SECTION 8 International Inadequacies
58. OUTSIDE: The Fourth Warring Party
The romance of peace was already fading as I sat at breakfast with Bosnian Foreign Minister Muhamed “Mo” Saćirbey in the dingy café of the Hotel Bosna. Already the international community—“the fourth warring party”—was starting to antagonize locals. Over eggs, feta cheese, and fatty cold cuts, the smooth-talking Saćirbey confided his fears.
First, he said, local expertise in Bosnia was stretched. Although Sarajevo was still a city of three hundred thousand, half were refugees out of their rural element. Most students and professionals who could escape had done so, resulting in a debilitating brain drain. What was more, Communist education had been short on training for the new, competitive market economy. All this resulted in a mind-boggling mismatch of tasks and talent on the local level, which in turn led to an influx of international talent to compensate. “Can you imagine what this does to the momentum of a citizen’s movement? And that’s the core of democratization!” said Mo, who had grown up in the United States.
Compounding that problem, Saćirbey knew his country was becoming overwhelmed by hundreds of well-intentioned organizations pouring in to deliver aid, from knitting yarn to construction materials. The help often was not on target. Long after the world should have known better, agricultural aid seemed to dominate humanitarian programs, as if all Bosnians were farmers. “The international community will give us a tractor before they’ll give us a computer,” an Oxford-educated Bosnian woman remarked to me sardonically.
Such off-the-shelf programs were being implemented by a dozen foreign aid departments, agencies, and NGOS. Bosnians were swimming in an alphabet soup of institutions: UNICEF, UNHCR, OSCE, USAID, EU, ICRC, and so on. And each organization or country had its own regulations, so “dates certain” were most uncertain, as delivery delays stretched from weeks into months. Some donors had nonsensical procurement rules. They missed valuable opportunities to help Bosnian society, as supplies already available in Bosnia had to be flown in instead from home countries, thus stunting local enterprise.
Even among the internationals, the different styles of leaderships grated. Responsibility for coordinating international groups fell to the Office of the High Representative (OHR), mandated by Dayton. But that goal was unattainable.
Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt was selected for the knotty task of leading the OHR. Bildt had a careful manner as he went about untangling donor countries’ interests, resources, and approaches to aid. In contrast, Americans working within the OHR pushed for bold action. The quintessential enthusiast was Jacques Klein, a major general in the US Air Force and a career Foreign Service officer. His actions produced sparks, such as when he sacrificed free speech and ordered troops to seize radio transmitters of hate-mongering broadcasts, in violation of agreements to stop the airing of incendiary speeches.1
A larger-than-life, robust character, Klein was determined to drive the rebuilding of Bosnia. He clearly thought that little would happen without American efforts, but Europeans derided him as a “cowboy.” Still, as he became the longest-tenured outsider, he developed keen insight into the region. “The tragedy,” he once opined, “is that the people of Republika Srpska have been led into one historical cul-de-sac after another by extremely poor leadership.” 2
At other levels of the OHR, many staff members loaned from a host of countries were highly talented, experienced stars; but they often worked alongside unimaginative, low-energy bureaucrats whose home offices were more than willing to send them off on far-away assignments.
Compared to international military operations in the area, the OHR was underfunded. But its budget was still larger than the federal budget of Bosnia. Civilian aid organizations’ large staffs filled the hotels and choked the streets with well-equipped jeeps, while local residents did not have money to rebuild their destroyed roofs, much less buy a car. Of course, the organizations employed Bosnians, but they paid them a fraction of the salaries foreigners got, even when the locals were more qualified.
The politician Ejup Ganić illustrated the situation for me by drawing a large bag of dollars, next to a tiny bag of pennies:
The first is the payroll of the OHR, OSCE, UN, and NATO forces. Their job is to get refugees back to their homes. The second bag is the money actually given to refugees to rebuild their homes so they can return. The refugees haven’t returned, because there’s no funding for their houses or to start businesses. There are enough reports from these organizations to fill all the shelves at Harvard. They all talk about the progress they’ve made. But the refugees aren’t back in their homes.
Organizing the assistance became an industry in and of itself. After surviving three years of shelling, Ganić had a particularly laconic interpretation of the absence of outside intervention during the war and the subsequent deluge of helpers during the peace: “When we needed a doctor, they sent us a priest. When we needed a priest, they sent us a doctor.”
59. INSIDE: City Signs
Sarajevo was recovering. In peacetime, given the Serb exodus and the influx of Bosniak refugees, the population had become increasingly monoethnic. This was hardly the Bosnian ideal of multiculturalism. But on the upside, alleged Serb and Croat war criminals were keeping their distance. Scenes in the capital were hopeful.
I remembered how, during my first visit, I was forced to run off the ramp of a cargo plane to avoid snipers. Now, the airport was still controlled by French soldiers. Sandbags and rolls of barbed wire lined a narrow passage leading out from the tarmac with a sign: “Champs Elysées.” But passengers were at least able to deplane without flak jackets.
“I didn’t know this city for the first two years I visited, because we were always running”—that’s how Livia Klingl, an Austrian journalist, had introduced me to her wartime Sarajevo. She’d also described how she’d brought in several pieces of fruit and given them to the family hosting her. After she interviewed a series of people over several days, the same fruit was offered to her, as the guest. It seemed that even in extremis, Sarajevans would rather be generous than fed.
Now life was moving quickly back to its prewar bustle. Open markets boasted fruits, pastries, and sausages. Street hawkers shouted out names of newspapers and cigarettes. Horns honked and brakes screeched. Every few minutes, a modern red tram rumbled by, a gift of the Viennese.
Sarajevans were proud of their rebuilding, and rightly so. On my first postwar visit, I marveled at each new sign of reconstruction. For the first time in my life, I found myself admiring smooth walls. But to a visitor, the destruction was still extraordinary. Every time we drove from the airport into the city, we passed a reminder of war’s effect on an economy. A large, boxy yellow building, whose sign read “Yugocommerce,” greeted us on our left. Almost every one of the facade’s 150 windows had been shot out, like rows of targets at a carnival. Elsewhere, a chic woman with a cigarette, draped across a billboard, gazed at an apartment building with one side crushed by shelling.
Tobacco on the streets was a peculiar indicator of Sarajevo’s returning health.
Some of the symbols were mixed. In one building, pure white snow had fallen quietly on the shell-shredded metal roofing, now hanging uselessly into the empty space. And everywhere, as workers plastered over the scars of three and a half years of war, dump trucks hauled away loads of debris, and new structures rose up in cleared lots.
There were other signs of revival. Another shop opened every day. Between crumbling walls and shattered windows was a makeshift artist’s gallery. Its neighbors were a perfectly restored boutique with designer shoes, historic shops with rows of gold and silver items, and a tourist souvenir stand sporting baseball caps with bright yellow embroidered mosques. Down the block were sweaters and rugs, knitted and woven by refugees—and the ubiquitous athletic shoes with outlandish prices.
But behind the veneer, the basic infrastructure to sustain a true market economy was lacking. There was no currency. Purchases were made in Deutschmarks, with change in chewing gum or worthless Yugoslav dinars. Efforts to create a central bank had failed. Meetings produced agreements, which shortly fell through. There was no integrated phone system. No telecommunication was possible between the Federationcontrolled capital and the Serb-controlled half of the country, Repub- lika Srpska. And the dysfunctional political system, combined with the old Yugoslav experience base, was a considerable obstacle to starting up businesses.
Unemployment and underemployment were astronomical. Mechanical engineers drove taxis. Professors waited tables. People trying to start businesses encountered inefficient or corrupt bureaucrats who sat on permits for months. The most robust growth was in the purported black market in cigarettes and alcohol that Karadžić was building from his hiding place.
Perhaps the most stubborn sign of hope, however, was that in spite of a 10:00 p.m. curfew, coffeehouses dotted the town, filled with young people’s conversations as animated as those in the cafés of Vienna. Cappuccino machines hissed, and tables spilled out onto the streets.
In one coffee bar, a thin, wan man approached our table. He was a Sarajevan journalist who had been in Vienna when the Federation agreement was negotiated in our embassy, almost two years earlier. “That was the first real step toward this peace,” he said.
I remembered something he had said. “You told me at dinner that you hadn’t had a full meal in two years.”
He smiled: “I was your guest then. Now please be mine.” It was a significant gesture. Most people appreciate being rescued, but few want to be dependent indefinitely. So at his bidding, I drank one more cup of strong coffee, then spent a sleepless night, with plenty of hours to divide up and sort through all I had heard and seen of the city.
60. OUTSIDE: Out of Step
The NATO-led military operation kept vigil over the transition to stability. But coordination among the organization’s many contributing countries was tricky. They had different allegiances, varied styles, and non-interoperable equipment.
At the outset, it was clear that nations were planning their IFOR deployment in isolation. They conducted independent surveys and assessments, failed to share the resulting data, and separately determined the needs of the mission. In part, the problem was lack of central planning; however, the challenges went deeper. With different cultures and histories come different notions of what a peace operation entails. Attitudes and customs shape doctrines, which in turn shape the approach to the mission. In Bosnia, this principle at best meant scattered efforts and disunity. But at worst, cultural clashes among the many participating nations dragged down the mission.
The problem was not just among military forces. Lack of cooperation between the new civil structure and military operations led to further incoherence. These failures stemmed from civilian implementation delays, turf battles, and lack of formal unifying mechanisms.
First, ramping up civilian efforts depended on a secure environment. Because security in turn depended on implementation of the military provisions in the Dayton Accords, delays in setting up the civilian sector plagued the process. Even when the environment was deemed secure enough, creating, funding, and staffing the efforts took time. Given the terrible privations that Bosnians had endured, I was dismayed when the newly named High Representative Carl Bildt announced that he would begin his work in a few weeks—after, I noticed, a long, European-style Christmas vacation.
In the year-long gap left while the Office of the High Representative struggled to become operational, IFOR came under pressure to assume roles better left to the civilian side—such as ensuring the provision of gas and water. When at last the OHR was developed enough to take on those roles, military “mission extension” contributed to confusion about who was taking the lead on projects. The resulting turf battles sometimes led to ugly incidents, such as when a success-starved UN civil agency disparaged a reconstruction project undertaken by the military.
It was amazing to think that grinning young men on the streets had just ended three years of grim battle.
Checkpoints, limited fuel, broken up roads. It was slow going as the country began to advance.
Part of the discord was systemic. Military leaders were determined not to get entangled in the many difficulties on the OHR side or to have their hands tied by a decision process dependent on civilians.
Delays and conflicts were, however, only symptoms of a greater, overarching failure: no unified command structure existed to integrate and synchronize civilian and military apparatus. Part of the problem was political. The high representative himself had no UN authority. Without that widely accepted political backing, he was unable to provide direction to a combined operation. Consequently, civil and military components strived for cooperation but fell short of deep integration: the two spheres were neither formally nor informally stitched together. Dayton did not even require that the civilian and military authorities consult each other. Meetings of principals occurred only from time to time, not on a consistent basis. And without support from the top, midlevel coordination was certainly not strong enough to produce a cohesive effort. The result of this disunity was that the civil and military operations fell far short of what they could have achieved together. Their failure could be measured not only in wasted budgets and ineffectual work plans but also in frigid apartments and fearful returnees.
Complications aside, for the most part Bosnians appreciated the stabilizing effect of international troops. An American officer described to me how “IFOR” was showing up on more than just NATO tanks and vehicles. Astute civilians had started putting emblems on their cars and trucks to bluff their way through the illegal but numerous paramilitary checkpoints. One day, the officer had passed a horse-drawn cart, loaded with hay, with “IFOR” painted across the back.
61. INSIDE: By a Thread
The emotional pitch of survivors across the country was sky-high as they begged for information about what had been done to find the missing, whether their missing family members were alive, whether there were secret detention centers holding prisoners, and whether remains had been decently buried.
They were alienated even by the legal jargon crafted to help their cause: “A missing person is a person about whom his family has no information and/or, based on reliable information, is reported as missing as a consequence of an armed conflict that happened in the territory of the former SFRY.”3
By the end of the conflict in 1995, about thirty thousand people were missing—out of a population of 3.4 million.4 But all those unaccounted for had multiple other people who were frantically trying to find them. The effects were reflected in workplace disinterest, unending emotional suffering, and civic withdrawal. Acknowledging these far-reaching impacts, former US Senator Bob Dole declared that reconciliation projects were essential for bringing “closure to thousands of families who have been locked in the torment of the past.”5
When people approached me with their searches and their questions, I wished I could give clear answers. But so many promises had been made, only to be followed by betrayal. In several cases, international military leaders insisted that they couldn’t secure an area that contained mass graves, so that the bodies could be exhumed and identified. To underscore their demand for information, a group of women publicly vowed that if answers weren’t forthcoming within fifteen days, they would instigate civil disobedience and “spread rebellion.” The threat was credible: on the Serb side, women in Banja Luka held two senior diplomats hostage for twenty-four hours at the office of the OSCE. The price for their release was information about some two thousand missing Serbs.
But hearing the information did not mean accepting it.
Mark Steinberg, a California attorney who helped those searching for loved ones, described to me a scene that was only one among millions. A forensic pathologist was attempting to identify the remains of a young child who had died in the war. Was the girl the daughter of the woman waiting outside his laboratory? The mother had given the pathologist her child’s height, weight, and hair color. The doctor found a match in all respects. He emerged from his lab to report to the woman that her daughter was, indeed, deceased.
The woman said he was wrong, and that she could prove it. She said she had forgotten to mention that her daughter’s appendix had been removed. The doctor returned to the laboratory and found that the girl’s appendix was missing. He came back to the woman, saying he remained certain the dead child was her daughter.
Still she resisted. She asked the doctor to see if the personal effects delivered with the body included a red coat. He went to the effects room, checked the appropriate locker, and found a red coat. He returned to the woman and told her she now needed to go home and rest. She wouldn’t leave. She said he had to do one more thing—just one more. He had to check if the button on the coat had been sewn on with homemade thread.
Once again, the doctor returned to the laboratory, took out the coat, looked at the thread, and saw that it was, in fact, homemade. He sighed, then went back to the mother. Looking into her eyes, he said nothing, took her arm, and guided her out of his office.
62. OUTSIDE: Missing
Mark Steinberg and Ambassador Menzies met with a diverse group of women who had created an Association for the Missing, to exhaust every means possible to find their loved ones. According to Principal Deputy High Representative Michael Steiner, who called me in Vienna requesting my support, this was the first group to cross conflict lines. If they could do it, surely others could follow.
The Bosnian women were upset but organized, while the outsiders trying to help them were composed but in chaos. Six months had passed since Article 5, Annex 7 of the Dayton Accords mandated an effort chaired by the International Committee of the Red Cross to address the thirty thousand to forty thousand missing Bosnians. Yet the ICRC still had not determined its own governing rules. After six more months, multiple ventures had been created by the exasperated international community, with titles such as “Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances,” “Working Group on the Process for Tracing Persons Unaccounted For,” and “Expert Group on Exhumation and Missing Persons.”
At the G7 summit in 1996, President Clinton had established the International Commission on Missing Persons to address the situation.6 But the initial stages were slow and unequal to the task of satisfying so many searching families.
For its part, the UN had appointed Manfred Nowak, a professor of international law in Vienna, as the “expert in charge of the special process on missing persons in the former Yugoslavia.” Nowak came to my embassy office to explain his goals and to ask why he did not have the support of “the Americans.” “The Americans” in turn complained to me that Nowak was not equipped for the job and in fact was naive. Having never worked with Nowak, I had no way of assessing the charge against him.
Since most of the missing were dead, Nowak’s search was closely tied to exhuming mass graves. His plan thus began with an antemortem database comprising dental and hospital records and other identifying information from family members. Those data could be compared with information collected as graves were opened. Still, he cautioned, after an expenditure of some six million dollars for the first year of operation, the identification rate might not be higher than 10 percent.
After the Red Cross had said for eight months that they could get no information, Steinberg prevailed on them to do the obvious—cull from witness testimony at the ICTY names of those already known to be dead. They could then pass that basic information on to anguished families. Meanwhile, a group of experts set up by the ICRC met in Geneva. I thought it would have been more fitting, though less convenient, to have held the meeting in the town hall of Srebrenica.
Complicating efforts to identify bodies, the Serbs were still reneging on the “freedom of movement” guaranteed in the Dayton Peace Agreement, and international troop commanders were still no help. Thus, women survivors of Srebrenica were unable to get to the corpses left lying in the woods around their town (still under Serb control) to identify and bury them. It took a year before UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Elizabeth Rehn arranged for the Finns and Dutch to fund forensic specialists to deal with those “surface remains.”
Booby traps were another obstacle for the families. So were land mines. But the NATO commander was adamant that removing mines around mass graves was not in his mandate. Nor would he provide security for the gravesites as they were being exhumed—his tens of thousands of soldiers had to stay on base “for their own safety.” If the dead had been American soldiers, I wondered, might the commander have found a way to retrieve and bury their bodies?
Almost two years after Srebrenica, Professor Nowak resigned, “based on the experience that there is not sufficient political will to establish the fate of the missing by all possible means, including exhumation and to create an unambiguous mandate of the special process based on a clear division of labour with the ICRC and other relevant organizations.”7
Indeed, one of my most disheartening evenings was at a Sarajevo restaurant, with representatives from the ICRC, the ICTY, and Physicians for Human Rights. Since I worked closely with survivors, I frequently interviewed those who controlled a vital part of their lives. But this time, I stayed silent as the three argued heatedly about whether and how bodies could be excavated from mass graves.
One advocated exhuming large numbers of corpses, to convince survivors that their loved ones were likely dead and not in forced labor in an underground mine in Serbia (a rumor that kept many people’s hopes alive). The next insisted that the skeletons not be disturbed, because doing so might destroy evidence of war crimes. The third argued that although DNA testing would be slow and expensive, identifying bodies was the real goal. His organization was proud of its response to the challenge, and they were hiring a public relations professional to explain why that year they could identify only fifty out of fifteen thousand unnamed corpses.
63. INSIDE: Surviving the Peace
Reports of depression mounted as the tense peace wore on. In some cases, this epidemic took the form of suicide, domestic violence, and extreme lethargy. Many of those who had hung on heroically through years of fear now ended their lives in the postwar malaise.8
Psychologists also reported a sharp upswing in family violence and anxiety disorders. At times, this aggression included sons against mothers. In others, husbands of many years would become violent without warning, causing women to consider taking their own lives. But the numbers were uncertain. Not only were there inadequate statistical agencies, but women greatly underreported being abused. Speaking about such matters was taboo: Bosnia was still a patriarchal society, which made mistreatment a private matter and the preservation of a marriage paramount. In short, women were taught to obey, not speak out.
Whether due to post-traumatic stress disorder or the depression that follows a three-and-a-half-year adrenaline surge, the emotional dip in Bosnia was palpable. Formerly energized leaders, suddenly mired in hopelessness, were hardly able even to attend meetings. Civic guidance from these influential citizens disappeared. The brain drain contributed to the problem, with young people feeling there was no future for them in Bosnia.
Doctors gave myriad psychological reasons to account for the steady increase in depression and violence. After years of racing past snipers, cowering in basements, enduring rape or mutilation, and watching loved ones suffer, most of the population was left with deep psychological wounds. Yet few dared ask for help. Agony was widespread and professional treatment scarce and poorly distributed across the country; moreover, they might be labeled “crazy,” and mental illness was stigmatized.
Some observers blamed the failed economy for the change in mood, as well as other economic and social factors. Unemployed and coping with newly changed family structures, men in particular struggled to reclaim their past identities. They were expected to provide and care for their families, but violence and poverty had taken their toll on men’s sense of self-worth. Many simply could not go on.
The widespread availability of weapons meant that uncertainty easily could translate into violence. The legal system was unequal to dealing with this trend. Before the massive displacements, family and friends could have stepped in to mitigate such domestic problems. But the war had destroyed those networks, leaving women and children without support. The unresolved refugee crisis left families divided and disconnected from their homes, adding to the lethal mix.
In Republika Srpska, the suicide rate jumped immediately after the end of the war; 77 percent of the suicides were men. A sociologist theorized: “Aggressive impulses that were present during the war are now returning like a boomerang. Maybe that is the reason why more men commit suicide than women.”9 The return of such impulses was often unexpected. Ljilja, a thirty-year-old Bosnian Serb, was finally settling into life after the war. Her family’s lot was improving. Then one morning while their baby slept, her husband went to the front of their home and draped his body over a live hand grenade. He left no note and had given no indication of distress. His wife lamented: “I never saw it coming, that he was thinking of killing himself. We had a baby, things would have gotten better I am sure, we could have been happy, but it is too late now.”10 During the war, the aggressors had been told they were heroes as they killed, raped, and tortured for glory. Day after day, those ideals of valor were reinforced by fellow combatants. Afterward, when their band of brothers dispersed, these soldiers were left to their own thoughts. Outside their collective, perpetrators had to cope with their guilt alone.
Among all groups, another kind of guilt was claiming lives—the quiet guilt of having survived when so many others had perished. Thus the war took its toll among perpetrators and victims alike, long after peace was proclaimed.
64. OUTSIDE: Press Tour
The news media are chronically oriented toward fearful, negative accounts, whether rumors, scandals, accidents, or destruction. In the Balkans, reporters who tried to buck the trend had trouble getting encouraging stories placed after the war. Editors dodged the blame, saying publishers were calling the shots. Publishers claimed they were just responding to market forces; their readers wanted disasters, not champions. And finally, given the tragic stories they had been covering for three years, it was personally hard for media professionals to shift to an optimistic mode.
Touring a heavily mined community in a van, I sat behind a seasoned New York Times reporter. We looked out the windows at a dozen houses along the road. Eleven were damaged and uninhabited, but one had been restored. In front, the house boasted a bed of purple and blue irises in full bloom. The woman who lived in the house, I was told, was determined to care for her irises. So she had returned, searching her yard inch by inch on her knees with a fork to be sure there were no land mines.
“Crossing Borders,” we called our press and funders tour, organized by Valerie Gillen, Carol Edgar, and Sarah Gauger.
The reporter and I each wrote up our observations for publication. Yes, there were setbacks, arrests, and beatings. And sorrow was fertile ground for frustration—or worse, inaction. But the Balkans could not afford more years of paralysis. Courageous people were in fact moving back to their homes. Thus, my article called on readers to overcome the negativity that only compounded the challenges of rebuilding.
A few days later, I opened the Times and read the story of my fellow passenger. It was a tale of hopelessness, positing that because of real and figurative land mines, the region would never be resettled. When I looked further into his work, I found one article after another under his byline reporting corruption, disappointments, and hurdles in postwar Bosnia. None described the signs of promise I was beginning to see. To hear him tell it, nothing was going right.
I would not have cared so much had I not realized the influence such a barrage of negativity had on policymakers who held the purse strings to development funds. The negativity was self-fulfilling. Why should the world support economic development in communities run by corrupt politicians or too dangerous for resettlement?Lonely (and self-doubting) in my optimism, I invited several American journalists to join me for a tour across the Federation and Republika Srpska. We spent four days in Tuzla, Banja Luka, and Sarajevo. From that trip, seven articles were published over the next year.
One young reporter on our tour was eager to interview refugees in a collective center outside Banja Luka. With pen and notebook in hand, he approached a Bosnian Serb grandmother. She was sitting on the side of a bunk bed, her head in her hands. Her skin was furrowed from years of weather and war.
“Hello, Grandmother. Will you tell us why you’re here?” I asked, sitting down next to her on her bed.
In a deadened voice, she described her resolve not to leave her village. Then one day her house was shelled. Her home burst into flames, burning to death her seven grandchildren. “Croats did that,” she said, with revulsion.
“Will you ever be able to forgive and forget?” asked the young reporter standing next to me. I found the question callow—disrespectful of her grief. Her retort was in kind.
I took the young man aside and said: “Ask if she can imagine ever living next door to a Croat woman and her children.” We stepped back over to where she sat, and he asked the question. Her look went right through him.
“Of course,” she answered, as if he were a simpleton. “We always have.”
The freelance reporters said later that they had never had such a difficult time getting stories placed. One told me that her piece on strong Bosnian women was ranked lowest in interest by readers. In fact, it was exactly this concern that Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdžić had expressed to our group. “I’m afraid of what will happen when there’s not enough blood,” he said simply. In the parlance of American journalism, “if it bleeds, it leads.”