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The New Sarajevo

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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