SECTION 4 Fissures and Connections
25. INSIDE: Family Ties
During the war, families faced dreadful choices. When troops approached, when a house next door was blown up, when military barricades blocked the road, mothers and fathers had to make terrible tradeoffs to save their children’s lives.
The war ripped apart the fabric of families, leaving them frayed. There was a sense of helplessness for many parents and children—not only for mothers, but also fathers and sons, who traditionally were responsible for protecting their families. Sons weren’t around to bury elderly parents or grandparents who collapsed along roadways during village purges. Husbands couldn’t save their wives from being raped. Fathers couldn’t stop grenades from exploding in schools where their children huddled in fear, cut off from home.
One Bosnian friend told me of Fadila, a university-educated professional, and her engineer husband. The couple and their two teenage sons lived with all the trappings of middle-class comfort: a television and VCR; an apartment in town and vacation place in the mountains. Hearing of advancing Serb forces, the engineer drove into the hills in a lastminute attempt to save what he could at their cabin. He didn’t return that night. Soon, Fadila received word that he was dead. Witnesses told her that the killer said he didn’t want to waste a bullet on her husband and so cracked his skull with the butt of a gun.
Distraught and terrified, Fadila fled with her two boys, boarding the next bus with only her purse—no documents, hardly any money. The bus took them to the coast of Croatia, where the threesome spilled into a pool of hundreds of thousands of refugees. There, Fadila faced a new threat: as soon as her boys turned seventeen, they would be inducted into the Croatian army and sent to the most perilous front lines. The widow was desperate to get her sons out of Croatia. With help from a friend abroad, she arranged for them to be sent as refugees to Germany. They were safe; but now she was alone.
Others had more excruciating escapes. A sickening story on the evening news told of a Bosnian father who, when his village was attacked, fled with his wife and several children into the night. As they crept through the underbrush to circumvent enemy checkpoints, the infant son began to cry. The mother did everything she could to silence the baby, without success. “Better one dies than all of us,” the father finally muttered, as he put his hands around the baby’s throat and strangled his child.
26. OUTSIDE: Federation
My lobbying efforts seemed to be falling on deaf ears. Analysts continued to discourage intervention. Adding to the other justifications, they mentioned the mind-boggling complexity of not only multiple armies but also paramilitary groups with little or no central command. Early in 1994, the State Department made a new attempt to manage the chaos. If Washington could unite the Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats (headquartered in the south, in Herzegovina), a three-way war would be consolidated into a Serb offensive and a Bosniak-Croat counteroffensive. But given the terrible losses inflicted on the Bosniaks by the Zagreb-backed Croats, getting the two groups to join forces, figuratively and literally, would be difficult at best.
After almost two years of war, in a dramatic shift of alliances, Croatian President Tuđman presented to Bosnian President Izetbegović a rough plan for a Bosniak-Croat Federation, which would cover approximately half of Bosnia. The proposal was premised on an undefined “confederation” of this federation with the Republic of Croatia. (When I apologetically asked a State Department official to explain the difference between “federation” and “confederation,” he said, sardonically, “No one really knows what these words will actually mean, but if Tuđman wants a ‘confederation’ we’ll give him a ‘confederation.’”)
The framework of a settlement was brokered by the United States, with a detailed agreement to be hammered out in Vienna. As the local ambassador, I would host the talks; Ambassador Chuck Redman, an accomplished career diplomat, would be the US negotiator.
The delegates arrived at the embassy, meeting in our large conference room under the gaze of a dozen international press cameras. Given the tensions between the Croats and Bosniaks, that was the only time the two negotiating teams would be together for days. Thereafter, the dozen or so Bosniaks met in the small “ambassador’s dining room” just outside my office, while an equal number of Croats worked in our administrative meeting room. Ambassador Redman and his staff shuttled back and forth between the two.
Dozens of issues had to be navigated. One day an Austrian official asked about rumors that the Croats had backed out of their agreement regarding selection of the federation’s prime minister. “No, we’ve already settled that,” Ambassador Redman said.
“But,” the questioner pressed, “I’ve heard they’ve changed their minds.”
“I’m not giving them that option,” Chuck retorted.
I looked in on each group regularly. The rooms were cramped, the men disheveled, the papers piled high. We waived our no-smoking rule rather than have progress impeded by nicotine cravings; but every time I opened a door, the tobacco stench was dense.
Several days into the process, late in the afternoon, I found a weary young man with bloodshot eyes, leaning over a computer. “Do you have a model that would be good for a constitution—with cantons?” he asked. Bemused, we found a prototype, compliments of the Swiss embassy.
The State Department had consulted former NATO commanders to determine how the two armies could unite under joint Bosniak-Croat command. Once this part of the agreement was settled, the United States would provide “education and training,” to advance reforms for the post-Tito military and develop a unified command structure for the former adversaries—a Herculean assignment.
The Bosnian Croats were undoubtedly following orders from Zagreb. Tuđman’s scheme to absorb the western half of Bosnia into Croatia was well known, but as the war stretched on, the Croatian strongman seemed to have given up on his dream of helping Milošević drive the Bosniaks out of the region. He was willing to settle for an undefined confederation with Croatia.
It was fascinating to observe discussions without definitions. For Tuđman, “confederation” seemed to mean that once the Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks united inside Bosnia, that territory could somehow become part of his Croat domain. For US policymakers, however, the proposed confederation could have been as limited as a unified economic entity. Given the wide discrepancy between these formulations, the US negotiation sponsors decided that the nature of the future relationship between the Bosniak-Croat Federation and Croatia was better left ambiguous. Tuđman could imagine whatever he wanted, so long as he came to the negotiating table.
However expedient, this was a slippery political slope—perhaps even encouraging ethnic cleansing. Creating a confederation defined by ethnic majorities granted de facto success to those who opposed integration. After all, union for Croats meant division for Bosnia. Thus the plan entrenched ideas that the international community was purporting to fight.
More insidiously, the confederation legitimized and branded ethnically “pure” regions of Bosnia, which in the future might more convincingly be annexed by Croatia and Serbia. Serbs were already calling the portion of Bosnia that they had overrun Republika Srpska, “the Serb Republic.” If confederation were possible between the Croat-dominated area of Bosnia and the nation of Croatia, why could or should not the Serb-dominated region of Bosnia be free to confederate with Serbia? Notions of confederation could easily evolve into perceived US support for dividing Bosnia between the “Greater Croatia” and “Greater Serbia” conjured up by Tuđman and Milošević.
Following the Croatian leader’s election in 1990, the two presidents met as many as forty-seven times throughout the war and were rumored to hold one another in high regard, even during the worst of the violence. Many of their communications concerned their desire to split Bosnia between them. At a restaurant meeting in 1995, Tuđman took out his pen, sketched Bosnia on a napkin, and then drew a line carving up the country.1
As outrageous as that action was, the question remained as to how Serbs could thrive within a Bosniak-Croat Federation. Were they simply to be consigned to a catch-all category of “others,” meaning any non-Bosniaks and non-Croats? This was a slap in the face to the “loyal Serbs” like Jovan Divjak, who were already paying a price for staying. It was easy to imagine the psychological burden on, for instance, a Serb husband living with his Bosniak wife in the Bosniak-Croat Federation. She would be in the defined power group, while he would simply be “other.” It seemed we outsiders were now codifying the language of the separatists parsing the country.
My office was spread with CIA-produced maps showing the eastern Serb-controlled mass of Bosnia in pink, the Croat-dominated sections in yellow, the shrinking Bosniak remnant in green. Bright colors of a patchwork quilt, with only a few apparent blemishes: patches of green on the right side of the map. Those were the rural enclaves of the uN-declared safe havens Goražde, Žepa, and Srebrenica, completely surrounded by pink. How to simplify the patchwork?
For days on end, the politicians had been holed up in their separate rooms, arguing among themselves over the best tactics to secure their gains, as their wordsmiths proposed terms and conditions that were then rejected by the other room. Everyone was exhausted; the negotiations were stuck. To help move the process along, I organized a dinner complete with harpist, small round tables, an encouraging toast, fine food, our engaging six-year-old, a sing-along at the piano, and our clumsy family dog.
After I sang “Simple Gifts,” Bosnian Foreign Minister Irfan Ljubijankić, on the far left, claimed the keyboard. The Balkan song fest he led was a far cry from formal negotiation tactics. Ljubijankić died 28 May 1995, when his helicopter was shot down by rebel Serbs near Bihac.
The evening was successful; the negotiations would move forward. But as he left our residence, one thin, wan negotiator said to me in a low voice that he could only stare at his plate, thinking of his daughter back in Sarajevo, hungry and trapped in that hellhole.
27. INSIDE: School Days
When her parents learned over the radio about the blockade around Sarajevo that had been erected overnight, twelve-year-old Irma was excited. No school! Irma and her classmates didn’t have to finish the spring term. The teachers just gave them the same grades they’d made the first half of the year and declared that school was out.
But come fall, the fighting hadn’t stopped, so schools resumed classes. Parents weren’t the only ones concerned about children. School administrators and teachers who might be willing to risk their own lives were at a loss about whether or not to hold classes. They left it to parents to decide, on a day-by-day basis, whether to send their children to school. Sometimes the shelling was so intense that Irma’s family spent two to three weeks in the basement of their apartment building. When the worst seemed over, the parents ventured out to their jobs. But should they allow their only child also to go out, to school?
I met Irma through my interpreter Vjeko, her father, who was endlessly worried about her safety. Irma’s mother, Azra, and Vjeko told me how they discussed their options: “Some parents never allowed their children to go. My friend let her daughter out just one day, and she was killed. But everything is in God’s hands, we decided. If we didn’t let her go, a shell could still hit the house.” It was an agonizing decision. Irma’s mother was always afraid her daughter wouldn’t come back. But not letting her leave their apartment building would be like keeping her in prison, her parents decided. For the sake of her overall well-being, Irma needed to go to school.
“In September or October I started seventh grade,” Irma told me. “I still have my diplomas. They were very simple, on two sheets of paper, with the Bosnian lily.”
A year and a half into the fighting, it was time for Irma to move on to high school. Now she would have to go along main city streets, past sniper areas near the Presidency Building. Azra explained: “I had to go to work, because I was afraid I would lose my job as an architect. We worked from 9:00 to 2:00. Since there was no construction going on, we couldn’t carry out new designs. So we tried to figure out how to save historical buildings that were burned out. But I had a friend, Zlata, with a small shop on the corner near the cathedral. I asked her, ‘Please look after my Irma.’ Sometimes my daughter stopped by the shop on her way home, and, if she could, Zlata gave her a small cake.”
Irma piped up: “If we’d waited until we were certain that it was safe, we would never have gone to school.” The shelling, she said, usually started about 5:00 a.m. and continued for two hours. During the lull that followed, children and adults hurried through the streets. The attacks often resumed in the afternoon, but there was no predictable pattern. Sometimes there was a reprieve until after 8:00 p.m. But the uncertainty was cruel when, after a period of quiet, the explosions suddenly picked up again.
Which route to take to school—the quickest or the safest? But then, no way was really safe.
Every day Irma met her friends at a halfway point: “We would gothrough some buildings, then sneak along side streets. They were narrower, so they were safer. We entered the school through the front door; the side door was the most dangerous because it faced the hill, where the snipers were.”
Insightful and delicate Irma.
School wasn’t full-time, and classes were smaller since fewer children came. Many of the instructors, like Irma’s French teacher, had left as refugees. But Irma noted with respect in her voice: “Even with the war, they didn’t let up. They didn’t change the standards. We had an old Latin professor. She tortured us. I remember how difficult the classes were more than I remember the war.”
Textbooks grew old. Single sheets of paper that came as humanitarian aid replaced notebooks. “We did almost everything we did before,” Irma said, “but we didn’t have a gym, since it was being used by the army. And there was no one to give music lessons. But we sometimes had music in the streets, and often in the shelters.”
Students like Irma tried to focus on their schoolwork, although for six months homework had to be done by candlelight. Sometimes Irma’s parents put oil-soaked cotton in a coffee cup, lit it, and set it up high to light the whole room.
Hardships or none, Irma was still a teenager. “I was sure I knew best,” she told me. “One day, after school, my friends and I climbed about twelve feet up on metal bars over the window to carve our names on the outside walls. I was sent to the principal. Another time, when I was in eighth grade, I went swimming with five or six boys and girls. It was during a cease-fire, when there was less shooting. We jumped into the river, near the destroyed library, with all our clothes on, as if we were at the seaside. I went home sopping wet. Looking back, it was a stupid thing to do, because of the snipers.”
Graffiti, but not the work of hoodlums. Young people painted their names on this wall, which might still stand even if their lives were destroyed. A self-made grave marker to say yes—yes, they had been there.
Two years into the war Irma was able to go to an after-school program run by an Austrian humanitarian group, sos Kinderdorf: “For three hours each day we studied English, French, German, graphic design, and drawing. It was safe, there was something to do, and they gave us a sandwich.” The children were asked to create “warning posters,” and their work was even exhibited. Design became Irma’s passion, which she pursued full force.
Every school community in Sarajevo had endless stories of how it tried to carry on with some semblance of normalcy in the midst of absurdity. As the principal of Irma’s school led me through the building a year after the war ended, she described how she had wrestled with the dilemma of whether to hold classes. If a shell hit the school and the children were killed, she said, how could she live with herself? Ultimately she decided on a compromise. She wouldn’t use the upper floor or the courtyard, which were more exposed to shelling. All the classes would be in the basement or on the ground floor.
Every level of education had its own bizarre—sometimes tragic—challenges. An accounting professor shared this story with me:
When the attacks started, I managed to make it into town. I wanted to get to my school, since I hadn’t turned in my final marks. I was holding the grade ledger, thinking about one of my students who was having a hard time, and wondering how I might help him. Just then, a colleague came up and said, “Haven’t you heard? The president just announced that all students should be given passing grades.” I pointed to the bad marks of that student. “Lucky for him!” I chuckled. Another professor turned to me, crying. “He’s dead.”
Surrounded by extraordinary danger, faculty members also struggled with the mundane. A professor of architecture told me how she taught in a modern building with no electricity, the sounds of shells and bullets punctuating her lectures. Wanting to offer more than a furrowed brow, I asked if she might like me to somehow get some architectural journals to her. She looked at me patiently and replied, “That would be nice, but what we really need is pencils.”
28. OUTSIDE: Forces and Counterforces
Seated on the stage of the White House Old Executive Office Building, Presidents Clinton, Izetbegović, and Tuđman looked pleased with themselves as they picked up their pens and signed the federation agreement. I was anything but pleased as I looked across the auditorium, filled with negotiators and other Balkan policymakers. Not one woman had been included in the deliberations. Somehow, I had colluded with a distorted power structure. More than forty women’s groups had been trying to prevent the war, yet we organizers had failed to add chairs at the negotiating table for those who had most vociferously argued for the open society we said we were trying to foster. I wondered: If half the room had been women, would collaboration have been so difficult?
In other settings as well, divisions ran deep. Not since the Vietnam protests, I was assured by those who should know, had the State Department been so split. Early in the war, young diplomats assigned to the Balkans quit to protest the lack of action against Serb President Milošević and his Bosnian Serb cronies, President Karadžić and General Mladić.2 The financier and philanthropist George Soros hired the administration’s dissidents, employing them in a gadfly Balkan task force. There they could use their expertise to needle Secretary of State Warren Christopher, whose energy seemed consumed by the Middle East conflict. Morale was decidedly low in Foggy Bottom.
That policy fissure did not start with the Clinton administration. In 1992, Secretary of State James Baker had belatedly but successfully pressed President George H. W. Bush to order military action to stop Milošević. The order, however, was not executed—ironically, because of candidate Clinton’s call for stronger action in Bosnia. As he dropped in the polls, Bush pulled Baker from the State Department to run his flagging reelection campaign. The new secretary of state, Lawrence Eagle- burger, was more wary of becoming involved. Given his experience as US ambassador to Yugoslavia, his warnings to Congress carried great weight. With no leader left to push for action, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney’s counsel against intervention prevailed, allowing the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands more Yugoslavs.
Elected in November 1992, President Clinton had faced a four-star challenge. First, given the independent candidate Ross Perot’s campaign accusation that the Arkansas baby boomer had been a draft dodger, Clinton’s suitability to be commander in chief was in doubt. Second, his appointment of Representative Les Aspin as the new defense secretary was rejected behind the scenes by Pentagon powers, so that Clinton was forced to replace him. Third, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell was intent on ending his own military career with a Gulf War victory, not a Balkan blot. Finally, at an otherwise long-since-forgotten town meeting, a questioner had won a commitment from Governor Clinton that, if elected president, he would support a policy of nondiscrimination against gays in the military—a move that caused enormous consternation at the conservative Pentagon. These four factors conspired to leave President Clinton weak vis-à-vis a military establishment that was determined not to enter the Balkan fray.
In the absence of decisive action from the White House, the State Department and Pentagon were at a standoff. The barbs were sometimes sharp, such as a reputed exchange between Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright and General Powell during which she asked in exasperation if his US military was anything more than an education program for inner-city youth. Several Pentagon officials verified to me that the general was resolved not to send troops to the Balkans.
Powell recommended to the president that only “overwhelming force” be considered. Some detractors conjectured that military leaders furthered their objective of avoiding entanglements by presenting worst-case scenarios that projected massive casualties. This was not a new approach; military strategists who had not wanted to become involved in the 1991 Gulf War also had projected huge American losses.
The result of their pessimistic estimates was that the White House deferred to the advice of Powell and like-minded advisors. The president summoned Richard Holbrooke back from Germany, where he had served only a year as ambassador. Named assistant secretary for European and Canadian affairs, Holbrooke was given a new charge: clean up the Balkan mess. He stepped into the role with energy, commitment, and clarity of purpose. The president, in a subsequent private meeting, asked me what I thought about the assignment. Afterward I told Dick what I had answered: “Holbrooke is brilliant and a bully—a good choice to go up against Milošević.”
Unfortunately, the assistant secretary’s confrontational personality, while often effective against war criminals, was remarkably counterproductive within the State Department. Secretary Christopher, a gentlemanly attorney, had a distinguished reputation as decorated statesman and civic leader. He had played a lead role not only in the normalization of relations with China but also in the release of US hostages in Iran. However, Christopher was reputedly as averse to conflict as Holbrooke was comfortable creating it. At least two other seasoned professionals told me they resigned after being recruited by the secretary to work on Bosnia because they couldn’t—or wouldn’t—work with Holbrooke. The secretary, they said, seemed unwilling to mitigate the internal discord.
Holbrooke, meanwhile, had a bigger-than-life problem stemming from his bigger-than-life personality. He complained to me that he was unable to get any face time with Clinton because, he had heard, the president did not want to be pressured. Thus, Holbrooke asked me to carry the message to the Oval Office that it was in the president’s interest to move on the Balkans before the next election campaign heated up. Republican Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the challenger, had long been urging a stronger response to the violence. The slaughter of Bosnian innocents could provide a damaging campaign theme against the president.3
From all I had seen and read, I was convinced that Dick was right regarding the need for decisive action. To press the case, I met with several members of Congress, as well as their staffs. Sitting in their high-ceilinged offices, I stared at walls covered with pictures and paraphernalia from back home. Each time, I delivered compelling statistics, reports from the ground, and the urging of Europeans for US leadership. One member of the House Committee on International Relations looked at me, puzzled. “Madam Ambassador,” he drawled, “I get lots of calls and letters from my constituents about highways and taxes. No one has ever contacted me about the Balkans.”
Still searching for allies, I met with a top advisor in the White House. I insisted that the Serb military strength was being exaggerated. He listened graciously but countered my arguments: “If we intervene, there will be a blood bath, and the president will be responsible.”
The advisor was right about the blood bath. But it happened because we did nothing.
29. INSIDE: Blood
For Irma and her family, life in Sarajevo had become surreal. On the same sidewalks where friends had strolled, chatting en route to the cinema or a museum, people now ran with pounding hearts. Each day was marked by moments of courage, such as when a doctor braved snipers to wash off a dead man in the street so that his children wouldn’t see him covered with blood.
Such scenes shaped Sarajevo’s children. Irma’s mother, Azra, described to me the uncertainty in which they lived: “I thought the war would stop after two months. I never guessed it would be almost four years. We imagined negotiations would solve it—that when President Mitterand came from France to see what was going on, he would tell people. He was here when sixty people were killed while waiting for bread. But when he went back home, there was still no action.”
During the shelling, her father’s anxiety was easily transmitted to Irma, who before could not have imagined that she would spend her early adolescence—just as Anne Frank did—hidden in a shelter and fearful that each day might be her family’s last. Irma told me:
It was during the war that I really got to know my dad. When you’re together every day with someone, you notice every little detail. He was so afraid; afraid for me, for my mom, for everybody. I know he was doing the right thing when he kept forcing me to go down into the basement for shelter, but he made me panic. When we heard an explosion, he’d cry out, “Oh God, it’s a shell!” He just kept drumming it in.
He didn’t mean any harm. He just wanted us to survive. But my life was much more complicated because he was so upset all the time. I hated it. A kid can’t understand the role of a parent in such a situation. I knew it was serious, but I couldn’t really comprehend. For every child in Sarajevo it was the same: We had to be grown-ups in small bodies.
Irma celebrated her thirteenth birthday in a basement storage area, where some seventy people from the apartment building had taken shelter. Azra recalled how she decorated her daughter’s cake with small candles she had on hand, never imagining that they would be needed months—let alone years—later, for light: “Given the shooting, it was impossible to go to a store, but I had enough staples in my cupboard from before the war. I used them all up, and then we had humanitarian aid. We stayed night and day in the basement for more than six months, but after that, I would go upstairs sometimes to our apartment to make bread or cook. My husband, Vjeko, would be so angry.”
The apartment cellar was crowded. Vjeko’s Aunt Mira and her twenty-one-year-old daughter, Jasna, escaped from the front-line suburb of Ilidža and moved in with Irma’s family. But Serb troops apprehended Mira’s husband, a film director. In prison, they burned his arm with cigarettes. Mira and Jasna cried every day. Then a Serb colleague, the husband’s best friend, got him out of prison. “He just appeared at our front door,” Irma told me.
To celebrate Christmas, the family decided to try to be with Jasna, who had moved to an apartment near the National Theater. The shelling that day was terrible, but they made the trip safely. Jasna was a designer, and she had made a lovely gift for each person. “But,” Azra told me, “we all knew her heart was with her boyfriend, Igor, a Serb fighting in the Bosnian army. She had his picture out where she could see it all the time. And on her refrigerator she had a sign that read, ‘Igor, I love you.’ Our sweet family time that day was shattered when someone came to say that Igor had been killed by Croats. Everything was destroyed in just one moment. For a long time after that, Jasna couldn’t do anything but cry.”
In between her cousin’s heartbreak and other tragedies, Irma told me she developed close friendships with five girls:
The six of us had gone to primary school together. We lived on the same street. One was my best friend, my soul mate, from the time we were little. When there was less shooting, we’d sit outside together. In 1993, after we started getting used to the fact that the war wasn’t going to end, we put together a dance troupe, practicing in the basement. We turned a bicycle upside down and spun the pedals. The turning wheels normally generated electricity for the headlight, but we took some wires and hooked up the bike to my father’s cassette player.
We were really into Madonna, so we worked up some dances to her songs. One of our best was “Vogue.” Another was by Ace of Base, which we recorded from the radio. We’d find some poor victim to turn the pedals while we danced and danced.
Her mother added to the description: “The girls wanted to be pretty, so they made dresses. And they wanted to be older than they were, so they put on makeup. When they or other kids had a birthday, the dance troupe would entertain. We were the audience, smiling and laughing. To us adults, it was funny—and we certainly needed a laugh.” Irma joined in again:
We were really good. Once we were invited to dance at an event organized by the Egyptian UN troops, who were part of the UN Protection Force. That was huge for us. There were lots and lots and lots of men in uniform. The whole Egyptian battalion was there. We were up on a stage, in costumes we’d made—each of us with a different colored skirt. They gave us lunch and a little extra food.
Then, one of the girls was sleeping in her flat, when a bomb fell directly in her room. It was three o’clock in the morning. Her brother was sleeping there too. She was lucky; her wounds weren’t big. But her brother lost his arm. I went over the next day. There was blood all over the place. Then it dawned on me: That’s the blood of my friend. I just stood there, staring.
30. OUTSIDE: Trade-offs
As a policymaker, it was easy to lose perspective. That became clear when I arrived in Brussels in the spring of 1994 for a two-day gathering of fifty-two American ambassadors stationed in Europe. As Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott stood before us, each envoy sat mulling over the conundrums he or she was facing. Talbott declared: “But there is clearly one issue that dominates all others in Europe…” At last we’ll talk about US policy in the former Yugoslavia, I thought. “… and that is Russia.”
As the discussion unfolded, the venerable US ambassador to Moscow, Tom Pickering, expressed his concern about recent damage to US-Russian relations. President Boris Yeltsin was having a hard enough time with his political rival Vladimir Zhirinovsky; he did not need the United States to hand his ultranationalist opponent an inflammatory issue like Bosnia around which to rally popular support. After all, the majority of Russians were Orthodox, and most of them rejected the charges against the Serbs, their theological kin.
After Talbott sat down, Steve Oxman—then assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs—began to speak about Bosnia. Suddenly he was called away from the dais to the phone. He returned soon to tell us that thanks to the United States, a NATO air attack had been ordered against the Bosnian Serbs. “Did anybody tell the Russians?” shouted Pickering from the back of the room—a reminder that every decision involved a complex dance of interests and players.
Heartened by Oxman’s news, I sat whispering with Robert Hunter and Stuart Eizenstat, ambassadors to NATO and the EU, sitting on each side of me. At last the administration was acting, we sighed with relief. A few minutes later, Oxman was again called away to the phone. He returned to say that the reports were not true.
That evening I curled up on Stu’s couch, watching the midnight CNN report: unchallenged violence, as villagers in eastern Bosnia fled for their lives. Although rumors of air strikes had been reported for several days, Serbs were moving on the safe haven of Goražde.4
Old newspapers I had carried off the plane told the story. One read: “After months of wavering, Clinton finally takes a stand; air strikes on the Serbs to save Goražde.” But two days later: “NATO fails to respond to UN requests for air strikes; Goražde falls to the Serbs.” Although the aggressors were unable to hold the town, those conflicting headlines captured the political chaos.
Two days after the meeting of ambassadors, I accompanied Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky on his visit to Washington. We each had a full schedule of appointments and speeches, some together and some apart. I darted between the State Department and White House, considering reports, observing attitudes, weighing in—searching for any opening, any willingness for action in the Balkans.
At the National Security Council’s offices, a worried Europe specialist told me privately that the president was “waffling on Bosnia.” Now, more than ever, I needed to reinforce the importance of US action. NATO’s failure to defend Goražde meant that the United States was the last power standing between Serb troops and even greater catastrophe.
Only a few hours later, I would be with the president and the chancellor in the Oval Office to discuss US-Austrian relations. It was not my place to introduce the topic so appallingly absent from the ambassadors’ gathering in Brussels—this was a formal meeting between two heads of government. If President Clinton did not bring it up, only one other person could. I would have no opportunity to speak with Chancellor Vranitzky when he arrived at the White House, since I would be inside, briefing the president on US-Austrian affairs immediately prior to the meeting. So I rushed across town to the National Press Club and intercepted the chancellor, who had just completed an address. Although he was concerned, I knew he did not feel as strongly as I did about US action in Bosnia. Still, in the hall as he left his speech, I urged in a low voice: “When you see President Clinton, tell him he must not wait any longer for a European invitation. The United States must lead on Bosnia.”
An hour later, I entered the Oval Office to brief the president. He was clearly distracted, having just hung up from a forty-five-minute phone call with Yeltsin. The president recounted the conversation with frustration. Responding to the US proposal of intervention in the Balkans, the Russian leader had agreed throughout the conversation that Serb troops had to be stopped. Then at the end, just before hanging up, he added abruptly: “But no bombs.”
I laid out the key US-Austrian issues to the president and others gathered around his desk—Secretary of State Christopher, Vice Presi dent Gore, National Security Advisor Tony Lake, and others. Peering over his reading glasses, President Clinton flipped through talking points on index cards, which he then laid on his desk. Minutes later, I stood behind him as he welcomed Vranitzky and his entourage.
US President Bill Clinton, just hammered by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, looks uncomfortable; after members of the press were escorted from the room, Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitsky offered no respite, reminding Clinton repeatedly that America must lead the international community in Bosnia.
Secretary Christopher suggested I take my place in a chair outside the inner ring. But the president motioned for me to sit next to the secretary on the sofa. “So where should I sit?” I whispered to Christopher. “The Man said for you to sit here,” he shrugged.
Clinton asked Vranitzky about the European scene. To my relief, the Austrian led with the need for US leadership on Bosnia, emphasizing the point twice more in the half-hour meeting. The two men exchanged views on several other matters, sitting in the center of the world’s most photographed crescent of uncomfortable chairs and sofas. The chancellor, a former banker, was dressed in Europe’s most conservative best. The president wore a bold tie with grinning children.
31. INSIDE: Grim Lullaby
Visiting a maternity clinic near the outskirts of Sarajevo, I stood before the white-walled building with gaping holes. It had been shelled while mothers were inside bringing life into the world. How had newborn babies become military targets?
The picturesque hills surrounding the city now sheltered nests of snipers, who calculated the best positions from which to pick off civilians and terrorize the population. (One such location was the Jewish cemetery—considered the world’s most renowned Sephardic burial grounds, founded in 1630.) Over time, a pattern emerged. Hospital doctors treating the wounded noted that on certain days children were targets; on other days it was mothers. Some days, the victims were shot below the knees; other days, in the head. To forestall boredom, it seemed, a sport was evolving.
Life and death were played out not only in the streets, but also in medical facilities. Although clinicians eschewed ethnic labels, insisting that they were “just doctors,” many had to flee as sadistic paramilitaries approached. Even so, hundreds of doctors and nurses were killed by snipers and targeted shelling. Some made the conscience-wrenching decision to take up guns, concluding that ending life was necessary to save life.
In other cases, doctors answered pleas over shortwave radio, braving enemy interception and minefields and traversing mountain passes to reach isolated and desperate enclaves.5 In such besieged towns, medical supplies ran out as the number of injuries from shrapnel, bullets, and land mines swelled. Amputations of shattered limbs were performed without anesthetics by dentists or psychiatrists who never dreamed of being surgeons. Metal saws and other crude instruments were disinfected with hydrogen peroxide pilfered from chemical, paper, or car-battery factories.
The chief of pediatrics at the main Sarajevo hospital was Esma Cemirlic-Zecevic—a tall, middle-aged woman with blond hair pinned back in a French twist. She asked if she could show me around. We walked past large plate-glass windows giving a wide view of the hills. Jagged holes were covered with plastic and tape. Every window in the hospital was a hazard. A giant blue bladder of water was in the hallway—protection from bullets, the doctor explained. After a child was shot lying in his bed, parents moved their own bunks in front of the large windows, so they could comfort their children while serving as human shields.
The few rooms with no windows, formerly used for radioactive treatment, were filled with still more children’s beds. Cramped, with no light source, those rooms were the safest, physically. But with the doors closed, they were pitch-black; and a candle did little to lift the spirits of the children confined there hour after hour, day after day.
My guide told me she’d been shot by a sniper while visiting the apartment of her sick niece. The bullet ripped through her shoulder, lodging close to her heart. International colleagues pressed the UN to evacuate her. Eventually, UNICEF took charge. A UN armored vehicle transported the doctor to the Sarajevo airport. She was then flown to Boston, where her brother lived, for surgery. As soon as she recovered, Dr. Cemerlic-Zecevic decided to return to the besieged city and fulfill her obligations at the hospital. Because UN air transport was suspended due to heavy fighting, her return trip would have to be via the ground route. After several days of travel, she made her way down Mt. Igman and through the tunnel into the city. The next day, she reported for duty—to continue treating her patients as best she could, with care if not medication.
One evening, the hospital generator stopped. The doctor told me how she took seven premature infants from their incubators, wrapped them in blankets, and kept them with her as staff and patients waited in the basement throughout a night of heavy shelling. One by one, the infants stopped breathing. When morning came, all were dead.
The doctor walked up from the basement and started her day, treating children so sick or badly wounded that their parents had braved the streets to bring them to the hospital. When I asked, as carefully as I could, how she had managed to carry on that day, she said flatly, “They needed me.”