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The New Sarajevo

On the afternoon of December 31, 1992, I stepped out of a United Nations armored personnel carrier into the thin, pale light of a bitter winter day in Sarajevo. Gunfire and the occasional artillery or mortar round were audible throughout the city, and a cold wind cut through my flak jacket. The first human beings I noticed among the wrecked buildings and overturned cars were some young children searching listlessly through a garbage dump for anything—twigs, wood, paper—that could be used to make a fire. In the besieged city, people had already burned up much of their furniture and most of their books trying to keep warm in unheated, windowless apartments.

I was traveling on behalf of the International Rescue Committee and Refugees International, two of the world's leading private relief organizations, to learn more about Bosnia, which had been torn apart, from the moment it declared its independence from Yugoslavia, by the worst fighting Europe had seen since World War II. Our personnel carrier had been stopped repeatedly by heavily armed Bosnian Serbs, some already dangerously drunk in anticipation of the evening's New Year's parties. Only weeks earlier, I later learned, several people traveling the same route had been killed by angry Serbs.

Huddled inside the UN vehicle, I could not help thinking of a very different visit I had made to Sarajevo 32 years before, when, hitchhiking across Europe with a friend, I stopped in Yugoslavia to see the place where, as every student had been taught, World War I began. It was here, on a street in the center of the city, that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated, an event that started us on the path to two world wars, the Cold War, millions of deaths, and the nearly complete transformation of Europe.

This is the story of those two trips—and a few others they inspired—to the city where, as the 20th century neared its end, Europeans embarked on another senseless killing spree. I could never have imagined that my brief trip as a teenager would echo in my life the way it did when, in 1995, I became the chief American negotiator for the Balkans. But such is one of the intangible values—and pleasures—of travel, especially when you are young and most open to the unexpected, the unplanned, the impact of first impressions.

The wars that led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia were the most dramatic negative consequence of the end of the Cold War. As the rest of the world celebrated the freedom that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia—a federal state that included Bosnia, Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Kosovo, and several other regions—rediscovered its ethnic roots. Under the demagogic and even criminal leadership of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbs launched four brutal wars between 1991 and 1999 against the rest of Yugoslavia, losing each one. Today, five countries exist where there was once only one, and Yugoslavia's very name has disappeared from the map.

As it turned out, what happened in the former Yugoslavia was only a foretaste of the post-Cold War chaos that was to come elsewhere. Other conflicts, often buried under the rigid divisions of the Cold War, emerged, some violently. They included Chechnya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Congo, and, notably, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Though the particulars of their histories are distinct, Iraq and Yugoslavia have surprisingly similar historical roots. Both countries were created—one could well say invented—by peacemakers right after World War I. And in both places, several different, often hostile, ethnic groups were forced to live together inside internationally determined boundaries that had been drawn with insufficient regard to existing allegiances and rivalries.

In 1991, the pressure of ethnic separatism led to the collapse of a centralized Yugoslavian authority. But in Iraq, Saddam Hussein crushed every uprising or hint of one, even using poison gas against his own people, while the world looked the other way. In the end, the Serbian people, after losing the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, overthrew Milosevic in the fall of 2000. Saddam, more brutally effective than Milosevic in suppressing rebellions, would be removed from power only by an American invasion.

If the breakup of Yugoslavia was ultimately acceptable to, and negotiated by, the outside world, the international consensus in regard to Iraq has been to keep the country together, despite the fact that it is composed of at least three distinct ethnic or religious groups.Today, these two countries face different but related problems: in Yugoslavia, building several viable smaller states out of the debris; in Iraq, creating a functioning central government in a country previously held together by force and now extremely chaotic.

When I first saw it in 1960, Sarajevo seemed both exotic and peaceful. It was even beautiful, as I recall, a city ringed by hills, hills in which, though I could not know it then, I would experience the most tragic moment of my professional life. There were dozens of mosques, and churches both Catholic and Orthodox. The guidebooks—written to conform with the prevailing Communist ideology—emphasized that in Yugoslavia the many ethnic and religious groups (Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Bosnians, Macedonians, Kosovar Albanians, Montenegrins, Hungarians, Jews) all lived harmoniously in a socialist paradise.

Americans at that time celebrated Marshal Tito's courage in standing up to Stalin and the Soviet Union, and cut him enormous slack because he had broken with Moscow. The United States even gave Yugoslavia military aid—there were strategic advantages to backing Tito. Still, he ran a tightly controlled Communist dictatorship.


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