The Common Good
September-October 1996

Calm Before the Storm?

by Rose Marie Berger | September-October 1996

No easy road to Bosnian peace.

In Bosnia, there are no easy answers. Any question naively put forth by outsiders prompts a history lesson that usually begins at the time of Constantine if directed at a Croat, the 1389 Battle of Kosovo if toward a Serb, and the fall of the Ottoman Empire if speaking with a Muslim. For Americans who can't remember what they watched on television last night, this can be a bit disconcerting. However, while history does not predetermine a country's direction, it does highlight possible futures.

In the aftermath of genocide in Bosnia, the fundamental question is, Did this have to happen? The answer is no. Here at the end of the 20th century we have participated in a global dramatization of the adage, "All that evil needs to triumph is for good [people] to do nothing."

Contrary to the propaganda of the U.S. media, the former Yugoslavia is not genetically encoded for violence; nor did the collapse of communism preordain civil war. The mass graves that NATO forces are opening in Srebrenica, Jajce, and Tuzla are not only filled with sons, fathers, daughters, and friends, but with the coldly pragmatic, morally vacuous remnants of empires' attempts to save themselves.

Serbian President Milosevi´c, a very intelligent Communist hardliner, had no future in the age of democracy, so he initiated a violent land grab, particularly for Bosnia's military-industrial factories. Croatian President Tudjman had a small-minded Nixonesque craving for power. After Croatia's relatively successful secession from Yugoslavia, he took advantage of the chaos created by the Serb aggression to indulge his greed and extend the Croatian borders.

Both men knew how to play the nationalist-religious card and both were skilled propagandists. But still, it didn't have to happen. Between the explosive combination of Tudjman's "fertilizer" and Milosevi´c's "diesel fuel" sat Bosnia; its president, Alija Izetbegovic, offering to be a stabilizing buffer if Europe and the United States would only help.

Despite what we heard in the media, there were openings before the war, and even after the shooting started, for successful non-military intervention by the international diplomatic community. For example, as early as September 1991 Izetbegovic begged the European Union to open a fund for pensioning off the Yugoslavian army officers in Bosnia and dismantling the local military industries that were such an enticement to Milosevi´c. No international action was taken.

Even the military frameworks presented to us were false, as when Gen. Colin Powell—then-chair of the Joint Chiefs—said that the United States couldn't help Bosnia unless we were prepared to commit 300,000 ground troops. Later, we saw that 10 days of air strikes effectively put the Serbs on the run. U.S. and European political leaders chose to ignore these openings because they were busy bailing out the boats of their own sinking empires. The joke around Bosnia went something like this: A Bosnian man comes out of his house and sees his neighbor standing with his shovel at the bottom of a hole. "Neighbor!" he shouts. "The war is bad, but you don't have to dig your own grave." The neighbor calls up from the hole, "No, my friend, I'm digging for oil"—a scathing indictment on what jump-starts the West into action.

The decisions U.S. and European officials made about Bosnia were perfectly pragmatic from the isolationist point of view. But pragmatism without moral reasoning only makes the trains run on time, and always favors the mighty. The Dayton Accords are a pragmatic approach to a messy situation, but without ethical underpinnings they only appease the aggressor, in this case Serbia.

As Washington Post correspondent Peter Maass wrote, "Appeasement is much harder to accomplish than it seems....First, the appeaser must disguise the fact that he is appeasing. Second, the appeaser must persuade the victim to cooperate." Hence we have the media spin to portray all sides in the Bosnian conflict as equally guilty (thereby justifying the Dayton agreement to give 49 percent of Bosnia to the Serbs). As Maass reminds us, "Peace is not guaranteed by a thick treaty or enforcement troops; it is guaranteed by justice."

For the moment the trigger-fingers are at ease in Bosnia. But the weapons are still in place and the people are not. In a country the size of Tennessee, two out of every three people are refugees, either internally or externally. The next media spin will be the "successful September elections." With a tip of their hats, Uncle Sam and cronies will bow out of Bosnia, selling the illusion of a democracy in place.

It's not always possible for ordinary Christians to influence international politics, but we can offer to work alongside ordinary Bosnians to help them lay the foundation of a just peace. Accompaniment teams with doctors, psychologists, teachers, and folks with strong backs can offer relief to the Bosnians who have held their communities together during the war and are exhausted.

In this stunningly beautiful land where Francis of Assisi walked the Balkan backroads to negotiate peace with the Turkish Sultan, ordinary Bosnians work to rebuild and recover a very unpragmatic ethic of loving thy neighbor. Perhaps we have something to learn.

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