Bosnian War – Twenty Years Later

Bosnian War – Twenty Years Later

The Bosnian peace accord negotiated in Dayton, Ohio is twenty years old. It is not a perfect peace but it is certainly the absence of warfare. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look – and wonders if there isn’t something in that for another conflict zone in the news right now.

Back when the Soviet empire bestrode Eastern Europe, one nation in that region stood out for its unique stance (unless one insists that tiny, quirky Albania also had its independent ways as a firm ally of China in place of the USSR). Yes, Yugoslavia had a state socialist-style economy, and a tightly restrictive political system, but it also maintained a thoroughly independent international position, led by a leader who was redoubtable World War II anti-Nazi, guerilla warfare hero, Josip Broz Tito.

Yugoslavia itself was a creation of the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles. The settlement had merged Serbia (one of the victorious Allies) and Montenegro, along with the by-then-collapsed Austro-Hungarian Empire’s predominately South Slav territories, including Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The latter territory had actually only been added to Austria-Hungary officially in 1908, although it had been administered by that nation since 1878, as the Ottoman Empire was increasingly driven from its possessions in the Balkans by the resurgent Serbs. Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, was, of course, where Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on 28 June 1914, the event that precipitated the outbreak of the First World War – a war that became the death knell for the German, Austrian, Russian and Turkish empires.

Tito died in 1980, but national pride and the fading afterglow of his stewardship lasted through much of the 80s, abetted by national pride in Sarajevo’s successful hosting of the 1984 Winter Olympics. Nonetheless, in the years following Tito’s death, and most especially as Soviet authority in the eastern Europe evaporated, by 1991, the very idea of a united Yugoslavia faded into a series of separatist movements, and increasingly bitter, increasingly savage wars, first triggered by fighting in Kosovo between Serbs and ethnic Albanians.

While Slovenia broke its ties to Yugoslavia in a relatively bloodless manner, Croatia’s war was a nastier proposition. This was fuelled, in part, by memories of a bitter German occupation of Yugoslavia during the Second World War when Croatia and Bosnia were ruled by the Nazi-aligned Croatian Ustashi regime. Still, the Bosnian war was the worst of all the fighting as it became a combination of civil war and an attempt to break away from what by then had become a rump Yugoslavia. Bosnia’s population was divided ethnically into Croatians, Serbs and Bosniaks, with the latter Muslim, while the Croatians were Catholic and the Serbs were Greek Orthodox.

Of course, depending on who one read or talked with, the three peoples were effectively the same, save for their divisions by religion and historical memories of grievance – and the split between the Serbs and the others via their use of Cyrillic or Roman alphabets. In the end, this very closeness of the populations seems to have been what made the fighting so savage. Moreover, while there were definably Croatian, Bosniak and Serb areas in Bosnia, albeit leopard skin-like on the map, the populations were also significantly intertwined and many families – especially in the cities and bigger towns – were not so easily divided into distinctive either/or populations.

As a result, as the fighting erupted over Bosniak and Croat efforts to break away from Yugoslavia and for the Serbs, aided substantially by the regular Serbian army, to keep Bosnia from breaking away grew in intensity, Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo endured over four years of a siege (officially from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996). The siege led to the death of nearly 14,000 people and international television coverage and other media reporting documented years of artillery firing directly into the city. This made the daily quotidian acts of finding food, shelter, water and heating fuel a life threatening activity for the city’s residents. Numerous heritage buildings, including a library with priceless historic and antique documents, were largely destroyed during the siege.

But the worst excesses came from Srebrenica – and, like the siege of Sarajevo, became an international emblem of the Bosnian war when it became the site in July 1995 for the massacre of some 5,000 Bosniaks by local Serb forces. This occurred after it had become clear UN observer mission troops from the Netherlands had been unable to prevent the roundup of civilians, thus leading to their butchery by Serb irregular troops. These killings were eventually ruled to have been an act of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

But by 1995 as well, however, the combined effects of the costs of combat for all involved, the growing international isolation of Serbia, and the Nato air raids on Serb forces, were all driving the Serbs to the conference table. After years of bloodletting and destruction, the protagonists seemed ready to contemplate the possibilities of peace. Under the relentless pummelling of a US negotiator, the veteran diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, in an isolated venue on the grounds of Wright-Patterson Airforce Base in Dayton, Ohio, largely out of sight of the international media, the leaders of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia eventually agreed to a settlement that divided Bosnia into two halves – a Croat, Bosniak confederation of just over 50% of the territory, and a separate Serb region for the rest of the territory – but also preserved Bosnia as a single country. As far as the status of capital was concerned, Sarajevo became a unified city, with the Serbs relinquishing some of the surrounding suburbs that they had continued to control throughout the fighting. After all the negotiating, the deal was signed in Paris on 14 December 1995, in the presence of various European heads of state, the US president, and international organisation heads.

Expressing Serbia’s exhaustion from the draining combat, its leader, Slobodan Milosevic, said his nation had been an outcast for too long, adding that “As to the implementation of the peace agreement and the role of the international peace force, the key of the success of its mission is even-handedness, just as partiality is the key of failure.” Meanwhile, Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman spoke of his aim for closer ties between his people and the European Union. But Bosnia’s leader, Alija Izetbegovic, referring to his dream of a multi-ethnic Bosnia and the less than full loaf that the agreement seemed to foretell, said he felt he was “drinking a bitter but useful medicine”.

The deal ended a conflict in which some 200,000 people may have perished and which had become the worst conflict waged in Europe since the end of World War II. Moreover, several million people were left homeless by the end of the fighting, in part by virtue of “ethnic cleansing” operations and because so many other Bosnians fled their country rather than end up overwhelmed by the fighting in their nation.

At the signing ceremony, then-President Bill Clinton had said, “No one outside can guarantee that Muslims, Croats and Serbs in Bosnia can come together and stay together as free citizens in a united country sharing a common destiny…. Only the Bosnian people can do that.”

Although the accord was finally signed formally in Paris on 14 December, this past week, 20th anniversary commemorations took place during 19-20 November at the University of Dayton, with former president Bill Clinton as the keynote speaker. At that event, Clinton said, “We should celebrate what happened 20 years ago. We should give our gratitude to everyone in their last 20 years who could have derailed it and who didn’t and we should say we’re going to finish the job.”

Meanwhile, “The negotiation of the accords in the Dayton region back in 1995 was an historic achievement for the countries involved,” said Matt Joseph, Dayton city commissioner and committee co-chair. “In Dayton, we also count it as a great moment in our history. The 20th anniversary is an opportunity to look back at what happened here and to discuss its ongoing effects on Bosnia and Herzegovina, the region and the world.”

Dayton became well-known for the Bosnian peace negotiations, of course. However, the city probably still remains best known as the birthplace and workshop site for Orville and Wilbur Wright. These two brothers were manufacturers and sellers of bicycles – and they just incidentally happened to be the men who first flew an airplane of their own design in powered flight over the windswept sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on 17 December 1903, thereby heralding the beginning of the age of air flight.

While the Dayton Accords ended the fighting and brought about a federalised constitution for a war-ravaged Bosnia, it did not fully bring about a peaceable, united nation. Most observers note, sadly, that political, social, economic integration remains largely stalled. Investment – especially Foreign Direct Investment – also remains largely absent in the “new” Bosnia.

In this less optimistic vein, Muhamed Sacirbey, Bosnia’s former foreign minister and its ambassador to the United Nations (and a man educated and raised in America), recently wrote, “Two decades after the Dayton Accords, the question is not about what happened during the three weeks of negotiations, but why is Bosnia & Herzegovina (‘BiH’) still defined by and stuck in that period and the conflict that it ended. The Dayton Accords were envisioned as transitional not only in ending the war and its suffering, a most urgent and worthy goal, but also in opening the road for BiH to join its European neighbours in Euro-Atlantic institutions and thus advance economically and politically.

Unfortunately, that road forward not only has not been advanced, but there are now some who employ the Dayton Accords as authority to retard the progress of BiH forward. Such backward-looking political leaders cling to nationalism, chauvinism and fear as a means to undermine the very objectives of the initial peace agreement achieved in Dayton now 20 years earlier. If not constructively utilized to move BiH forward, then the Dayton Accords cannot be a refuge for those living in the past. Initially it was labelled as the “Dayton/Paris Accords” or even “Paris/Dayton Accords” as the French insisted to assume some credit for the presumed achievement, but as the years have passed, progress proven illusory and the EU lacking the will to move BiH integration forward, “Paris” has been conspicuously dropped in official communiques.

The more that the conflict was described as ethnic or religious, the greater accolades presumably would be bestowed upon such self-proclaimed peacemakers. Of course, this narrative also besmirched the reputation of the peoples and citizens of BiH, and ignored a history of rich diversity and its cultural, artistic and economic achievements. Rather “age-old hatreds” became the rationalisation not only for the war, but also the foundation for the Dayton Accords. The narrative of an ethnic/religious war may have been consistent with that of some of the participants in BiH. However, it is notable that President Slobodan Milosevic (of neighboring Serbia & Montenegro) was designated as representative of all the “Serbs” of BiH. President Franjo Tudjman (of Croatia) was presumed to speak on behalf of all ‘Croats’ in BiH. There was an effort thus to project the BiH government in Sarajevo as representing only the interests of Bosniaks, (Bosnian Muslims.) It was easy to fall into this both diplomatic and ethical trap.”

Sacirbey went on to say, “In the immediate years after the Dayton Accords, optimism and a sense of the state coming together for benefit of all citizens was higher than it is today. The Dayton Accords bear some of the blame for looking backwards, but others build upon the illusion of division as progress. As history has evidenced, the erecting of walls is more akin to building a prison. BiH needs a fresh look beyond to fully see and realize its future as full member of the Euro-Atlantic family and globally sought after partner.”

And travel writer, Cara Eckholm, writing some six months ago in the Explorers Journal for National Geographic, observed the degradation of the capital of Sarajevo’s formerly cosmopolitan character by the war, as historic buildings became artillery targets. She noted the current unease of many of its non-Bosniak inhabitants who say they feel increasingly out of place in an increasingly Muslim city.

Or, as Eckholm wrote, “Serbian Orthodox parishioners line up to kiss the cross during Sunday mass at the Nativity of Theotokos – Mother of God Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina on October 12, 2014. Many said they feel unwelcome in post-war Sarajevo and were either too old or too poor to move to the Republika Srpska [the Serb half of Bosnia].” Nevertheless, she noted, “But for all that, many citizens remain devoted to a unified country. Mustafa Bu?an, 64, a retired driver who was kibitzing at the chess game, commented that ‘the amazing thing about Sarajevo’ is the continuing close proximity of different religious institutions. Though an Orthodox church borders that square, within a moment’s walk I also found a mosque, a Catholic church and a synagogue.”

One amazing fact that has been infrequently remembered about the Dayton Accord is that on 13 February 2008, the head of the Presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina announced that the original Dayton Agreement had been lost from the Presidency’s archive. High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina Miroslav Laj?ak said about this ill omen, “I don’t know whether the news is sad or funny.” Nearly a year later, the French Foreign Ministry delivered the certified copy of the Dayton agreement to the French embassy in Sarajevo, a copy that was later transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Was this a foreboding that the job was still partially undone and that vital elements remained missing?

But then, in watching the most current terrifying newscasts about the conflict in Syria, a stray thought comes to mind, drawing on Bosnia’s own war and its eventual winding down by virtue of the Dayton Accord. All wars end eventually, of course. They usually end in one of two ways: when one side obliterates the other, or when everyone in it has simply become too exhausted to continue any longer. When the latter circumstance occurs, as it did with Bosnia, then it becomes the time for a tough as nails mediator like Richard Holbrooke to step up to the plate. And so this thought continues, can such a thing eventually happen for Syria? What can be done to hasten that moment along and is there something the West and other nations can do to achieve such a moment – to move the preliminary discussions that have recently taken place in Vienna to something more? In the weeks and months ahead, those questions – and the Bosnian experience – should be interrogated more fully – and maybe even answered for an increasingly desperate Syria. DM

Photo: A worker repairs a war-shattered building at the former front line between two Bosnian entities in Sarajevo’s suburb of Dobrinja November 20, 2000. (Reuters)


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