend of East and West that made this place more like an American-style melting pot than other cities in Europe were.

For the tour, I donned a clean jacket and entered a world of powdery white. The building had little to distinguish it: the hundred-year-old mill house was a cavernous box with three small assembly lines. Outside were four large silos, surrounding a yard piled high with bags of flour supplied by the UN. The sacks doubled as barricades in doorways and windows. (Harkening back to World War II, one elderly manager compared that flour with the vitally important, powdered “Truman eggs.”)

Within this industrial compound lay the story of Sarajevo. Nearly every pane of glass had been shattered by gunfire. Some were mended with tape; most had been replaced by thick plastic. Two of the silos gaped with wide holes. The mill tower had collapsed, and the walls behind the assembly lines were pocked by bullets. Still, hour after hour, year after year, the vapors of baking spiraled out of hooded smokestacks on the roof.

Here, four hundred women and two hundred men were risking their lives simply by reporting to work each day. Large numbers had been wounded, many losing limbs. Twenty had been killed. Snipers had picked off drivers as they made deliveries to more than 170 sites across the city. At one point, the shelling was so heavy that the workers were trapped in the bakery for a week.

This factory wasn’t on the front lines. The targeting was strategic, an attempt by Serb troops to starve the citizens of Sarajevo, about half of whom were now refugees from the countryside. With the airport under siege and the roads blocked, the city’s humanitarian supplies were sometimes cut off for months at a time. For over a year, there was no electricity, gas, or oil. The bakery used a sixty-two-year-old Sherman tank motor to run its generator.

No spare parts were available, so production was limited by equipment breakdowns. But in spite of the damage sustained by workers and machines, eight hundred thousand baked items and thousands of bags of pasta were produced daily. As I watched the noodles being poured into simple, clear, plastic bags, one of the managers remarked how psychologically essential even that packaging had become for Bosnians, a vestige of civilization during a time of barbarism.

In a society where the very infrastructure, not to mention the economy, had collapsed, the provision of six hundred jobs was a meaningful contribution. Granted, many of the employees were senior citizens and received only about two dollars a day—and a loaf of bread. But most Bosnians had been working without wages for several years. Life had been simply a matter of surviving at the most basic level.

It was surreal or worse, my asking people who had survived a siege to pose for a picture next to their baked goods.

There was something familiar and reassuring about the warm, fragrant brown loaves. I reflected on how across cultures, bread has been a symbol for sustenance and nourishment—rich in both sensory pleasure and religious meaning for a city under siege. Twisted and twirled into small works of art, each loaf the factory produced was a symbol of unity.

10. OUTSIDE: Elegant Tables

Fancy dinners, accompanied by fine wines, rosettes of butter, and steaming rolls, were standard fare in Vienna, which was considered by State Department officials a “plum” posting, one of the most upscale in the world. I was growing accustomed to having political pabulum served up between courses of foie gras and cream of garlic soup.

Ursula Siler-Albring, the German ambassador to Austria, was a particularly forthright and open diplomat; I was glad my husband, Charles, had the pleasure of her company as I held forth to whatever bedecked dignitaries were at my side.

One evening, I dined in the splendor of the Italian ambassador’s residence. By the time we had spread the napkins across our laps, the ambassador was lamenting (protected by a cloak of subjunctives) that if the Americans would have led a military intervention, the Europeans would have followed.

At another dinner, Prince Albert Rohan, a high official in Austria’s Foreign Ministry, pressed for action. “If the West does not intervene in the Balkans, we’ll be the laughingstock of the world,” he warned. Rohan’s view was typical of the conservative People’s Party. It was a safe position to take, since Austria was precluded from sending combat troops onto foreign soil. But internal politics were nonetheless complicated. The Socialist Party, led by Chancellor (Prime Minister) Franz Vranitzky, insisted that the West should not get involved since the military endgame wasn’t clear.

As it turned out, the question of whether or not to get involved in the war was a topic equally current in German circles. In Bonn only a few weeks later, I joined Ambassador Harriman for a visit to Richard Holbrooke, then US ambassador to Germany. As we sat at his table, an aide entered and handed him a secret cable, describing the bombing of a crowded Sarajevo market. Passing the telegram to Harriman and then to me, he remarked: “What irony. NATO may finally use military action, but only because of public outrage at what may have been a misfired, random mortar.”

In fact, NATO did not act. And hundreds of dinner parties later, polite diplomats and earnest government officials across Europe were still hashing out the pros and cons of intervention. Stories of Balkan strife flowed as freely as champagne. With each, my colleagues and I nodded our heads appreciatively, not sure what else to do.

In January 1994, a dozen guests sat around the banquet table at our residence. I lifted my goblet to toast Ambassador Victor Jackovich, the first American ambassador to Bosnia, seated at the opposite end of the table. Since Sarajevo was so dangerous, the ambassador was living in Vienna, sharing our embassy offices.

With us was Daniel Spiegel, the compassionate US ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, which includes the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. Dan, Vic, and I had gone earlier that day to Traiskirchen, a town near Vienna, where refugees were being housed in dormitories.

En route, I pulled out my briefing papers, neatly typed and ordered. They included transcripts of interviews with the refugees: a man forced to watch his eleven-year-old daughter being raped multiple times before he was struck down in front of her eyes. A son forced to perform sexual acts on his father. Eyeballs plucked from old women and stuffed down their throats. I did not finish reading.

At Traiskirchen, Vic moved among the families, speaking to them softly in their language. In my toast at dinner, I mentioned that at the camp, his demeanor seemed almost angelic. Perhaps I just needed to see some sign of grace in that hell. Blushing at the compliment, Vic diverted the conversation into the pros and cons of Austrian refugee policy.

In measured tones, he went on to describe the scene in Sarajevo. A reign of terror was being carried out by drunks on the hillside, he said, who were lobbing shells onto the city. They were bullies, acting with impunity. No one was even trying to stop them.

The bitter war was stretching into its second winter. “There’s no end in sight,” Ambassador Jackovich said. Life was difficult beyond description. A Sarajevan friend told Vic he had not eaten meat in two years. “Two years,” Vic repeated, his voice trailing off.

The incongruity, however unintended, seemed almost contrived. As the guest of honor spoke, Christoph, our butler, waited patiently. With perfect posture, he balanced a large silver tray brimming with fare befitting an important diplomatic evening: filet mignon, surrounded by mounds of vegetables. What was not eaten that evening would not be wasted; we always collected our scraps for the handyman’s dog.

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