The New Sarajevo

The New Sarajevo

Retracing his steps from his first visit to Sarajevo, in 1960, to the present, Richard Holbrooke maps the city's checkered history—and the birth of our new world order

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.


It made a deep impression on me to see, for the first time in my life, grim-faced men in Communist military uniforms. But this was not as memorable as our visit to the exact spot where Gavrilo Princip had stepped forward and gunned down the archduke in 1914. Above cement footprints suggesting those of Princip was a plaque in Serbo-Croatian, and as I placed my feet into the prints, a self-appointed guide appeared and offered to translate. "Here, on June 28, 1914," he read (or so I recall), "Gavrilo Princip struck the first blow for Serbian liberty." (In her famous travel book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West records the exact words as follows: "Here, in this historical place, Gavrilo Princip was the initiator of liberty, on the day of St. Vitus, the 28th of June, 1914.")

I still remember my surprise. How could the spot where Europe began its long descent into hell be celebrated for its contribution to Serbian "liberty"?What about the terrible consequences of Princip's act?And what was this about "Serbia"?It did not even exist as an independent country. It was part of Yugoslavia. Besides, Sarajevo was not even in Serbia; it was in Bosnia.

I can see now that the plaque in Sarajevo was simply a manifestation of the extreme nationalism that, since the end of the Cold War, has seized hold of much of the world, and that is one of the underlying causes of terrorism. We know this now. But such issues were barely studied, much less understood, in 1960.

Still, the memory of that "modest black plaque," as West described it, stayed with me. When I returned to Sarajevo in 1992, I immediately ran into John Burns, an old friend and a legendary war correspondent at the New York Times. He invited me to come with him to a New Year's Eve party: "You'll see something right out of Dante's Inferno." I went along, and he turned out to be right. There were beautiful women and sad men and plum brandy and clouds of cigarette smoke and the Rolling Stones—all in a miserable shell-pocked ruin of a nightclub called, with literal precision, the Hole in the Wall. But before we went out, I asked him to take me back to those footsteps in the cement. "Impossible," he said with a laugh. The Bosnian Muslims had destroyed them—along with the plaque—as soon as the war started. But it was clear that the spirit behind their inscription had been revived—murderously so.

On August 19, 1995, I made my third visit to Sarajevo—the nightmare trip. I had just become the chief negotiator for the United States in a last-ditch effort to stop the war in Bosnia, which had already killed almost 300,000 people and left more than 2 million homeless. As the Sarajevo airport was under constant attack, our small negotiating team was forced to try to reach the city by driving a narrow, winding route over the mountains. A small section of the road went through an area controlled by Bosnian Serb snipers. I was traveling in a military Humvee with General Wesley Clark, my military adviser; the other three members of our negotiating team followed in an armored personnel carrier that belonged to the French. As we rounded a corner high on the mountain, the second vehicle went over the side of the road and bounced down a very steep ravine, killing all three of our colleagues. It was horrible—not an ordinary road accident, but an accident of war—a direct result of the extreme risks the Serbs had forced us to take in order to carry out our mission of peace. I did not sleep that night, and the next morning, as General Clark and I began the sad journey back to Washington to bury our comrades at Arlington National Cemetery, we vowed that we would return and dedicate the rest of our mission to the memory of our fallen friends: Robert Frasure, Joseph Kruzel, and Nelson Drew—three brave public servants who knowingly put themselves in harm's way in the service of their country.

Subsequent trips were a blur of intense negotiations: first, to lift the siege of Sarajevo, which we achieved in mid-September of 1995, as American and NATO aircraft bombed the Bosnian Serbs; second, to reopen the gas and electricity lines into the city (on October 11, when the first bursts of gas began to flow and the lights flickered on again, there was wild shooting all over the city—but in celebration); third, to bring the leaders of the region to Dayton, Ohio, in November, and to keep them there until a final agreement could be hammered out.

The peace accord reached in Dayton on November 21, 1995, while far from perfect, succeeded in its primary objectives: ending the war and creating a postwar structure for an independent and sovereign Bosnia. That country exists today. Perhaps a million refugees have returned to Bosnia, more and more of them to areas where they are in the minority (a key factor in determining what the future will hold). Commerce between the once warring factions has resumed, although the power of criminal gangs in the Balkans still chokes off much economic opportunity and impedes political progress.

I have been back several times and walked the now peaceful streets with Bosnian friends. In a city where every window was broken, there are glass-fronted Internet cafés and new buildings everywhere. Of course, Sarajevo is not normal—not yet, anyway—and the city I saw in 1960 is gone forever. Too much damage was done, not simply to its physical fabric but also to its ancient, multiethnic soul. Neither, however, is it the murderous hellhole whose near-death throes gripped the world only eight years ago. It is hard to say what Sarajevo will look like in another decade. Much depends on finding a postwar leadership that can set aside ethnic politics and create a common economic future for the Balkans. Much also depends on the continued involvement and interest of the outside world, of Washington and Europe, even as people focus more on Baghdad or Kabul. If the West fails to finish the job it began in the Balkans, the situation might still unravel. Although 1,700 American troops remain in Bosnia (down from an initial 20,000), there have been no American casualties there in eight years—this is not Baghdad. To pull these troops out now, as some in Washington want, would also send the wrong signal to those watching the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. But whatever happens, the footsteps of Gavrilo Princip—and the world whose end they marked—will never return.

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