June 20, 2013
New Perspective on an Old Conflict
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
In May 1998, a US C-130 transport plane touched down at Eagle Base in Tuzla, Bosnia, and I stepped onto the tarmac wearing a flak jacket and Kevlar helmet. I had come for a week to embed with US peacekeepers and report on their mission for the Middlesex News, a daily paper outside of Boston.
The war in Bosnia was officially over, but the country was still in transition. I interviewed refugees as they returned to their village of Rijeka for the first time after the conflict. Foundations and concrete staircases leading nowhere were all that remained of most homes. One elderly couple talked to me as they ate lunch in their “kitchen,” a tile floor with no walls.
In another town, a 72-year-old woman pulled three bullet shells from behind a tea cup in a glass cabinet. Displaying them one by one, she said, “This is the bullet with which they killed my dog. This one somebody tried to kill me with. And with this, they tried to kill me again. They are souvenirs for good memory.” Like many people I spoke with, her husband warned that the country was still a tinder box that could erupt if the peacekeepers pulled out.
This spring, almost 15 years after my last mission to the Balkans, I disembarked from a Lufthansa plane at the Sarajevo airport wearing the same LL Bean fleece pullover, but with no need for the flak jacket. I came as a human rights practitioner with three students from the International Human Rights Clinic.
On the surface, the situation in Bosnia had changed significantly. People had rebuilt their homes and lives. The peacekeepers were long gone. Fighting was no longer an imminent threat. Nevertheless, as I soon learned, memories remained vivid and many wounds were still raw.
My clinical team and I went to Bosnia to investigate the blurry line between soldiers and civilians during the war. Specifically, we wanted to find out how individuals had viewed their own roles in the hostilities. This research is part of a larger project initiated by the Center for Civilians in Conflict. It seeks to inform interpretations of who is entitled to protection under international humanitarian law by examining perceptions of participation on the ground.
War broke out in Bosnia in 1992 as part of the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. The conflict was characterized not only by fighting among the country’s three ethnic groups but also by ethnic cleansing and genocide. After the signing of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, NATO sent peacekeepers to help implement its provisions. These forces pulled out in 2004.
Before our mission, we had worried that the conflict in Bosnia had taken place too long ago and that recollections would have faded. Instead we found interviewees’ stories remarkably fresh. Victims related them with the same detail and emotion as they had on my first trip.
We heard horrific accounts of armed conflict and genocide. One man told how a line of soldiers had marched systematically through his village, executing the men, detaining the women, using the children as human shields, and burning homes and mosques. Women who lived through the siege of Sarajevo explained how they had dodged snipers and incoming shells while trying to feed their families. Survivors of the Srebrenica massacres described narrowly escaping capture and death thanks to the sacrifices of family and friends.
We also went to sites where atrocities took place. On a sunny day outside Prijedor, we stood in an open lot next to a school from which children’s laughter emanated. A banner advertising a pizzeria hung on the fence of an adjacent soccer field. As we observed the seemingly cheerful scene, our guide Ervin described how the complex had served as the Trnopolje concentration camp, where he and thousands of others had been held in 1992. Ervin himself had sought refuge in the stairwell of the school when it was used as a camp building. Not far away we stopped at two more former concentration camps—Omarska and Keraterm—which had also reverted to their original functions, a mine and tile factory, respectively.
Ervin said he and his survivors organization wanted memorials to internees and access to the former camps for ceremonies. Yet the only signs of the past on our Prijedor tour were a small plaque about Keraterm at the tile factory and a monument to the enemy soldiers who had run Trnopolje. The failure to acknowledge and address war wounds disturbed me as much as the stories of the conflict itself.
Over the course of my career, I have seen human rights organizations respond with increasing speed to reports of civilian harm in armed conflict. Researchers, myself included, aim to reach a conflict zone during hostilities or at least immediately after they have ended. I believe that work plays an invaluable role in raising awareness and thus preventing additional civilian casualties, and I remain committed to that goal.
But visiting Bosnia a second time deepened my perspective on the enduring costs of war. The experience showed that it is crucial not to forget the victims of past wars in the race to protect civilians in future ones.