OP-ED: Lessons from a genocide


July 2015 marked the 20th anniversary of the most horrific event of recent European history: the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia. In a genocidal outburst of a sort not seensince World War II, more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys died at the hands of partisan Bosnian Serbs. This atrocity galvanized international efforts to end three years of ethnic violence that had been raging in the former Yugoslavia.

Within weeks, NATO airstrikes helped push the warring factions to the bargaining table, and in December 1995 their leaders signed the U.S.-brokered Dayton Peace Accords to stop the fighting. The final toll in the Bosnian war: 100,000 dead (mostly civilians); 2 million displaced (half the country's population); and a society in ruins.

For the next nine years, NATO-led troops from around the world maintained a fragile peace in Bosnia. This force included alarge contingent of American soldiers — of which I was one, in 2002-03. I saw first-hand the impact which determined military intervention can make in ending human suffering and laying the groundwork for the restoration of security, stability and hope.

Last week, along with my wife, I returned to Bosnia for the first time since my peacekeeping service. I had hoped to see signs of progress, and I was not disappointed. The worst physical damage has been erased. The towns look much like those anywhere in Europe, with clean streets, tidy stucco houses and bustling open-aircafes. Young and old crowd the public squares, engrossed in conversation or play. In the cities of Mostar and Sarajevo, tourists swarm the quaint, cobbled lanes of the historic districts. The main highways are lined with modern stores and filled with commercial trucks. Rebuilt mosques attest to the gradual recovery of Muslim neighborhoods that had been devastated by the war.

Politically, Bosnia remains in a sorry state. The Dayton agreement saddled the country with a cumbersome, multi-layered structure of government. Entrenched, ethnically aligned parties have blocked any serious attempts at reform.

The people of Bosnia, however, are slowly putting the past behind them. For the most part, they seem to have moved beyond the ethnic hatreds that once inflamed them, as their parent nation of Yugoslavia was collapsing all around them. "We don't care what religion you are," declared a young tour guide in Sarajevo. "We don't care if you worship the trees."

Muslims, Catholic Croats,and Orthodox Serbs in Bosnia may not love each other. But social and economic necessity haveinduced them to adopt a healing measure of tolerance and mutual acceptance.

Most Americans have scant memory or knowledge of the Bosnian war. An estimated 300,000 refugees did settle in the U.S., but they tend to lead quiet, industrious lives, far from the public spotlight. It's therefore worth reflecting on the lessons this distant war can teach us.

First, it points up the danger that lurks whenever ethnic or religious identity trumps national identity. As crisis beset the Yugoslav state, once Bosnians no longer saw themselves as Bosnians but simply as Muslims, Croats or Serbs, the stage was set for catastrophe. (In a similar vein, the more that today's Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq rally behind the banners of their respective creeds, the more they obstruct the achievement of desperately needed unity.) Whether we view America as a melting pot or a mosaic, we should be grateful that the idea of a single, unifying national identity — the "unum" of "E pluribus unum" — has been a dominant theme in our history.

Thesecond lesson of the Bosnian war concerns America's role on the world stage. The last few years have seen spirited debate on how much, and to what ends, our country should be projecting its diplomatic and military power. In this context, it may be useful to recall the words of President Bill Clinton, on Nov. 27, 1995, as he announced his decision to send U.S. troops to Bosnia in support of a controversial NATO peacekeeping mission:

"America cannot and must not be the world's policeman. We cannot stop war for all time, but we can stop some wars. We cannot save all women and children, but we can save many of them. ... In this (post-Cold War) era, there are still times when America, and America alone, can and should make the difference for peace."

Three years later, Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton agreement, offered a compelling prophecy: "There will be other Bosnias in our lives — areas where early outside involvement can be decisive, and American leadership will be required. The world's richest nation, one that presumes to great moral authority, cannot simply make worthy appeals to conscience and call on others to carry the burden. The world will look to Washington for more than rhetoric the next time we face a challenge to peace."

— John Maietta is a Mechanicsburg resident, a retired Army officer and an adjunct history instructor at York College.