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SECTION 10   Recreating Community

71. INSIDE: Beethoven’s Fifth

Sarajevo was a center for music, which was enjoyed in living rooms as well as concert halls. Even when life was most dismal, hope was practiced by the musicians. One of the most evocative symbols of defiance was the cellist Vedran Smajlovic, who played on the sidewalks even during shelling. Formerly with the Sarajevo Opera Orchestra, Smajlovic wore formal tails for his pavement performances. On one street, where shoppers had been hit by a mortar while waiting in line at a bakery, the musician played for twenty-two days—one day for each neighbor killed.

During one pause in the barrage, the famed conductor Zubin Mehta came in to lead the remnant Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra in Mozart’s Requiem. The tenor José Carreras was part of the ensemble. For a concert hall, they used the bombed-out ruins of the Sarajevo National Library. The setting was too dangerous for an audience, so they played to an empty hall, but their performance resonated around the world by satellite.

With similar intent, a year before the peace agreement was signed, my symphony conductor husband decided to produce a concert in Mostar to encourage the troubled Bosniak-Croat Federation. Flak jacket and helmet in hand, he rented a car in Split, on the Dalmatian coast. Handing him the keys, the attendant asked where he was heading.


“Good luck,” the man said wryly.

Charles navigated the tortuous roads of Herzegovina throughout the night. He saw no other cars—only strips of demolished houses. When the road took a steep incline, he stopped and looked more carefully into the dark. Something wasn’t right, so he backed up and found another road.

In Mostar, Charles met with the EU administrator of the town, selected the site for the concert on a former front line, then headed back for the coast. In the daylight, he saw that the incline he’d started up then abandoned was a blown-up bridge spanning a ravine.

Weeks later, the concert was scuttled when a nearby kindergarten was shelled. The authorities decided it was too risky for citizens to gather.

Eventually, a few weeks after the peace was signed, Charles produced a landmark concert in Sarajevo—the first since the war. Although the players hadn’t been paid for four years, they had rehearsed whenever the shelling let up enough that a substantial number could make it to the theater. Summers weren’t as hard, but winter after winter they practiced in bitter cold during the few hours of daylight, with no electricity or gas. They insisted on playing, despite clumsy down coats and wool gloves, to keep up their skills.

Every musician had a story. The orchestra was managed by a clarinetist whose instrument was taken from him by soldiers, put under a tank, and crushed. Out of some seventy players, seven had been killed: some after being drafted into the army; one by a sniper, as he walked to a rehearsal. Many others had left as refugees. The remaining thirty-five players thus included former retirees and students. The army band also lent its talent.

When Charles led the orchestra for the first time, I watched from a box above the stage of the National Theater. From my vantage point, I could take in the orchestra, the audience, and the passion of my husband as he conducted. One musician sat on a stool upstage right, behind the trombones. From her perch, Sonja seemed to reign over the oboes and violas. Her small, dark eyes were riveted on the conductor. Sonja had been dividing her time between kitchen kettles and kettle drums for at least forty years. Thin, almost gaunt, her frame seemed frail beside the huge instruments, until she started swinging her mallets. The sequins on her sleeves glittered as her arms flew in a pattern, crisscrossing, then thrashing like the wings of a bird. In her blend of frailty and strength, Sonja embodied the contradiction of Sarajevo.

The hall was a small jewel box of Hapsburg elegance. Slate blue, trimmed with gold, then dusty rose and floral designs as the eye moved upward. For a reason no one seemed to know, this structure had been spared. Still, it required a management decision to heat the building that night, because oil was precious. At least the string players, for a change, weren’t in overcoats; and with the minister of energy in the audience, the musicians could count on light throughout the concert.

The performance started twenty minutes late. It took everyone time to get past the soldiers in camouflage uniforms, who were waving metal detector wands across each elegantly dressed guest—unheard of in the pre-September 11 world. Every nook of the building had been searched for bombs by a special team with long-handled mirrors. Even my husband’s music case was examined. But as I searched the crowd from the first pounding chords of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to the triumphant conclusion, I saw few dry eyes.

From the back row of the orchestra, Sonja on the kettle drum was a symbol of resolve. Charles led, and encouraged, the decimated orchestra in this historical concert.

I particularly noticed the mayor of Sarajevo, Tarik Kupusović, and his wife, Essena, with whom Charles and I had visited that morning. Sitting in their living room, we’d discussed the political morass, the damaged society, and the significance of the concert. Then they asked if we would like to hear their daughter, Mirha, play. She gave us a simple, quiet piano piece by Bach. As I listened to the familiar musical development, my eyes wandered to a shattered glass balcony door on one side of the piano and small holes in the wall and sofa on the other.

This was not Tarik and Essena’s original home. That one, in Dobrinja, had been totally destroyed. Essena told us how she’d run through the long trenches I’d seen from the NATO Humvee during the Serb exodus. Like others, she’d braved snipers to salvage the few sentimental items she could. With a bittersweet smile, she held out a linen napkin embroidered by her mother, retrieved from the shambles. Now, in the concert hall, I watched her face, wondering if she was thinking of the past or the future.

Mirha seemed pleased to play for Maestro Ansbacher and me. The family had been in the kitchen, her mother explained, when bullets riddled this room. Mirha hadn’t been practicing just then.

72. OUTSIDE: “Neither Free Nor Fair”

To provide a sense of forward movement and coax the society toward normalcy, many international leaders advocated quick elections. Secretary Christopher opined that putting even a flawed election in motion would “give all the people of Bosnia a chance to shape their future.”1 But there were strong arguments against holding a vote so soon. New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis laid out a devastating comparison: “Suppose that at the end of World War II, Heinrich Himmler and Adolf Eichmann had remained in control of a large zone in Germany. They were supposed to be removed and tried for war crimes. But the United States and its allies decided to hold all-German elections while the Nazis still ruled the zone, suppressing and murdering opponents.”2

Although acknowledging the need for the “best possible conditions,” a State Department spokesperson said it was too much to ask that indicted war criminals be arrested before elections—those would not be the “best possible” but rather impossibly “pristine, ideal conditions.”3

Some high-level American policymakers made damning statements about the early elections, urging postponement. Speaking from Dayton, Ohio, the Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole called the forthcoming elections “a fraud, but a fraud with the American stamp of approval…. Many Americans, regardless of party, think it’s a big mistake to pursue what would, in effect, be a sham election.”4

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a disbeliever in a unified Bosnia, added that each side “suppresses dissent and seeks to use the elections to solidify its ethnic base for the ultimate showdown with hated rivals.”5

In addition, highly respected international groups like the Helsinki Federation for Human Rights strongly opposed the OSCE policy of holding unfair elections, claiming they “destroy[ed] any possibility to restore the… pre-war multi-ethnic character.”6

Within Bosnia, as well, moderate voices called for delay. Among defenders of the multicultural dream, Prime Minister Silajdžić was one of the most outspoken, pointing out that preconditions called for in the Dayton Peace Agreement—freedom of press, movement, and expression—had not been met. Soon afterward, he was attacked while campaigning, hit with a steel pipe. “I can’t even go to the Serb stronghold of Banja Luka, much less campaign there,” he protested to me. “So what kind of election will that be? Why the hurry?”

The OSCE, charged with laying the foundation for representative government in Bosnia, thought differently. Ambassador Frowick saw the vote as essential to stabilization. But he took the iconoclastic step of admitting publicly that, given the circumstances, the vote would be “neither free nor fair.”

Silajdžić threatened to boycott elections that he felt would install hard-liners in key positions, set back reunification of the country, and stymie the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees. “Why bother taking war criminals like General Mladić and President Karadžić to The Hague? If we accept the [ethnic cleansing] they carried out, they should get a medal instead,” he told a CNN reporter. Despite the prime minister’s warnings, the first national elections took place on 14 September 1996, only nine months after the final signing of the peace agreement.

In addition to charges of intimidation and fraud, political dysfunction created immense logistical barriers. The electoral process was necessarily convoluted: few displaced people felt safe going back to their towns. Thus they were given the choice of voting for the candidates running where they were living as refugees or of casting long-distance ballots for candidates running back home. With the refugee vote split, there was greater likelihood of extremists winning in towns from which those voters had been expelled. Even if a moderate were elected because of the refugee vote, a hostile community could physically block that person from assuming office.

The question was not only how people were being elected, but also which people were being elected. Although Karadžić was a fugitive from justice and had been barred from public office, his picture was displayed prominently next to campaign posters for other Serb nationalists. Clearly, he was running by proxy.

Consequently, as Silajdžić had predicted, in most cases hard-liners were elected. But a rough piece of democracy was in place, and the international community was taking responsibility to guarantee at least some modicum of fairness. This was a success in its own right, as the country lurched toward stability.

The OCSE had opened the door, and people flooded through. The turnout was enormous—so large, in fact, that charges of double counting spread immediately.7 The International Crisis Group, a highly respected NGO, compared the votes that were tallied with demographic statistics from UNHCR and declared that voter turnout was 106 percent, demanding that the OSCE not validate the election. But the OSCE disputed the underlying population figures and claimed the count was actually 90 percent.

In fact, measures had been taken to ensure that there was no double voting. Officials had stamped hands with ink. One old farmer ruminated: “Some foreigners came, and they marked us like calves.”

73. INSIDE: Sarajevo Red

My Vienna mentor, Viktor Frankl, whose wisdom derived from the Holocaust, once said to me: “Sometimes it’s only through ruins that you can see the sky.” I remembered his words when I returned to the Sarajevo National Library to pause in the silent grove of pockmarked granite columns. Built on the deep foundation of Bosnia’s complex culture, the ruined edifice, longing for reconstruction, had assumed a spiritual quality for me.

After endless shelling, one chaotic night during August 1992 it was targeted with napalm and burst into flames. The fire consumed nearly 50,000 feet of wooden shelves, the atrium, and the stone lacework of the balustrade. Irreplaceable, centuries-old manuscripts and “Bosniaca” were lost. In all, more than a million books were turned to ash.

The energetic director, Enes Kujundžić, was adamant that Sarajevo have a functioning library once again. The city gave him empty army barracks in which to begin restoring the collection. People assumed the former library would be rebuilt—they just didn’t know when. As a first step, fire-engine red scaffolding would rise to the new roof under construction, a gift of the Austrian government. No state was coming up with the millions of deutschmarks needed to renovate the historic building, but at least a roof would slow the deterioration.

One winter day, I returned with Charles to a favorite room of mine on the second floor, where we poked through the ruins. I admired the traces of patterns in red, blue, and gold, still discernible on fallen chunks of pale stone wall. Turning to my left, I looked through two rooms, hollow with destruction. Through a stone doorway with neo-Moorish trim and an icicle fringe, we noticed a card catalogue, sitting cockeyed on the rubble.

It began to rain on us through the gaps. We moved more quickly than usual around the room, stepping through the crushed ceiling lying in a heap on the floor. In the center, a lone weed had sprouted. Living things had taken on crucial meaning to Sarajevans. I understood a small bit, remembering a mature rose bush I’d passed in a military Humvee. Seeing the shock of red blooms through the thick, bulletproof window, I thought, “Thank God, now there’s peace, and the roses can bloom again.” Then it dawned on me: those roses had been blooming every year—even amid the violence and decay. Nature had defied the march of war.

I had the same thought when I passed an apartment building with its entire end collapsed, as if it had melted. The balconies were twisted and hanging. Yet in a window of this ghost house was a tended flower box with brilliant red geraniums.

The flowers had prevailed, yes. But flowers in Bosnia were not just a romantic symbol. Walking through the heart of the city, Charles and I stopped to examine bright crimson splashes on the pavement. A local artist had stained some mortar red and plastered grenade holes in the streets and sidewalks.

Some people hated the reminders of pools of blood. For others, these “Sarejevo roses” were symbols of a personal grief yearning for public acknowledgment.

With snipers gone, a new flower appeared on the streets of the capital, provoking debate over the importance of remembering the past or reorienting toward the future.

74. OUTSIDE: Re-leaf

Reconciliation develops organically. With time, new memories are grafted onto old; with tending, pain recedes and hope takes root. Ambassador Menzies, an informed and insightful man, understood this process. Given his background, I was not totally surprised when John broached with me a notion that became part of his legacy. His career had been launched in the US Information Agency (USIA), the cultural arm of the Foreign Service, rather than in the political and economic State Department “cones” that yielded most ambassadors. I frequently found the USIA professionals more down-to-earth and imaginative than their State Department counterparts.

Our seminal conversation took place at midnight in his Spartan office building right after the peace was signed. Charles had just gotten into a sleeping bag, and John and I wanted some news, so we had gone down to watch CNN. The satellite dish must have shifted; the TV gave us nothing. Instead, we sat across from each other in the bare room, sipping lukewarm hot chocolate from white Styrofoam cups. “You know what I dream of?” he said. “That field across the road. It used to be a park. But during the siege, people had to cut down the trees and burn them, green, to keep warm. I’d like to replant the park with a tree for every child from Sarajevo killed during this war—sixteen hundred of them.”

John was right about the importance of trees. When I later crossed paths with a Bosnian employee of the embassy, she pulled me aside and whispered: “You know, for all the meetings, visits, and reports we’re producing about starting a central bank, or setting elections, or amending our constitution, it’s the replanting of the trees that Bosnian people appreciate most.”

Kemal Kurspahic, editor in chief at the prominent daily Oslobodjenje, had voiced that sentiment in an impassioned plea: “Do whatever you can to stop the killing, to bring about peace, and then bring us trees.” Trees had become Sarajevo’s “most precious commodity,” he said. Citizens had braved sniper fire to chop them down. Once the parks were destroyed, people went for the stumps. Kurspahic reported that “an entire day of cutting and digging would yield a few bags of wood for cooking and winter heating.” But trees bore other dire significance. During the war, the paper published two dark cartoons: A man searches in vain for a tree from which to hang himself; and Jesus carries his cross up a hill, joined by Sarajevans bearing trees.8

Soon after my midnight conversation with John, I took his dream to my embassy’s agricultural attaché, Alan Mustard. He, in turn, approached Global ReLeaf, an American NGO that had replanted trees in Ukraine and Belarus after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, as well as in blighted neighborhoods in the United States. Some months later, the Sarajevo director of parks came to our embassy. With landscaping plans spread across my table, he described how desperate citizens had denuded beautiful parks and boulevards for firewood.

When I went on the radio, asking listeners to fund a tree in a child’s memory, Austrians responded generously. A year and a half after John’s vision, the planting began. I officially launched the project in front of a partially restored elementary school in the shell-pounded Sarajevo suburb of Ilidža.

Just outside the door of the building, a large willow had been cut down for firewood. Our new tree was to be planted in that spot, in the name of a child who would never climb its branches. The principal, teachers, and students were energized, anticipating the ceremony. They had spent days clearing rubble, scrubbing, and painting. In the process, I was told, workers digging a hole for the new tree unearthed and detonated three land mines.

Next to the school was a large garden planted by refugees. The school director told me he hoped it would become a park in the future, where the students could play. As a mother, I wondered what it would take for me to feel safe about my child chasing a ball that went bouncing off a playground here.

75. INSIDE: Watermelons

Compared to Sarajevo, most of the country was moving much more slowly toward normalcy. That was especially true of the eastern enclaves, the former “safe areas.” Similar to Srebrenica, Goražde was formerly home to about fifteen thousand Serbs and Bosniaks. But during the war, most of the Serbs had left, and the city harbored about fifty thousand Bosniaks. Now, after the war, since the Serbs had not been allowed to “tidy up the map” (as one British official referred to the proposed massive expulsions), Goražde was linked by a roadway to the rest of the Federation.

In this town, the devastation was apocalyptic. As the peace was being negotiated in October 1995, UN vehicles were able to pass through Serb checkpoints for the first time in more than three years. (The town was only an hour’s drive from the capital, but through Serb territory.) Accompanying journalists described a desperate situation, with so little food that there were sores on children’s faces from lack of vitamins.9

The first peacetime passenger bus entered Goražde ten weeks later. Hundreds of people, many weeping, lined the streets to welcome the fifty-five passengers from Sarajevo. The crowds were held back by police as they pushed forward to see who was on board. Could it be family members taken out over the years by helicopter for medical treatment, with no way to return?

A year later, I made the trip in a car accompanied by two armored vehicles and guards with AK-47s. Along the road between Sarajevo and Goražde, I saw few signs of physical reconstruction. In Goražde itself, packs of dogs swarmed around our vehicles as we slowly drove past families living in still-destroyed buildings. Laundry hung in the cold rain next to concrete foundations where dwellings once stood. Many apartments had no glass in the windows. A pulley system hauled water to the upper floors of a fourteen-story apartment building, whose makeshift wood-burning stoves emitted a dozen columns of smoke. I noticed a woman standing in her fourth-floor apartment, now open to the sky.

A foursome of farm women walking along the sidewalk allowed me to take their portrait. “We’re wearing clothes from you!” one said with a wide grin, tugging on her woolen jacket, donated from America. For a moment I felt our commonality. But visitors like me couldn’t understand Goražde without the backdrop of life before the war.

To give us that perspective, Sabina, once a journalist and now an entrepreneur, reminisced about her town’s musical ensembles, theater, and school, where her daughters learned piano and guitar. She insisted that Goražde was historically a cultural crossroad and had been for centuries: “When other people didn’t know who Mozart was, we were playing his music.”

I talked with Sabina again a year after that first trip. She described her hometown, still in shambles:

There’s not one major factory operating now, and still no clean drinking water. Maybe five hundred people are employed, and we don’t have the road they promised. People are frightened, and they’re still surrounded by war criminals. There’s no real communication between Sarajevo and Goražde. I travel there three or four times a week, and I still shake when a policeman stops me and says, “We’re the police of Republika Srpska, not the ‘Turkish’ police.”

But not all of Sabina’s story was discouraging:

One day, I pulled over to buy a watermelon from some Serbs and handed them one of our new Bosnian bills. An old man said to me, “Why are you giving me this Turkish money?”

“Sir,” I said, “This is the currency of your country and mine, and the name of our country is Bosnia and Herzegovina.” He ignored me.

The next time I stopped again to buy a watermelon from him. When he made a remark, I tried to be polite but told him he was wrong, that I’m a Bosniak, not a Turk.

The next time, he said nothing to me. He just took my money.

The fourth time, he smiled at me.

76. OUTSIDE: Arizona

In a military helicopter, hovering over the former northern front line, a US general told me a story of reconciliation, Bosnia style. The mechanism was not a religious rite, official policy, or personal gesture. It was a makeshift market. The general noted that after the war, wherever there was physical safety, free enterprise was bringing together former adversaries. But the setting of this particular market gave it added importance.

Brčko was strategically positioned: all road, river, and rail links that connected the western and eastern parts of Republika Srpska passed through its narrow corridor. Thus it was perceived by Serbs as crucial to the security of their “political entity.” With the city under Serb control, Bosniaks and Croats would be unable to reach Croatia and the SavaRiver, which links the Danube River and the Black Sea. Hence it was a negotiation sticking point at Dayton. There was a moral component as well. More than three thousand unarmed Bosniaks and Croats in the town had been murdered by Serb troops, while other non-Serbs had been driven out of the city and into a squalid tent city. Giving control of Brčko to the Serbs would be a warped reward.

Four years after the Dayton Accords were signed, special arbitration awarded Brčko multiethnic status and self-governance under an international supervisor. By an agreement hammered out after Dayton, the municipality had been restructured as a “neutral district.” Both the Federation and Republika Srpska surrendered control of territory to a new, multiethnic district government, initially under an international administrator. In theory, the agreement allowed refugees to return to their homes. In practice, however, that option was not fully viable. By day, Bosniaks were rebuilding their properties. By night, Serb extremists were blowing up the reconstruction.

For security, NATO stationed troops nearby. In the shadow of their military checkpoint, Bosniaks began passing messages across the line to Serb friends, families, and former teachers—who soon marshaled their courage to cross over and join them for Saturday picnics. Before long, a resourceful Serb concessionaire brought refreshments to sell at the rendezvous site. Other enterprises spontaneously appeared in the sprawling, muddy fields. Farmers began bringing homemade brandy and livestock. Soon a giant open-air market sprang up near the NATO watchtower—a psychological safety zone. Buyers came from a hundred miles in all directions, and merchandise came from even farther.

When nationalist local authorities attempted to shut down the gathering spot, NATO troops stepped in. They negotiated protection, coordinated with the local police from all ethnic groups, and brought in dogs to detect bombs. For a while, the biggest problem was traffic jams: in just a few weeks, a Sunday crowd averaged one thousand people. Eventually, weekends were drawing some four thousand to the market, many from hundreds of miles away.

Much of the trade was wholesome: light fixtures, soccer balls, and skewered čevapčići. But some was toxic. The area became a hub of organized crime, including sex trafficking. Unwilling women were auctioned off like livestock. Afterward, they were coerced into local prostitution or transported abroad, where their passports were taken from them to keep them from escaping.10

Equally ugly, an entrepreneur and former soldier in his midthirties remarked: “I am quite ready to sell brandy to Serbs in the morning and shoot them in the afternoon. There were plenty of people who did this during the war. First we take their money, then we get rid of them. Most Muslims will never allow the Serbs to hang onto the town of Brčko, no matter how friendly we are when they hand over their cash.”11

Was the market just one more venue for exploitation, or did its existence also show that Bosnians were willing to bury their differences? Whatever the chances of conflict in the future, the pull of the market was stronger than the fear of ethnic strife. Initial and tentative social exchanges had given way to bartering between consumers and suppliers. Along with merchandise, market goers exchanged information and hope. This was camaraderie in extremis.

At the time of my visit, more than 166,000 people each month were crossing the lines separating Serb from Bosniak and Croat territory. It seemed like a miracle to our pilot. Looking over the bustle of a Saturday afternoon, he remarked: “Used to be, we’d fly to Tuzla and not see a single light on the ground for miles. The only thing moving was us.”

77. INSIDE: Three Hundred Gold Coins

In Bosnia as anywhere, faith could offer solace in the dark, but there were times when religion became the darkness itself. Respected as a source of values and connection, religion elevated the human experience. But politicized as a means of profit and control, it debased.

Politicized religion takes on many guises. For their own purposes, perhaps, the Saudis described Izetbegović as a “fighter for Islam, sent by God to lead the Muslims along the true path,” and King Fahd awarded him a medal for contributing to the spread of Islam.12 For the thousand Bosnians of the Seventh Muslim Brigade, faith was a strong basis for identity. Members of this unit wore green bands around their foreheads, often with Koranic inscriptions.

In the southern part of the country, hate spewed from pulpits. Passive during the massive expulsions of non-Croats, some Catholic leaders in the Mostar area now resisted the return of refugees of a different faith, and they actively and publicly opposed the rebuilding of non-Catholic sacred sites.

Karadžić spoke for radicalized Serbs. “Our faith is present in all our thinking and decisions, and the voice of the Church is obeyed as the voice of supreme authority,” he declared. And at a rally in Sarajevo’s Zetra stadium, he proclaimed, “Tonight, even God is a Serb!”13

Among the dozen religious leaders I knew across Bosnia, I found activists and fatalists, saints and sinners. I’d heard that religious life was particularly tense in Biljana Plavšić’s hometown of Banja Luka. To ex plore why, I made appointments with the leading clerics there. Both the Catholic bishop and the Muslim grand mufti had stayed throughout the war, even though their congregations had been more than decimated.

The destruction of religious symbols, including houses of worship, was widespread. Above, the site of the razed Ferhat-Pasha Mosque in the Serb stronghold of Banja Luka.

Opposite, the crumbling doorway of the Serb Orthodox church in Sarajevo, shelled by Serbs themselves. courtesy of tarik samarah

The mufti’s worn polyester suit hung loosely on his bony frame. It was Ramadan, so we had nothing to eat or drink. He pointed out his window, to where the grand Ferhat-Pasha Mosque had stood—the revered symbol for the city’s 224,000 Muslims. After 450 years, it took only five minutes for the Serbs to bring it down, he mused. Fifteen other mosques had been blown up, yet he was determined to rebuild.

The bishop, a white-haired philosopher-theologian with a heart as big as his intellect, echoed the mufti’s despondence. “During Communism, our people lost our humanity,” he said, commenting ruefully on the reasons for the violence. Of eighty thousand Catholics in the city, seventy-five thousand had been expelled. Several priests and a nun had been killed, others imprisoned.14 Only five of seventy-five churches still existed. Still, the bishop remarked, “I am certain we have been witnesses to a struggle between good and evil. But just as the spirit of evil was ever present, so was the spirit of good.”

I wanted to hear the experience of the Serb Orthodox priest, too. After arriving at his residence, I was taken upstairs to a dark but spacious chamber and seated on a leather chair in a room cluttered with books and icons. The priest entered. With his angular features and ill-kempt beard, he reminded me of pictures I’d seen of the enigmatic Rasputin. Somewhat unsettled by his hypnotic stare, I tried to strike up a conversation but could find little common ground—either in content or style. Although it was before noon, his form of hospitality was to offer me a series of hard liquors.

I tried not to be disrespectful, but I was struck with how the Orthodox Church in Banja Luka remained a hold-out of hate. Or so it seemed, when the mufti died a few months after my visit. Recalcitrant Serb city officials refused to let him be buried on the site of the mosque he had vowed to rebuild—which was still an empty, flat field in the middle of the city.

There were clerics who resisted such venom, but needed bolstering. First, as they led their congregations, they could be vital to reconciliation. Second, they could expose to the rest of the world the fallacy that this had been a religious war. Landrum Bolling, a saintly American Quaker, came to my office in Vienna with a plan to address both approaches. I would invite Sarajevo’s four religious leaders—Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish—plus one assistant each, to our residence for three days of discussion to create an interreligious council. In a fresh setting, the leaders would be more independent, and they could better see their potential for cohesive action.

In Sarajevo, the lead up to this meeting was uneven. Each leader had reservations. The reis ul-ulema,15 Mustafa Čerić, who had a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, met me in the bullet-riddled building next to the mosque. The walls of the room were lined with traditional cushioned benches that seemed designed for distance rather than relationship. I asked Čerić if he had a special wish while in Vienna. “Yes,” he said, “libraries… and McDonalds.” I said I could deliver both.

“I’ll come, but no show business,” he warned. We agreed there was no place for joint public prayers as families were still being driven from their homes by church-condoned violence.

I continued my individual visits, paving the way for the Vienna meeting. At the Catholic cathedral across the river from the mosque, a stained-glass Christ hung on a cross with his heart blown out by a shell. Before agreeing to come to Vienna, Cardinal Vinko Puljić spent an hour scrutinizing me. Saying he had survived a visit from the pope, he presented me with a commemorative gold coin. On one side, the Madonna held her child lovingly. On the other side was a date several years earlier, meant to commemorate the visit—postponed because of shelling, he explained.

A stone’s throw from the cathedral was the Serb Orthodox church, mustard-colored and adorned with white graffiti. I walked the grassy perimeter of the locked building, unsure if I should be wary of mines. Father Dušan Jovanović, the deputy metropolitan, explained that his superior was living thirty miles away. “What is a metropolitan without a metropolis?” I inquired aloud. Shouldn’t he be in the capital, not in a village? The Sarajevo church offices were heavily damaged, the priest countered, failing to mention that the damage was from shelling by Serbs, who acted with at least tacit support from the Orthodox Church.

Orthodox Metropolitan Nikolaj always had a reason not to join when I hosted collaborations among religious leaders. It’s no wonder that he refused to be moved. One Easter, Nikolaj pronounced that those who aligned themselves with the indicted war criminals Karadžić and Mladić were “following the hard road of Christ.”16 (Granted, on one occasion several months later, he was willing to drive in for a one-on-one breakfast from his nearby refuge in Republika Srpska. When he walked into the Hotel Bosna, I felt like I’d fallen into a storybook. His long white beard hung over a black robe, and a cylindrical black hat topped his fierce-looking face. As soon as our coffee was poured, he plunged into an energetic polemic, describing how he’d urged President Plavšić not to cause trouble with the other Bosnian Serb leaders, nor to disband the Parliament in the new Republika Srpska. “You may intercede with God—but I’m not God,” was her reply, the president told me later.)

Some weeks after my round of Sarajevo appointments, each religious community leader plus an assistant arrived on the same flight, excepting one: the Orthodox assistant came by himself, with apologies that the metropolitan “wasn’t feeling well.” Landrum Bolling and David Little, an expert on religion and nationalism, also joined us, to facilitate the formal sessions.

After tens of thousands of hours burying the slaughtered, consoling distraught families, and trying to help millions of destitute people, the seven religious leaders found some levity in each other’s company. They also found depth: Dušan commented that as he’d flown over Bosnia en route, he looked down on his destroyed land and thought how heavy God’s heart must be as he viewed his creation.

But within a few hours of the leaders’ arrival at our residence, stories, laughter, and memories of a once kinder culture began to emerge. There were as many tales of multireligious Bosnia as we had hours to spend telling them.

The result of our Vienna meeting was the finalization of the Inter-Religious Council, a clear statement to the outside world that the Bosnian conflict had not been a religious war. Laboring to avoid politically charged words, and leaving accusations aside, the newborn Council penned a unified statement encouraging all religious leaders to speak out against violence targeting any group. Upon the leaders’ return from Vienna, they called a joint press conference to announce the formation of the council.

When they later assessed just what had made the agreement possible, the men cited the trust we began in Sarajevo and built in Vienna. With smiles, they also mentioned our eight-year-old Teddy racing through the house and rolling on the floor with Isabella the dog; the long, serene walks along paths of the Schönbrunn Gardens; and duets with me on the piano and the vice president of the Sarajevan Jewish community on a violin borrowed from the Vienna Philharmonic.

I added that our conversations were easier because we set aside titles, using only first names. (It must have been decades since the cardinal had been called “Vinko.”) We also made our talks intensely personal, describing childhoods and remembering shared heritage. One evening, with everyone sitting around our table, Dušan had told a tale. A Muslim selling his house asked for three hundred gold coins. The prospective buyer protested that the house was worth only a hundred. The seller readily agreed, but added, “I have an Orthodox neighbor on my left, and a Croat neighbor on my right. Each of them is worth one hundred coins, too.” The reis ul-ulema, cardinal, and Jewish community president broke into smiles. They understood exactly. In Bosnia, value wasn’t measured just in bricks and mortar. It was a joint tally that computed the richness of diversity.

78. OUTSI DE: Mistrust in Mostar

The success of the Dayton Peace Agreement depended on all stakeholders buying into the Bosniak-Croat Federation, the joint administration within the area of Bosnia not controlled by the Serbs. In fact, a solid Federation was assumed by the document’s drafters. The weighty policy implications of that assumption were reinforced by Secretary of State Christopher, who declared the Federation to be “a sharp rebuke to all of those who would say that we must carve up post-war Europe along ethnic and religious lines.”17 Yet two years after Dayton, no real progress had been made in creating a unified administration. The process was foiled by authorities with nothing to gain and much to lose in a power-sharing agreement. Politicians could sign, but documents did not quell the ambition of nationalists intent on breaking the country apart, nor did they elevate the voice of moderates, committed to maintaining an integrated society.

Recriminations were thick between Bosniaks and Croats. Ever since the creation of the Federation, the relationship had been tense. Ambassador Daniel Serwer, with his international meetings of “Friends of the Federation,” had tried to increase international pressure by dangling twenty million dollars that the United States would spend in central Bosnia on projects jointly orchestrated by the recalcitrant parties. Meetings had been organized in Munich, St. Petersburg, and Vienna to bring together Federation politicians, with hopes that neutral ground would enhance the chance of cooperation.

My interlocutors in the Austrian government were lukewarm to the idea of involvement in the US effort, reflecting the growing disillusionment of outsiders toward the Balkan peace process. Moreover, unease toward all things Islamic was once again in the forefront when the Clinton administration pushed through a postwar “train and equip” program for the Federation. In particular, the participation of Turkey and Malaysia raised apprehensions. I responded to Austrian officials that if they and other Western states were not willing to help, they would share responsibility for growing Islamic influence in Europe. Still, even US support was withheld until Izetbegović replaced a deputy defense minister with close ties to Iran.

Eventually, half a billion dollars18 worth of training, equipment, and facilities was provided to the Federation to bring its forces up to NATO standards and correct the internal military imbalances that threatened to destabilize Bosnia. But European diplomats remained critical, noting that the program might alarm the Serb military, which might respond by refusing to comply with arms reduction provisions of the peace agreement. Despite those cautions, the European Union did attempt a more assertive unifying role in Mostar. That was, after all, the city that Bosnian Croat separatists imagined as the capital of the region they wanted to control, for which they created the name Herzeg Bosna and received the support of President Tuđman.

Before the war, Mostar comprised nearly equal proportions of all three ethnic groups. Then Serbs shelled the city from the east. After being defeated, Croats shelled Bosniaks from the west. The result was a city and governance structure largely in shambles. Despite Dayton’s assurances of unity, West Mostar was administered by Croats, with East Mostar left to Bosniaks.

Hans Koschnick, formerly mayor of Bremen, came to the city as EU administrator to try to unite the two sides. After pouring many deutschmarks into the community, those involved in the international effort could point to a small demilitarized protection zone, functioning primary schools, and a regular dialogue with the leadership of both Bosniak and Croat communities—but no real security for most residents.19 Koschnick himself was not safe; his hotel was attacked with explosives when he was unexpectedly away. Upping the ante, the German threatened to withdraw EU support from Mostar if local Croat authorities did not let citizens move freely and did not form a joint police force with the Bosniaks.

Despite great effort on the part of outsiders, no significant agreement on strengthening Mostar—the weak link in the Federation—was forthcoming. As late as February 1997, a piece by Anthony Lewis for the International Herald Tribune described the expulsion of thirty more Bosniak families from the city, as well as the firing on of Bosniaks visiting a cemetery.20 Hoodlums and organized crime figures dominated the western part of the town. East and West Mostar each now had its own mayor, its own license plates, its own politically sponsored radio station.

Thus, Mostar remained a symbol of division rather than a model of integration, raising questions about the viability of the Federation and, ultimately, a unified Bosnia.

79. INSIDE: New Bridges

More than a century earlier, the Hapsburg victory over the Ottomans had led to a massive Muslim exodus out of Bosnia. During this tumultuous time, an ethnic Serb in Mostar named Aleksa Šantić spoke out. In his poem “Stay Here” (“Ostajte Ovdje”), he begged Muslims not to leave, despite political repression, but to remain with their “brothers”:

The sun that shines in a foreign place

Will never warm you like the sun in your own—The bread has a bitter taste there

Where one has no one, not even a brother”21

Over the post-Ottoman decades, Mostar continued to be a hallmark of multiculturalism. One fundamental symbol was the revered Stari Most, the white limestone bridge whose beautiful arch reached across the Neretva River. Commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent and completed in 1566, the bridge once connected the Ottoman East and Christian West. Tradition has it that the builders used eggs instead of water in the mortar, to make the bridge stronger. Earthquakes, Ottoman-Hapsburg conflicts, and two world wars failed to bring it down. So its destruction by Croat guns on the sixty-fifth anniversary of the infamous Nazi Kristallnacht signified that ruin had triumphed, at least for the time. The bridge’s collapse was a crushing psychological blow to the town and to all who cherished a unified Bosnia.

Looking down on the stone remains, I crossed the river on a narrow steel structure. The temporary bridge was open to women, children, and elderly. No men between sixteen and sixty were allowed across. Even a visit to family and friends took courage.

I walked past long rows of buildings pounded with mortars. Little was left but exposed steel and broken concrete. I could imagine children as they once played in a now-gutted apartment. Only a bright red fire extinguisher remained—a cruel joke left by an evil genius.

Indeed, as political leaders quarreled and sulked, it was the children who seemed most mature. They didn’t distinguish between minor differences in vocabulary; laughter was their common language. The kids weren’t letting labels like “Serb,” “Muslim,” or “Croat” keep them from swims in the river and classes in the youth center on the dividing line between East and West Mostar. Rebuilt by the European Union, the center provided an oasis of calm in a devastated part of town.

I was the honored guest at the youth center one day, and television cameras followed me as I went from one room to another, looking at an exhibit of my own photographs of children. At the end of the visit, I sat down on a wide step and invited about thirty teenagers to sit with me, on the floor. They were in good spirits as they gathered into an impromptu audience. Dressed in jeans and T-shirts, the kids looked like they could easily have been from Dallas or Boston, yet they’d endured loss, uncertainty, and terror that few in my country have known.

“What do you think is the future of Mostar?” one asked, as if she were a reporter. The young people realized that Mostar was stuck in distrust. I thought, before answering, that civilization doesn’t inevitably move forward. The drive for destruction is born again with every generation. But, then, so is the impulse to hope.

“The future can only be you,” I answered, “because you’re the bridge. Like it or not, there’s nothing else. You’re the connection across East and West, past and future, chaos and clarity.”

80. OUTSIDE: Air Force One

President Clinton faced a dilemma. Although he believed in a strong US role in Bosnia, he had promised, when the troops went in, that their stay would be brief. As 1997 wore on, Balkan advocates became increasingly nervous about the troop pullout, slated for the middle of the following year. Granted, many Serb weapons had been destroyed, and four airports had opened to civilians. But Clinton knew that implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement was already a year behind schedule. With nationalists empowered by elections, foreign investment discouraged by corruption, and the judiciary and media limited by bias, a military withdrawal would risk disaster for the Bosnian people. That in turn could embarrass American politicians, who would have squandered the opportunity to stabilize postconflict Yugoslavia.

Various administration voices began a contrapuntal refrain. Clinton’s press secretary, repeating assurances that nothing was changing, asserted in the International Herald Tribune that the president was committed to the 30 June troop withdrawal date. “Administration officials made it clear… that [National Security Advisor] Berger was not setting new policy. Many in Congress would oppose such a change,” the reporter wrote.22 Yet on 24 September 1997, Berger began to mention publicly the possibility of NATO having “an extended stay” in Bosnia.

By December, the administration had shored up support for letting some of the troops stay. NATO’S defense ministers determined that they would probably leave twenty-four thousand of thirty-four thousand soldiers, and the US contribution would shrink only from eight thousand to six thousand.23 But there were disagreements within the organization. General Clark wanted a stronger civilian component to complement the next military deployment, whereas the French opposed further NATO involvement altogether. Elizabeth Neuffer reported that “rather than address these questions… NATO may opt to keep troops in Bosnia indefinitely under current rules of engagement.”24

The time seemed right for a presidential visit to highlight the importance of the US troops’ presence in Bosnia. I had left Vienna a few weeks earlier, to take up a new position at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The president invited Charles and me to fly to Bosnia with him. On 22 December, we gathered at Andrews Air Force Base. Our group included General Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, a congressional delegation, and Bob Dole, whom Clinton had just defeated in the 1996 presidential election.

On board the cargo plane to Eagle Base outside Tuzla to show US resolve in Bosnia, President Clinton confers with General Wes Clark, supreme allied commander Europe (NATO); and General Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The twenty-four-hour visit was a study in contrasts between tense hours with stubborn politicians and warm encounters with their constituents. The president, as was his custom, set out to talk with whomever he found, including people in a café near the theater. “Make us your fifty-first state,” one man suggested with a smile. Clinton left, enthusiastic about his considerable political investment in the tiny Balkan state.

That warm reception was mirrored in a meeting I attended with the first lady.25 Hillary Rodham Clinton sat in a small room, surrounded by eight women. One by one, the civil society representatives introduced themselves, describing how they were rebuilding their country.

We gathered at the National Theater to hear the Sarajevo Philharmonic—for President Clinton, respite from the tedium of hard-liner recalcitrance. The front row includes Clinton’s chief of staff, Erskine Bowles; the Clinton family; Secretary Madeleine Albright; Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović; Federation President Zubac; and Mustafa Čerić, the reis ul-ulema.

The different parts of the Clinton delegation met up later at the National Theater. As principal guest conductor, Charles was directing the Sarajevo Philharmonic for the president’s visit. The crowd waited for more than an hour for President Clinton to arrive so that the concert could begin. Finally, Charles decided to proceed, if only to help time pass for the high-level audience. The stage was decorated with red, white, and blue flower arrangements, against a backdrop reading “Sarajevo,” with flame-like letters in orange and yellow. Walking out from the wings, Charles passed a thought-provoking sign: “No weapons on stage.”

As the orchestra stalled, the president tried unsuccessfully to resolve a stalemate among the trio of Bosnian co-presidents. True to their modus operandi of the past year, the three were stuck. One was intent that the western half of Bosnia be annexed to Croatia; another was determined that the eastern half be annexed to Serbia. Their intentions pointed in opposite directions. Even Clinton could not spin this straw into gold.

When the president finally entered, the formal portion of the event began. After the brief concert, the president walked to the stage. Putting the onus of rebuilding and reconciling on Bosnians, Clinton told them: “The world, which continues to invest in your peace, rightfully expects you will work for it.”26 In such work they were not alone; America, too, faced the challenges of reaching across differences. In June, he had launched an initiative calling for a national conversation on the sensitive and volatile issue of race relations in the United States. Now, he told the audience, 180 racial and ethnic groups in America were in dialogue and finding strength in diversity. The war, he said, had done violence not only to the Bosnian people but also to the Bosnian history of tolerance.

President Clinton was always at his best with a crowd, this time US soldiers sent in early December 1995 to stabilize the fragile Bosnian peace.

Later, I found the president and the congressmen from our delegation shaking their heads in frustration at the meeting with the three obdurate politicians. Senator John Kasich said to the president: “I wonder if we’re talking to the right people. Maybe we ought to be going through the neighborhoods with a megaphone on a pickup truck.” Clinton turned and put his arm around my shoulders. “That’s what she does,” he responded. I was grateful for that awareness, at the highest level, of the importance of voices from the ground.

From Sarajevo, we flew to Eagle Base. The American troops had crowded into a large hall to be addressed by their commander in chief, along with Korean War veteran Bob Dole, for whom many had just cast their vote. Dole had accepted Clinton’s request that he chair the International Commission on Missing Persons, many of whom were victims of massacres. Fittingly, the meeting hall was near the Tuzla tarmac, to which the Srebrenica survivors had been bused.

As the soldiers were gathering, a press conference in a side location was being led by Albright and Berger. International reporters waiting for a take on the day’s events had little spark in their eyes. It was, after all, two days before Christmas; and while the president’s visit was timed to encourage the troops, Berger and Albright’s report to the journalists was wearying. Berger spoke first and had nothing good to say about President Clinton’s meeting with the heads of state or about Bosnia’s prospects. When Secretary Albright went to the podium, Berger came over to the side, where I stood watching. “Tell them about the meeting Hillary had with the women,” I whispered. “It was fabulous.” He looked at me indulgently. Albright finished her remarks. Berger went back up to the mike, asked for a few questions, and closed the press conference.

I wondered about Sandy Berger’s passing up a full description of the day, and a more hopeful one at that. Then I recalled the 1994 Federation negotiations in our embassy, when no women had appeared on the negotiating teams among the dozens of lawyers, experts, and political leaders, even though Yugoslavia had the largest percentage of women Ph.D.s of any country in Europe. Similarly, women were only one out of nine of the new Constitutional Court judges, while they constituted 80 percent of lower-level judges. Women had their fingers on the pulse of their communities, yet they became invisible when it came to negotiations, constitutions—or press conferences.

Later that night on Air Force One, the president and I reviewed the day. I told him about the discrepancy I had observed between the Bosnian politicians and civil society leaders. “We’ve got to find a way to have more grass-roots input into our foreign policy,” he responded, with urgency.

Such an aspiration seemed as hopeful but far-fetched as the notion of Slobodan Milošević in custody in The Hague. Yet the months and years would bring many surprises—some tragic and some promising. The tragic would create flurries of action that drove our policies in directions we had not anticipated. The promising would give us energy to keep moving forward. All of this push and pull would test our fidelity in building bridges between worlds disconnected but part of the same grand reality.

Still, we had to keep at it; the stability of our future was in the balance. Those of us on the plane touching down at Andrews Air Force Base would not be in the center of the policy establishment forever. It would be a shame if the lessons of Bosnia were lost as we left.

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