SECTION 6 After Dayton
41. INSIDE: Morning Has Broken
Two weeks after the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina was formally signed in Paris, I wandered into a spacious ballet studio at the National Theater in Sarajevo. My footsteps were the only sound, but my imagination populated the room with lithe dancers, some pirouetting, others with legs stretched up on the barre.
From the corner of my eye I noticed bullet holes peppering the large plate-glass window. I wondered who in the class would never dance again. The studio, so familiar to these young pupils, so much a part of their routine as they filed in for their exercises, had become a place of danger.
Wars are hardest on the young. They lack the experience to give trauma a greater context and the ego strength to process what has happened to them. Though the peace treaty had been signed, declarations on paper could not return these little survivors to where they started. The dislocations were not just geographic but emotional as well.
For guardians, it’s especially difficult to reach those who’ve closed themselves off after seeing mothers gang raped, fathers beaten, playmates shot. Bosnian parents (and caregivers, for orphans) searched for ways to restore their charges’ trust and internal stability. But after such a maelstrom, words were not enough. They often turned to movement, music, and theater—even as they had during the war.
An international proverb asserts that “when cannons roar, the muses are silent.” But despite snipers and shelling, in Bosnia the arts survived—some even said “thrived”—as citizens sought out unheated theaters and dimly lit galleries for an hour or two of civility. Such brave excursions were an excuse to wear tuxedos and furs, and to pretend that life was normal. Although theatergoers were not certain they could make it home again, the chance to partake of art was too important to ignore. As a professor at the University of Sarajevo’s Academy of Fine Arts noted triumphantly, “in Sarajevo, the muses were not silent.”1
I was sustained by spontaneous outpourings of love and life, especially as I was leaving my own children in Vienna for the work in Bosnia.
I wondered if that muse took on healing as well, because reliance on the arts continued after the signing of the peace. Granted, sometimes the tone was ironic. At an elementary school, I saw a grand piano—case smashed, strings tangled—with a placard saying only “Civilization 1993.” But on a more hopeful note, US Embassy personnel took me to a therapeutic project for children. As guest of honor, I had a front-row seat. Actually, there was only one row for our audience of three. This show was really about the performers.
Suddenly, a dozen girls pranced into the room. With hands on hips, they swayed and danced to raucous music, while one young superstar held a play microphone and cut loose as the lead singer. All were dressed in black and adorned with dramatic makeup, feathers, and glitter. The choreography allowed no wallflowers. When the girls finished, we applauded and whistled our approval.
After such a treat, I wanted to give something back. Looking around for an instrument, I saw a small battery-run keyboard. Putting aside my ambassadorial mantle, I sat on the floor and held the keyboard on my lap.
The children eagerly gathered around me as I sang, “Morning has broken, like the first morning…” Their foreheads relaxed, and smiles slowly spread across their faces. One sweetheart asked if she could kiss me. I nodded yes and held out my arms. The young divas surrounded me, smothering me with affection.
42. OUTSIDE: Waiting for Christmas
Back in Vienna, we faced a constant press of problems. They converged every Tuesday morning, as some twenty representatives from US federal agencies and our principal State Department officers gathered at the embassy for a “country team meeting.” I encouraged the participants to discuss something from their week, even if it seemed not directly relevant to others. In an hour of reporting around the table, we put together a mosaic of US interests, often extending beyond Austria, since many of the attendees had responsibilities throughout the region.
Jean Christiansen, our immigration and naturalization officer, was a mature professional who had worked with dramatically diverse groups. She always responded to cruelty, whether perpetrated by Bosniaks, Croats, or Serbs. So I weighed her words carefully one Tuesday as she described a recent trip. She had interviewed Serb men kept for three years in a concrete silo without a roof, in bestial conditions. One described how, when his friend’s head was smashed against the wall, the brains splattered all over him. “There are atrocities on all sides,” concluded Jean.
Helena Finn, our public affairs officer, jumped in. She had served in two Muslim settings—Pakistan and Turkey—and she noted: “Our reports are that 90 percent of war crimes are committed by Serbs against Muslims.”2 Of course, that fact and Jean’s statement were not mutually exclusive, but the political analysis was heating up.
Another officer, Mike, added more fuel, defending Jean. Mike was proud of his Greek Orthodox heritage, so, just like the Russians, he felt the Serbs were his cultural cousins. He wanted to be sure they were not slandered.
The officers, it seemed to me, were arguing political positions informed by their backgrounds. But finding people whose views were not colored by personal experience was difficult. Indeed, my eight years of theological studies and work on race relations in the US South were bedrock to my own outlook. If we four were facing difficulties in such a circumscribed situation, it was easy to see why the international community was paralyzed not only by uneven competence but also by conflicting points of view.
At another team meeting, on 19 December 1995, we were passing around Christmas cookies as Jean took her turn reporting. She had just returned from a nightmarish task—interviewing inmates in a Serb-run concentration camp that was to be dismantled, according to provisions in the Dayton Accords.
The eight hundred men from eastern Bosnia in the camp were crawling with lice, Jean told us. Frigid water had been poured on their naked bodies outside for cruel “showers.” “Those are the lucky ones,” she said. Thousands of others had simply been shot and pushed into mass graves. Of those “lucky ones,” she found forty-two who had been set aside for “special handling”—torture, beating, and starvation.
Jean explained that she had been charged with arranging for the immigration of 120 of the men to the United States. They would not be moved until late January, however, because of paperwork. This was Christmas, she explained, and no one would be in to process applications.
Not one of the people around our table registered a reaction. To be fair, her news came amid a string of reports on upcoming press events, elections results, and a dispute over food product labeling. But as I sat listening, I realized that this conversation could just as well have occurred fifty years earlier. In that moment, I glimpsed the psychology—the denial, really—of American diplomats who for years refused to act despite clear evidence of Nazi atrocities. Did they, too, hear repeated reports in their country team meetings?
Jean continued. Forty men were crammed into rooms only ten feet by ten feet. A plastic sack for the belongings of each man hung on a nail. There was no furniture. The men slept on the floor. As she interviewed them individually at a table set up in the room, the others waited outside, barefoot in the winter cold.
The meeting ended, and I asked Jean to come to my office. We telephoned authorities in Washington, insisting that they speed up the men’s paperwork. A week later, Jean was away when I received a call from the government agency handling the account, to which my name was now attached. Could I guarantee that all arrangements were in place for the refugees once they left the camps? “Absolutely,” I shot back, having no idea what arrangements the official was asking about. The prisoners, I was assured, would be transported immediately.
Even so, some months later, Jean Christiansen reported in another country team meeting that one of the Serb-run camps was again full. Several nations that had pledged to take the former prisoners in as refugees had reneged. The men had been crowded into the worst camp, where they still waited.
43. INSIDE: Serb Exodus
For seventeen long months, US Ambassador John Menzies spent his nights in a sleeping bag on an army cot next to his desk. Accepting the assignment to Bosnia, he was risking his life for a thankless job. He and his few colleagues, a tight team, did the day-to-day work on the ground, while others flew in, detractors said, for photo ops.
Menzies was a hero to me. He’d come to Bosnia through Vienna, where my admiration had taken root. Reflecting my own impressions, Bosnian politicians described him to me as unusually honest and stable. He followed his own moral compass, even when that meant conflict with his superiors in Washington.
The ambassador had invited me to Bosnia several times. When I asked what I could bring, his answer was “space heaters.” I put two in my bag. Always a gracious host, my friend accommodated me with an army cot and sleeping bag.
The ambassador also provided an escort and armored Humvee. As we drove through town, my gut tightened when we passed an old warning on a wall, with paint dripping from the large hand-painted letters: “Danger: Snipers.” On that stretch of street, more than five hundred pedestrians had been picked off by marksmen in the surrounding hills. Of course, they were just a fraction of more than ten thousand Sarajevans who had been killed.
We continued our drive to the suburb of Dobrinja. Stretching in front of me were long, hand-dug ditches. My driver that morning was from the neighborhood, so I asked him about the trenches. “For soldiers?”
“No,” he said in halting English, “for citizens.” Through these shadow highways, residents of gutted and burned apartments had run back and forth, bent at the waist and lugging whatever they could to a safer place in the city.
Alongside the trenches was a sad procession of cars, trucks—anything with wheels to carry the mass of Serbs fleeing the capital. The road was clogged as far as I could see. Day after day, panicked families had piled onto trucks everything not bolted down: furniture, bedding, appliances, plumbing fixtures, even the bones of their ancestors.
“Where are you going?” I called out to a driver, through my interpreter.
“I don’t know,” the man responded.
Despite provisions in the peace agreement, Serbs in the Bosniak-Croat Federation were being pressured to flee their homes. Many feared retribution from their returning neighbors. But some who wanted to stay were being told that once Sarajevo was handed over to Federation control, they would be massacred by “Mujahideen.” Others heard that any Serb who stayed would be considered a traitor by other Serbs.
There was nothing to be gained by using snipers except terrorizing the population of Sarajevo into surrender. It had been centuries since the world had witnessed a city under siege for so long.
Three parallel lines: traffic carrying the fleeing Bosnian Serbs; a trench for Dobrinja residents to run through, bent low, on their way into the city for supplies; and destroyed apartment buildings, targets of men with too many tanks and too little conscience.
Who was spreading that word? Not the Bosniaks or Croats. The warnings were on Serb radio broadcasts from Pale, headquarters of the hardliners. When verbal threats were not enough, Serb thugs beat up those who stayed behind.
Adding to Serb concerns, the Bosniaks who had moved in to secure the area raised the flag of the SDA, the conservative political party that identified itself as Muslim. Claiming Sarajevo as Bosniak territory was a clear abrogation of the Bosniak-Croat Federation agreement. Then, in an injudicious gesture of support, Admiral “Snuffy” Smith, newly arrived from NATO’s Southern Command, tried to placate Serb hard-liners by offering to facilitate the evacuation. The admiral failed to understand that their migration would take years to undo, since the homes of fleeing Serbs would be filled immediately by Bosniak and Croat refugees unable to return to their own homes in Serb-held parts of the country. By allowing this shift of population, Smith was purchasing short-term gain at the expense of long-term stability.
Thus, what should have been a period of reintegration was instead marked by ongoing displacement. For months thereafter, ethnic cleansing continued across Bosnia, with tens of thousands of people driven from their lifelong homes.
44. OUTSIDE: Refugees in Austria
I was in an unusual position, viewing refugee policy from both an American and an Austrian perspective. During World War II, Nazi practices embraced by Austria had forced hundreds of thousands from their homes, most of them to their deaths. But since then, that country of only eight million had sheltered more than two million refugees fleeing Communist regimes, with one third settling there permanently.3 The refugees included 180,000 Hungarians, 160,000 Czechoslovaks, and 33,000 Poles. With the war, some 90,000 Bosnians entered Austria legally, and more came illegally. Almost all would end up staying. In fact, on a per capita basis, Austria accepted more than twice the number of refugees than any other country in Europe. And that ratio was much greater when compared to the United States.
Austria’s extraordinary record of hospitality was politically significant. The country was laboring to come to terms with its complicity in genocide against the Jews a generation earlier. In 1993, Chancellor Franz Vranitzky had said at Hebrew University in Jerusalem: “Just as we claim credit for our good deeds we must beg forgiveness for the evil ones, the forgiveness of those who survived and the forgiveness of the descendants of those who perished.”4
On the other hand, a furor was raging in Austria over the emergence of a political figure accused of “brown” sympathies. Jörg Haider, governor of Carinthia Province, was the son of a Nazi, itself no cause for condemnation. But the anti-immigrant verbiage of his Freedom Party was creating great embarrassment for other Austrian politicians, who cringed at international warnings of a fascist resurgence. They were also determined to do the right thing for a targeted ethnic group—this time through their policies on refugees from the former Yugoslavia.
The policies themselves were not without controversy. Unemployment in most of Europe was soaring, and workplace competition was not looked upon kindly in socialist Austria, despite that country’s relatively high employment rate. To protect jobs for echte Österreicherei (true Austrians), federal labor policies forbade refugees from working. Thus, Bosnian refugees waited, year after year, unassimilated and longing to return home.
At the US embassy, we occasionally convened Austrian and American government officials to wrestle with the problems of immigration and social absorption. But new ideas regarding repatriation appeared infrequently within our policy community. In one conversation, I suggested the Austrians reallocate transitional housing funds. Some of the recipients were at a camp that had been a way station for waves of refugees in years past. Most were placed in inns scattered across the country. Instead, I asked, why not fund their return to Bosnia and the rebuilding of their bombed-out houses? Other officials quashed the proposal, saying the returnees would be resented for having fled the crisis and then come back with relative wealth. I agreed but wondered if we were not letting the perfect become the enemy of the good.
People with various agendas approached me with proposed solutions to the refugees’ employment problem. One Arizona entrepreneur needed laborers for his plantation. Could I help get the Bosnians visas? Knowing how Mexican labor was exploited, I refused to send those I had visited in refugee camps to work in the fields of a new country, where they would not understand the language or their rights.
We needed help finding answers; yet to my knowledge, nobody was convening the refugees for their advice on the policies that would govern their future. My grass-roots connection to the refugee community was Christine von Kohl, a former journalist in the Balkans. Christine founded the Bosnian Cultural Center in Vienna to connect refugees to their new society and to each other. She was a wellspring of ideas, particularly when compared to the stagnant thinking of some officials.
Christine visited my office frequently, always with another request. Would I tell Washington about ethnic Albanian journalists being roughed up by Serb security forces in Kosovo? Could I help find space for her center? Did I have access to cars for Austrian university students to track down resettled refugees, abandoned by authorities after they arrived? One student, Christine told me, discovered a woman who had been living a few miles from her brother for more than a year without knowing it.
Repatriation of Bosnians would remain a sticking point, as host countries designed then rejected one solution after another. Germany insisted on returning Yugoslavs to home communities still controlled by indicted war criminals. Austria refused to follow suit and continued to provide free education, healthcare, and financial support for years. Still, refugees in Austria were unable to work, yet unable to return home.
45. INSIDE: Refugees at the Residence
The home of the US ambassador in Vienna had long been associated with elite settings of war and peace. During World War II, Nazis occupied the estate, formerly owned by a Jewish coal mogul. In June 1961, the eyes of the world were trained on the mansion as President John Kennedy met with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev there for nuclear nonproliferation talks.
More than three decades later, the residence was an unlikely retreat for Bosnians on the run. The hundreds of displaced people who crossed our marble threshold were mostly women and children. Given the grandeur of the estate and the indignity of their situation, the effort to reconcile our lives and theirs would have been morally paralyzing, so I didn’t try. Instead, I played show tunes on the piano as Nancy Gustafson, a favorite American star at the Vienna State Opera, sang to the kids sitting cross-legged on our elegant French carpets. As Gustafson ended her medley of Broadway musical numbers with a plaintive Bosnian folk song, tears spilled down the mothers’ cheeks.
Another time, when forty Bosnian children came over, I discovered that I had more in common with the other mothers in our backyard than anyone might have imagined. Beside me was my thirteen-year-old daughter, suffering from an acute, life-threatening illness. Every moment, my attention was divided between the needs of my traumatized guests and concern for her.
One teenage boy had brought a guitar. A couple of hours into theafternoon, I pulled mine out and sat next to him. We all belted out Peter, Paul, and Mary tunes that had, to my surprise, made their way into Bosnian pop culture: “How many times must the cannonballs fly, before they’re forever banned?” Our harmony lifted to the line: “And how many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?”
On the other side of the lawn, a group of rambunctious boys couldn’t resist the pool. Chaperones tried in vain to keep them from throwing each other in. No one knew who could swim, since the kids had spent their summers in refugee camps rather than vacationing on the Adriatic coast. I found inflatable rafts and plastic water wings for those who might need them and a pile of my T-shirts for the girls, so they could take off their dresses and join the boys in the water.
Later, we all posed for a group portrait. My children blended in with the Bosnians. Then out came the soccer balls. Whooping and hollering, the boys ran across the wide lawn, arms flailing for balance. The girls sprawled on the sloping hill leading up to the rose arbor. Cokes emerged from the cooler. Hamburgers were served up sizzling from the grill. There was plenty of ice cream to go around—twice. In the middle of the revelry, one child asked my eight-year-old if our TV worked. Another asked him if we had running water.
The kids could have been from any Austrian or American school, stopping their play just long enough to pose. Our Lillian, with Teddy in her lap, was a gracious host.
46. OUTSIDE: Diplobabble
The State Department sent press guidance downstream to US ambassadors, so we would “be on message.” I imagined that the drafting of these unclassified memos fell to some good-hearted public servant who had been drawn to the lofty mission of foreign policy. No doubt he thought he would be at the cutting edge of policy, crafting perceptive, minute-by-minute accounts of a brewing conflict or nuclear threat. Instead, he found himself in a bare, unadorned room, spinning fumbling policies into seemingly credible talking points.
Designed for military commanders, diplomats, or White House officials, the format of the memos was sticky questions we might face, accompanied by snappy answers we were to deliver:
Q: What is our reaction to the UN report that the Bosnian Serbs destroyed homes of refugees who intended to return?
A: We have seen reports about the UN allegations but cannot confirm them.
The embassy protested these bombings to the Bosnian Serb officials when they occurred. IFOR [NATO’s implementation force] has increased patrols in the areas as a result of the bombings.
Since then there have been no further reports of such destruction.
Signed: Christopher, Unclas[sified]
In short, Secretary of State Warren Christopher was mobilizing diplomats and troops in response to bombings he could not confirm. Perhaps the reason he was speaking out of both sides of his mouth was because the department had conflicting goals: keeping a distance and showing how Johnny-on-the-spot we were. So much for internal consistency.
Meanwhile, buried in the UN reports were calculations of ruined homes, accounts that reduced whole families to flat, colorless statistics. Brčko: 35,017. Gračanica: 10,558. Gradačac: 17,669. Kalesija: 17,856. Lukavac: 10,529. Sapna: 8,332. Tuzla: 52,061. Živinice: 16,775. Numbers, for all their helpfulness, could numb.
47. INSIDE: Displaced
By the war’s end, an enormous number of Bosnians had fled or been driven from their communities. At our embassy, I was privy to aerial intelligence images documenting the process in wretched detail—hundreds of villagers streaming down a snow-covered road, fleeing friends who had become foes. The rumble of detonation was the last memory of their homes. Often, as a coup de grâce, the last blast was the mosque or Catholic church, their spiritual home.
With international forces providing inadequate security, tens of thousands of citizens were displaced in the first six months after Dayton. Modest-sized towns sheltered a flood of new refugees, mostly Bosniak.
Bosnian Serbs had also lost their homes. As the invigorated Federation army clawed its way back across the country, Serb refugees fled to the shrinking territory of Republika Srpska. Some went further, over the Drina River into Serbia itself, where they found that they were not part of the “Serb brotherhood” after all. Resented and unwelcome, they were now competitors in a crushed economy, among those they had been told were “their own.”
Wanting to see firsthand how refugees of all sides were actually living, I went to homes for the mentally disabled, damaged apartments, and refugee centers. The attention of an ambassador meant a lot to the people I talked to, although I always feared I was raising expectations I could not meet.
In Sarajevo, I visited a former hotel. Every possible space was filled with refugees. Newcomers were turned away. A wall that weeks earlier had a hole left by a mortar shell was now smoothed over, but the windows, like most in Sarajevo, were still covered with plastic. In the halls, children were playing among small mounds of bright red pellets. “Rat poison” was the casual explanation.
Our guide led me to the cold, unlit basement, to show with pride where five showers had been installed. I congratulated her, then noted that we couldn’t actually appreciate them because a chest-high pile of wood was in the way. “It’s winter,” she said, flustered. “People mostly shower in the summer.”
I asked to see a room. We knocked, and the door opened into a space twelve by fifteen feet, which for two years had housed a family of five. The building was allotted gas only every second day, so a small iron stove, piped out the window, could be converted from gas to wood. A tin plate with porridge was bubbling on top of the stove. Laundry hung above it.
Grandma invited me to come in and sit down. She was knitting brightly patterned socks with thick woolen yarn, to be sold for a black-market price of three dollars. The scarf on her head framed a wrinkled but warm face. I could accept the fact that her constant grin was toothless—she’d lived a long life. But her eighteen-year-old grandson, standing by the window, had only one of his six front teeth.
Their home had been in a village in eastern Bosnia. I listened to the story of their flight, a thirteen-day ordeal. Gunmen had stormed the farm town, shooting, raping, and beating unarmed citizens. For three days, Grandma had cowered in the dark, crowded basement of the mosque. Finally, she ran and made it safely to her apartment. With six family members and a neighbor, she hid there for weeks.
Every grandmother had a story. And most stories shared a pattern: Surprise. Betrayal. Hiding. Terror. Torture. Death or flight.
One day they heard pounding on the door. Thugs crashed through and dragged off her neighbor, whom they never saw again. Seeing their vulnerability, the family fled, trudging through the nights for two weeks until they reached the relative safety of Sarajevo.
Grandma knew they were lucky to have made it out alive. No talk from her of going home. Or of regaining her life savings. Or of ever living again with her possessions. She and her family at least had the chance to start over.
It was time to leave. I took one more look around as the old woman squeezed my hand to say thanks for my visit. My eyes fell on a picture calendar nailed to the grimy wall, opened to a tropical vacation spot. Perhaps that was her dream—the sunny beaches of Florida. If she could have just one wish, I asked, what would it be? She leaned over and whispered, “To live in two rooms.”
48. OUTSIDE: Sowing and Reaping
Some of the impediments to reconstruction were physical—such as armaments and land mines. Others were attitudinal—such as resentment and revenge. I witnessed their destructive power many times, but particularly on two trips through the Bosnian countryside. Most of the population is rural. Thus, getting the farm system back into operation was an important goal during the early rebuilding.
When US troops entered northwest Bosnia following the signing of the Dayton Accords, the International Herald Tribune published a picture of a young man standing stork-like, watching their arrival. The assailant who took one of his legs probably did not have a grenade or machete. More likely, the weapon had been planted underground.
Avoiding land mines was a constant preoccupation of international soldiers. Beneath a big “Welcome” sign at Eagle Base, the US military headquarters in Bosnia, was a display of half a dozen models of the plastic or metal devices, with warnings and instructions for defusing them. “Some welcome,” I thought, staring at the sign.
Walking into the building, I passed a map covered with hundreds of dots, like confetti. Each represented a field of land mines—six hundred thousand to a million mines—strategically placed to stop advancing armies as well as to terrorize civilians who wanted to return to their homes. The land mines were to have been removed by the Bosnian troops. That had not happened.5 And no one appeared to be pushing the commanders to comply.
A warning of mines for the international troops was as mundane as soap, as routine as mealtime.
Granted, there were also financial and technological obstacles to removing the mines. Funding was scarce, and those monies that did come in were sometimes stolen to support war criminals and their protection networks. Adding to the challenge, a new type of mine moved down rivers and thus off maps; locating them was nearly impossible.
The scourge left a broad mark. From a US Black Hawk helicopter, I surveyed the bucolic landscape. Between roofless farmhouses were fields, some dotted with haystacks but others untended. The reason was land mines, explained Colonel Bud Thrasher, strapped in next to me. Through the mike on his helmet, he shouted a story. Driving down a farm road a week earlier, he had come across a father clutching his twelve-year-old son, who had just stepped on a mine. The colonel rushed the boy to the hospital. He lived, but his foot had been blown off.
I thought of Colonel Thrasher as I rode in a military Humvee past rowdy children running, kicking balls, shouting. Which of them might be next? That concern was reinforced when I brought a donation of uniforms to a soccer club. The coach thanked me, then voiced his fear that one of his young players might blow himself up coming to practice.
Land mines made the war stretch on, long after the peace agreement was signed. But then there were the attitudinal challenges, too. As pernicious as a field of mines, the propaganda and intractability of political extremists also hindered postconflict reconstruction.
Dayton had divided Bosnia into two political entities, meant to function as one country. But in Republika Srpska, the ruling nationalists had coopted even the meaning of that new border. Their lies caught hold among fresh—and naive—international workers; unwitting outsiders often were part of a chain of misinformation and resentment. To wit, during a visit to a refugee camp outside Banja Luka, I met a recently arrived young American working for a highly respected NGO. “Welcome to Bosnia,” I greeted him.
“This isn’t Bosnia. You’re in Republika Srpska,” he corrected me.
“Well, Republika Srpska is part of Bosnia,” I answered pleasantly, feeling a little bad for him, sorry that he was confused.
“No it isn’t,” he insisted.
“But it is,” I countered. “That was the heart of the Dayton agreement. Bosnia remains one state, with two parts.” The young man clearly did not believe me.
But there was more. Although he had been on the scene only five weeks, he seemed bitter: “The international community isn’t being fair. All the aid is going to Bosnia. These people here in Republika Srpska need it more.”
I said that the aid imbalance was due to Bosnian Serb leaders not allowing refugees to return to their homes in Serb territory. Freedom of movement and the right of return were guaranteed in the peace agreement, and compliance was one of the few conditions of economic aid.
“But aid shouldn’t be tied to politics,” the young man argued.
I understood that conditionality inevitably hurt innocents. But it also provided leverage, however imperfect, toward the fulfillment of justice. If not aid conditionality, I asked, what did he think we might use as an incentive for compliance on all sides?
He and I were not getting very far with that discussion, so I changed the subject and asked what sort of reconstruction he was working on. He said seeds had arrived for the spring planting, enough for seventy-five thousand farmers. They had been supplied by the Office of Foreign Disaster Relief in the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
Given the US-led NATO bombing of the Serb army, how were Bosnian Serb farmers responding to the American gift?
“Oh, they have no idea that the seeds are from the United States. And it wouldn’t matter to them anyway,” he said.
Surprised, I reminded him of the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Germany and Austria after World War II. America pumped thirteen billion dollars into a massive recovery program—or about ninety billion in today’s dollars. With that generosity, our country reaped what we sowed. “Hardly a week goes by without an Austrian coming up to me to say thanks,” I finished.
The young American aid worker was not impressed.
49. INSIDE: Banja Luka Bitterness
US sympathy for all victims, however sincere, provided little help to Serb refugees. As I toured Banja Luka, I wondered how these civilians felt about America.
From the start of the war, many Serbs distrusted outsiders and resented world opinion. After all, even though they had signaled their protest by boycotting the referendum, the international community had recognized Bosnia’s resulting independence. Later, the Serbs had watched as Croat and Bosniak military forces arbitrarily arrested or executed Serb civilians, mistreated prisoners in detention, and perpetrated reverse ethnic cleansing.
By the end of the war, Serb deaths numbered almost thirty-one thousand. Their people claimed this was nothing short of genocide. They cited radical Radio Hajat broadcasts that called for the execution of Serbs and the extremist Tuzla newspaper Zmaj od Bosne that urged that “each Muslim must name a Serb and take an oath to kill him.” More gruesomely, they pointed to the atypical but incendiary Bosniak youth newspaper, Novi Vox, which printed a “patriotic song,” promising:
- Dear mother, I’m going to plant willows,
- We’ll hang Serbs from them.
- Dear mother, I’m going to sharpen knives,
- We’ll soon fill the pits again.6
Serb belief that such vitriol was commonplace stemmed from a disinformation campaign. While mistreatment was real, the Serb-controlled media made wildly exaggerated claims, resulting in the perception of atrocities and hatreds much worse than actually existed. This brew—resentment of world opinion and fear of abuse at the hands of their compatriots—fortified the Serbs’ resolve to kill before they were killed. Some of their worry was warranted. While the world watched, the Croatian army, supported by Federation forces, had come within thirteen miles of the de facto capital of Republika Srpska.
After Dayton, in a bold break with former President Radovan Kara-džić, President Biljana Plavšić had officially made Banja Luka the political capital of Republika Srpska. Known as “the green town” because of its many parks, Banja Luka spread across a fertile plain that spanned the Vrbas River. Hunting and fishing were popular in the surrounding forests, and in this lush setting, the city had thrived, becoming the economic and cultural center of northwest Bosnia and the second largest city in the country.
A wife, supported by two sons, mourns her husband. Like others in the crucible of war, displaced Serbs lived under spirit-threatening pressure.
But Banja Luka’s role in the war was hardly idyllic. In 1992, it became the nerve center for nationalist activity on the western side of the Serbcontrolled region, as well as a haven for Serb refugees. Galina Marjano- vic was a former teacher of the deaf who, during the war, helped children look for their parents. When I met her as I toured the city, she told me how she had witnessed sickening hardships. One day, she left her house with bread to feed the hungriest refugees. As she approached a truck, a man told her, “Forget the bread! There’s a woman here we need to bury. And take this new mother to the hospital.” On the truck next to the dying grandmother, the granddaughter had delivered a baby. In war, death bled into birth.
Leaving Galina, I traveled outside the convalescing city to visit a school converted into a “collective center”—a strange euphemism for a refugee camp. In the schoolyard, laughing children chased a soccer ball. Women in scarves and aprons hung clothes on a line, with toddlers hiding in the folds of their long skirts.
Indoors, the former classrooms were lined with bunk beds, clothes draped on the frames. Small groups sat around despondently, with nothing to say that had not been endlessly said. A mother told me of fleeing her home and of the death of her husband at the hands of Croat soldiers. She wiped tears from her face as her two teenage sons held her, their arms around her waist. Several men gathered behind her as she spoke, muttering angry words I couldn’t understand.
A Serb refugee, stripped of her home, her profession, and her dignity. Even with arms crossed in defiance, this municipal judge seemed lost in a refugee center.
Across the room, a gaunt, dark-haired woman dressed in red sweat pants leaned against a bunk. Her grandmother, dressed in black, sat on the bed beside her. I asked the younger woman about her life before the war. She had been a municipal judge, she told me, her voice thick with hostility.”
Who are you angry with?” I asked, steeling myself.
“Our local officials have created this misery,” she spat.
Overhearing our conversation, another woman added: “America is far away. Tuđman is far away. We don’t care what they’re doing because we can’t change it. But our own Serb leaders—they should be doing something. They’re the most responsible.”