This past summer, I stood in front of the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo with my fellow American Embassy co-workers to honor those killed in the Bosnian War, as the remains of 518 victims of the Srebrenica massacre were slowly driven past us in three semitrailer trucks. To give this memory of mine context, 14 years ago Serb forces surrounded the U.N. ‘Safe Zone’ of Srebrenica, overtook the city, and slaughtered 8,000 Muslim men and boys. The 400 U.N. peacekeepers present never fired a shot.
To this day, victims’ bodies are still being found in mass graves surrounding the city. As they are found, they are identified, and buried on the anniversary date of the genocide. The events of Srebrenica have been deemed the largest European genocide to have occurred since World War II. This event helped spur the United States to finally engage in the conflict, and end the ethnic fighting that destroyed this beautiful country.
It is in our country, in the town of Dayton, Ohio, that we helped the Bosnians attain the peace agreement they so desperately needed. The Dayton Peace Agreement became a sign of hope for Bosnia and Herzegovina, and helped the country begin the long and arduous process of rebuilding. Through the Dayton negotiation, a power-sharing agreement was created between the ethnic groups. While needed at the time, this peace agreement is outdated and is leading to present-day political turmoil within the country.
Currently, the country is divided into two halves, largely along ethnic lines, with each half having their own prime minister. Further, the presidency in the country consists of a power-sharing agreement between the three main ethnic groups, and all presidents must come to a consensus before any decisions are made.
As you can imagine, sharing power between ethnic groups that were recently engaged in a dirty war involving genocide, rape and torture against each other has proven to be difficult. Currently, the political parties cater to their own constituency, which falls along ethnic lines; nationalism is on the rise; and corruption is rampant. Children are once again being taught xenophobia as schools are often segregated and books are being re-written to encourage ethnic-tension.
After years of neglect during the Bush presidency, the Obama administration has already taken a more active role in Bosnian affairs. Vice President Joe Biden visited Sarajevo in May of this year and warned the Bosnian Parliament that, “I personally, and the leadership of my country is worried … about the direction of your country and your future.”
Biden went on to cite how “we have seen state institutions — which must be strengthened for Bosnia to meet the challenges of the 21st century and to advance toward EU and NATO membership — openly challenged and deliberately undermined. We have witnessed attempts to roll back the reforms of the last decade — the very reforms that prompted EU and NATO to open their doors to the citizens of this country.” And most important, the authority of the United Nations High Representative, who is in charge of directing the Dayton Peace Agreement, is being undermined by political leaders.
Reassert pressure now
Bosnia is a poor country, and it is impossible to not be reminded daily of the war, as a great majority of the buildings in Sarajevo remain bullet-ridden, and the beautiful Olympic Mountains and countryside still retain a quarter million land-mines that continue to kill civilians. Bosnia has legitimate problems. Yet, despite those problems, we cannot allow Bosnia to once again become synonymous with brutal crimes against humanity, war and instability.
We came to Bosnia’s aid too late in the game last time. We need to assert our pressure now, before violence strikes, before we once again lose thousands of innocent lives.
As Biden stated in his speech, “America takes pride in our commitment to a peaceful, successful, Bosnia and Herzegovina.” America needs to reassert this commitment.
Kelly Baker is a graduate student in public policy at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.