Sarajevo: A Story About Past and Present

On the afternoon of December 31, 1992, I stepped from a United Nations armored personnel carrier to the thin, soft light of a bitter winter day in Sarajevo.

Gunfire as well as the occasional artillery or mortar round were perceptible through the city, as well as a chilly wind cut through my flak jacket.

The primary human beings I found among the wrecked buildings and overturned automobiles were some young kids seeking listlessly via a garbage dump for anything—twigs, wood, paper—that could be used to make a fire.

In the besieged city, folks had already burned up much of the furniture and the majority of the publications attempting to keep warm in unheated, windowless flats.

I had been traveling for the International Rescue Committee and Refugees International, two of the world’s top private aid organizations, for more information about Bosnia, which were torn apart, in the minute it declared its independence from Yugoslavia, by the worst fighting Europe had seen since the Second World War. Our personnel carrier was stopped repeatedly by heavily armed Bosnian Serbs, some already alarmingly intoxicated in expectation of the evening’s New Year’s celebrations.

Only weeks before, I afterwards learned, several folks traveling the exact same path was killed by angry Serbs.

Huddled inside the UN vehicle, I couldn’t really help thinking of an extremely distinct visit I’d made to Sarajevo 32 years before, when, hitchhiking across Europe using a buddy, I quit in Yugoslavia to see the spot where, as every pupil was instructed, World War I started.

It was here, on a road in the middle of town, that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated, an occasion that started us on the road to two world wars, the Cold War, numerous departures, as well as the almost complete transformation of Europe.

I really could not have envisioned that my short excursion as a teen would repeat within my life just how it did when, in 1995, I became the chief American negotiator for the Balkans. But such is among the intangible worth—and joy—of traveling, particularly when you’re young and most open to the unexpected, the unplanned, the impact of first impressions.

The wars that resulted in the disintegration of Yugoslavia were the most striking negative impact of the finish of the Cold War. As the remaining world observed the independence that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia—a national state that contained Bosnia, Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Kosovo, and several other areas—rediscovered its ethnic origins.

Underneath the demagogic as well as criminal direction of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbs started four savage wars between 1991 and 1999 against the remainder of Yugoslavia, losing each one. Now, five states exist where there was once only one, and Yugoslavia’s very name has vanished in the map.

As it turned out, what occurred in the former Yugoslavia was merely a foretaste of the post-Cold War madness that has been to come elsewhere. Other battles, frequently entombed underneath the rigid sections of the Cold War, came forth, some violently.

Although particulars of the histories are distinct, Iraq and Yugoslavia have astonishingly similar historical origins. Both states were created—one could well say devised—by peacemakers right after World War I.

And in both areas, several distinct, often hostile, ethnic groups were compelled to dwell together inside globally driven borders that was drawn with inadequate respect to present allegiances and competitions.

In 1991, the pressure of ethnic separatism generated the failure of a central Yugoslavian authority.

Saddam, more viciously powerful than Milosevic in suppressing rebellions, would be taken out from power just by an American invasion.

If the break up of Yugoslavia was finally satisfactory to, and negotiated by, the external world, the global consensus in regard to Iraq continues to be to keep the nation together, regardless of the fact it’s composed of at least three different ethnic or religious groups.

Now, both of these nations face distinct but related issues: in Yugoslavia, constructing several feasible smaller states from the debris; in Iraq, developing a functioning central government in a state formerly held together by force and today incredibly disorderly.

After I first saw it in 1960, Sarajevo looked both exotic and peaceful. It was even wonderful, as I remember, a city ringed by hills, hills in which, though I Can’t understand it then, I’d experience the most terrible moment of my own professional life.

There were tons of mosques, and churches both Catholic and Orthodox.

Americans at that time celebrated Marshal Tito’s bravery in standing up to Stalin as well as the Soviet Union, and cut him tremendous slack because he’d broken with Moscow.

America even gave Yugoslavia military aid—there were tactical edges to backing Tito. However, he ran a closely managed Communist dictatorship.

It made a deep impression on me to see, for the very first time within my entire life, blue-faced guys in Communist military uniforms.

Above cement footprints indicating those of Princip was a plaque in Serbocroatian, and as I put my feet to the prints, a self appointed guide appeared and offered to interpret. “Here, on June 28, 1914,” he read (or so I remember), “Gavrilo Princip hit the very first blow for Serbian independence.”

I still recall my surprise. How could the place where Europe started its long descent into hell be celebrated because of its contribution to Serbian “independence”?

How about the horrible effects of Princip’s action? And what was this about “Serbia”?It did not exist as a completely independent state. Furthermore, Sarajevo had not been even in Serbia; it was in Bosnia.

I am able to see now the plaque in Sarajevo was only a reflection of the extreme nationalism that, considering that the ending of the Cold War, has seized hold of much of the planet, and that’s only one of the inherent reasons for terrorism. We realize this now.

But such problems were scarcely examined, much less comprehended, in 1960.

However, the memory of that “small black plaque,” as West described it, remained with me. as soon as I returned to Sarajevo in 1992, I promptly ran into John Burns, an old pal as well as a renowned war correspondent in the New York Times.

There have been amazing girls and depressed guys and plum brandy and clouds of cigarette smoke and also the Rolling Stones—all in a wretched shell-pocked ruin of a club called, with literal precision, the Hole in the Wall.

“Hopeless,” he said having a laugh. The Bosnian Muslims had ruined them—along with the plaque—as soon as the war began. But it was clear the spirit behind their inscription have been restored—murderously thus.

I’d just get to be the chief negotiator for America in a last ditch attempt to halt the war in Bosnia, which had already killed nearly 300,000 people and left more than 2 million homeless.

As the Sarajevo airport was under continuous assault, our little negotiating team was made to make an effort to make it to the city by driving a narrow, twisting path on the mountains.

A tiny segment of the road went via a place controlled by Bosnian Serb snipers. As we rounded a corner high on the mountain, the 2nd vehicle went within the right or left side of the road and bounced down an incredibly steep ravine, killing all three of our co-workers.

It was terrible—not an everyday road injury, but an injury of war—a direct consequence of the extreme dangers the Serbs had compelled us to take in order to carry out our mission of peace.

The peace treaty reached in Dayton on November 21, 1995, while far from perfect, triumphed in its main goals: stopping the war and making a postwar construction for an independent and sovereign Bosnia. That state exists now.

Maybe a million refugees have returned to Bosnia, increasingly more of these to places where they’ve been in the minority (a crucial variable in deciding what the long run will hold).

I’ve been back several times and walked the now peaceful roads with Bosnian buddies.

Obviously, Sarajevo just isn’t standard—not yet, anyhow—and the city I saw in 1960 is gone forever. An excessive amount of damage was done, not only to its physical fabric but in addition to its historical, multiethnic soul.

Neither, nevertheless, is it the murderous hellhole whose near-death throes fascinated the world just eight years past.

It’s difficult to mention what Sarajevo will appear to be in another decade. Much depends on locating a postwar leaders that may set aside ethnic politics and produce a common economic future for the Balkans.

In the event the West fails to conclude the job it started in the Balkans, the scenario might still unravel. To draw these troops out now, as some in Washington want, would also send the erroneous signal to all those viewing America in Afghanistan and Iraq. But whatever occurs, the footsteps of Gavrilo Princip—and the world whose ending they indicated—will never return.

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