Restoring Peace in Bosnia
Arriving in Sarajevo shortly after the arrival of NATO troops, Larry Blount '65 worked with leaders and volunteers to restore the Bosnian capital and left with an intimate understanding of what must be done to bring a lasting peace to the region.
by Steve Charles
It was November 21, 1995, and Larry Blount '65 was 400 miles away from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base where the historic Dayton Accords ending the war in the former Yugoslavia were being announced. But on that day he was as determined as any negotiator at the Dayton table to find a way out of the ethnic conflict that had ravaged the people of the Balkans. The Army Reserve colonel was cloistered with other military and civilian strategists in a conference room in Washington, D.C., exploring the challenges a multi-national peacekeeping force might encounter in the region. So as the leaders of Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia were agreeing to the terms of the truce, Blount and his colleagues were grappling with issues likely to be smother the newborn peace.
"We concluded that the three most important civil-military issues to confront a peace implementation force would be dislocated persons and refugees, restoration of the infrastructure, and property rights," Blount recalls. "This was indeed a prophetic conference, for those would later become the principle issues we'd encounter throughout our deployment."
Col. Blount's arrival in Sarajevo in May 1996, five months after the multi-national IFOR troops set foot in the city, left a powerful impression on a man not given to hyperbole.
"There were almost no vehicles on the streets," Blount recalls, explaining that the boundaries separating warring factions in the city were drawn right through the airport and downtown Sarajevo. "So you saw this massive amount of destruction. Apartment complexes had been blown to smithereens, vehicles were overturned, buildings pock-marked where bullets had hit them, none of the traffic lights were working, and there wasn't a pane of glass in any apartment house or storefront."
Blount and the civil affairs command immediately went to work to establish cooperative efforts with the citizens of Sarajevo to put the city back on its feet, restoring the city's infrastructure and schools, re-establishing the rule of law, and improving living conditions. One of the command's initial successes came when U.S. engineers working with Sarajevans were able to restore a part of the city's drinking water system. Blount attended a brief celebration for this early victory at the ancient Roman cistern that was the heart of the system. Retreating Serbs had destroyed the pumps and cut the water line, and the Sarajevans were proudly showing the American colonel how they'd re-routed the water lines around those breaks. At that moment, angry Serbs, feeling displaced from their own homes in Sarajevo, began shouting down from the hills.
"They were harassing and trying to intimidate these people, saying 'we know where your families are,' and they fired shots at us." Blount recalls. "If they had engaged with us I would have had to call in some artillery to get them out, but it was harrassment and nothing more."
Grenades in the schoolroom
Yet ethnic animosity was overcome, at least in some situations, by a deeper value shared by Serbs, Muslims, and Croats alike-concern for their children. Blount points to the work of one volunteer group that spent weekends and evenings looking for and disarming mines.
"They were like a volunteer fire department," Blount explains. "These folks represented all the ethnic groups and were willing to work together because they realized the threat that the mines and unexploded ordnance were to their families and children."
The colonel recalls an incident that stands out as a perfect symbol for the group's work. It occurred not long after school had started, when two children discovered an unexploded rifle-propelled grenade stuck in the wall of the school and notified the civil affairs command.
"We contacted this volunteer group, went with them on a Saturday afternoon, and helped them remove the charge from the grenade and the weapon from the schoolroom," Blount says. "This group did this work all the time-and it's dangerous."
Just as dangerous for both citizens and the IFOR troops have been the times when refugees and displaced persons have visited their former homes. The colonel cites an incident that underlines the need for reform of property laws, a process that made little progress while Blount was in Sarajevo.
"The UN High Commissioner for Refugees notified the Serbs in Pale that there was a group of Croats that had lived there before the war and wanted to visit their former homes," Blount explains. "The local groups took advantage of the notice given them and blew these houses up so there would be nothing for these folks to visit."
Without resolution of the property laws issues, IFOR's best response was to "try to find out who was orchestrating this at the national level," Blount says. "None of this stuff happens by accident-it's all orchestrated by the political leadership."
Which is why, Blount explains, war criminals will need to be arrested if there is to be any chance for a lasting peace in the region.
"We have to remove the war criminals, from all the factions; at least enough of them so that they don't pose the political threat to their subordinates that they do now," Blount says.
"If there's something to be gained by warfare, some of these leaders are ready to attempt it," Blount says. "But the average citizen wants no part of this, with the exception that every person has a deep-seated grudge and hatred toward somebody who killed their father, their daughter, their son, or someone in their family. Time is about the only thing you can give them to help them get over those wounds-and the longer they are at peace, the better chance peace has, because noone there with a family wants to risk raising their children in a war-torn country again."
Giving the people the time necessary for healing may require a sacrifice IFOR and Stabilization Force (SFOR) commanders seem yet to be willing to make.
"As a result of Desert Storm, where we won a war with very few casualties, commanders have adopted force protection rules and measures intended to result in zero casualties," Blount says. "That's unrealistic. Commanders need to minimize risk, but defining success as no casualties means that you're not going to get the mission accomplished.
"Of course, the hard part is making any loss of life acceptable to the American public," Blount admits. "As soon as we take casualties, they'll want to pull our people out."
How and when multi-national troops will be withdrawn also concerns Blount, who understands the reason for stating a withdrawal date for reasons of domestic politics but sees such a deadline as undermining the peace.
"An exit strategy should not have a particular time associated with it," the colonel says. "An exit strategy should prescribe the conditions that must exist before you withdraw."
The Chance for Peace
When Col. Blount's duty in Sarajevo ended in the fall of 1996, the ghost town he'd seen when he arrived had been transformed.
"The traffic was back, and congestion was a daily occurrence," he says, amused to be proud to have brought the Western curse of the traffic jam back to Sarajevo. "Streams of people were walking on the streets, outdoor cafes were busy, all the store fronts had glass and displays and were doing business. You couldn't go a block without seeing children, laughing, playing games. It was such a dramatic difference."
Sitting in his Washington D.C. office this fall, where he is now chief of management and policy for the National Health Service Corps., Blount thinks back on those people and their prospects for a normal life unbroken by war and offers this prognosis:
"I said before I left Bosnia, that if they could get through the municipal elections [held in September 1997] without organized violence, that Bosnia would have a chance to survive, and eventually thrive. They passed that test."
But Blount sees the coming months as an even greater test.
"While individuals, citizens, and families have now lived in a relatively stable environment for long enough that they appreciate that it is preferable to fighting, that isn't enough to assure success," Blount believes. "Personal and familial wounds-physical, psychological and social-are still very fresh. The animosities and hatreds among former neighbors, colleagues and friends are just below the surface"
Most importantly, Blount says, "those who gained leadership positions and power as a result of the civil war have been able to consolidate their gains, in many respects, during the peace. And they aren't just Serbs, but come from all of the former warring factions. These factions are still able to draw on old international allies for political assistance, as well as economic assistance and arms. There is a brisk business in arms sales, over and above the train and equip effort in which the U.S. is (mistakenly, in my opinion) engaged.
"But, yes, the peace has a chance," Blount says. "However, the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina need to commit themselves to working for peace. The international community can only do so much. The rest is up to them."