Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sixteen years ago today I left on a diplomatic voyage into hatred. I was headed to postwar Sarajevo, to be part of (so I thought) a diplomatic team trying to implement the newly signed Dayton Peace Accords. As often happens on short term postings, I came away with far more than I brought.
I had never thought much about hatred. Most Americans rarely encounter it. Now I regard hatred as an essential part of understanding foreign policy. It's hard to find good writing on it. Diplomatic texts are full of "constructive talks," and "dialogues based on partnerships."  Writers seem almost embarrassed to acknowledge this raw, least-understood emotion. 
As a society, we Americans are no strangers to violence. But much of it is random, from madmen with easy access to guns. After a shooting atrocity, all corners of American society unite to condemn the act. Not so with ethnic cleansing, which left entire villages of houses and barns systematically burned, hamlet by hamlet. This occured not in Asia; not in Africa. Not in Europe of 1944-45, but in Europe of the 1990s. Sarajevo.
I saw the results of ethnic cleansing first hand because, in that heavy winter of 1997, I could not get to my destination because of illegal roadblocks. I landed in Zagreb and then traveled overland, like most international staff going in and out of Sarajevo, in lightly-armored vehicles. The airport had never been an option, with its Swiss cheese-shelled runways that were years away from being serviceable. The overland route gave me a chance to see close-up what it looked like when a countryside had been emptied. At the time, some 4 million Bosnians and others from former Yugoslavia had fled to other parts of Europe. Empty villages were devoid of farm animals. The leafless trees of early January added to the lifeless feel. 
Even in downtown Sarajevo, local people were hard to find, overwhelmed as much by the many international security forces, rebuilders, and aid workers as by the heavy winter. Cars were scarce and all the trams had been blown up, so I walked nearly everywhere. As I ventured beyond the international corridor I began encountering people surviving in the ruins of Sniper Alley for another winter without heat, but smouldering in the knowledge of all they had lost.
Carl Bildt was in charge, and the U.S. enthusiastically endorsed Europe's effort to create a parliamentarian form of government. I joined Western diplomats in liaising with Bosnian MPs, booking them for trips to the U.S. to meet colleagues, and helping groups of visiting European Union parliamentarians connect during brief visits. Creating a parliament meant re-creating journalism as a means of carrying news of the parliament to the electorate, and herein I learned firsthand what hatred meant.
Joined by international colleagues, I met with some of the reporters who had worked in the newspaper building seen above, a much-reproduced iconic image of the toll of war in Sarajevo. Our mission was to bring Serb, Croat, and Bosniak reporters together to report on what we hoped would be an equally integrated parliament. Soros and other foundations had provided plenty of money.
"If a Serb comes here I will kill him," said one Croat television journalist. Her colleagues nodded grimly. No amount of international blandishments, trips to Vienna, Denmark, or Washington, would entice our colleagues to broaden their views.
We traveled to Pale, where our Bosnian staff would only accompany us on condition that we would never separate from them -- not even a meter. We traveled to Tuzla and to Banja Luka, and everywhere we heard the same resolute rejection. We let our E.U. colleagues speak of a brighter future for Bosnia, not excluding the possibility of E.U. membership, and we didn't have to wait for the translation to see how flat those offers fell.  
On the long drives back to Sarajevo, the grim words were reinforced by the empty villages we drove through. We returned utterly exhausted -- and defeated -- by the power of hatred. No amount of U.N., E.U., U.S., or "Western diplomacy" would influence people who could no longer hear anything but the reverberations of four long years of shelling.
Years later, I followed debates about the South African truth commission, a similar one in El Salvador, and many other permutations in other countries. What combination of exhaustion, goodwill, and positive outlook does it take for war-torn people to gamble on reconciliation? 
Each country finds its own answer in its own time. But it sure wasn't there that long winter of 1997 in Sarajevo.

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