Lately, I’ve been lying awake at night remembering those days, the people, the stories I produced while in Bosnia. I stood in the middle of the public square in the center of Brcko, Bosnia, the weed-choked cracks in the cement, the line of Humvees we’d arrived in, and the hatred in the faces around me. I knew then I’d never understand ethnic cleansing, the use of rape as a weapon, the reasons for random targeted sniper fire and frequent market bombings. At the time, I wondered how long it would take before peacekeepers could leave and return home with any surety that the smoldering fire of war that had ended the year before had finally been put out.
Members of the 364th Mobilic Public Affairs Detachment boarding the plane from Germany on our way to Bosnia. Courtesy of Luis Iglesias
We’d known in advance that the crowd of ethnic Serbs and Croats that swarmed around us in the public square could easily turn into a violent mob. It was 1997, the second year into the NATO peacekeeping mission, and my Army Reserve unit had been in the country about four months. The main road we took each time we left the confines of McGovern Base where we were stationed twisted through a hamlet of Brcko, called Brod. Once the home to ethnic Muslims, a year after the war, Brod was still block after block of ruin, explosion-cratered roads, empty brick shells, scorched walls, and bullet-pockmarked stone. In the Brcko town square, the people who encircled us had heard that representatives of Brod’s refugees, who’d been forced out during ethnic cleansing campaigns, were coming to town to speak with UN officials about rebuilding and returning to their homes. The announcement of the meeting had been like throwing gas on a well-kindled fire.
In the middle, I stood with other U.S. NATO peacekeepers. As an Army broadcaster, it was my job to tell American taxpayers what their soldiers were doing for the NATO mission in this war-torn place, and this mob scene was a perfect example of the mission they’d sent us to do—keep the peace.
My video camera captured the teeming mob that jostled us, pushing, shoving, furious, nearing, but not yet reaching, an ignition point. Women and men elbowed each other out of the way to get in front of my camera, their faces so close their spittle hit the lens. The crowd so outnumbered us that, had they wanted, they could have overwhelmed us before anyone could get off a shot. I felt their anger like a deep pulse beneath my skin.
They looked like grandmothers, grandfathers, the neighbor down the street, teachers, shopkeepers, the mailman. Most of them had lost sons, husbands, sisters, children in the war.
Later translated, I learned they’d shouted things like, “They killed my son. They are murderers. They have no business coming back here. They are monsters.”
They, they, they.
The author preparing to conduct an interview with a Serb soldier and a Bosnian translator. The Serb, along with American troops, had been searching for land mines emplaced during the war along the banks of the Sava River. Courtesy of Luis Iglesias
It was a year after the war, a year of clearing rubble, removing land mines, uncovering mass graves; a year during which people had returned to work and school and to living next to neighbors who had taken up arms to war with each other. The war had finally ended when NATO bombed the hell out the Serbian army until they finally agreed to negotiate for peace. Now, one year after the Dayton peace accords were signed and still, the people surrounding us needed only a tiny spark to unleash a conflagration.
Now, I see that no matter the war—Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria—the aftermath lingers for generations. Fourteen years after the conclusion of the NATO mission in Bosnia, the political landscape in the country remains fractured along ethnic lines. Bosnia still doesn’t have a constitution. Russia and Turkey are prowling the fringes, testing the country’s resolve and looking for ways to exploit their own economic and political interests. I know this because I can’t help but follow the news of Bosnia Herzegovina. The current headlines use words like teetering, divide, bitter, fear, and phrases like “widening ethnic cracks.”
Reading those headlines today leaves me sleepless, wondering if ever there will be a time when former hot zones like Bosnia, or current ones, like Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria, find some kind of reconciliation.
Twenty years ago, when I stood as a peacekeeper in the center of that mob, in a country where hatred had spread like wildfire, I had to tell the story of the mess left after war. Somehow, I would have to piece these images and sounds together so others could see it.
When the buses carrying Bosniaks arrived and rolled through the streets, the energy of the already excited mob shifted to boiling as its hatred seethed and surged. They threw rocks they’d been clutching, shattering windows. I stood behind the phalanx of my fellow peacekeepers and shot video over their shoulders, their weapons at port arms as the buses stopped. I aimed my camera on the riders as they hustled out, their faces down, shoulders hunched as they pressed forward through the mob. One man held a bloodied handkerchief to his forehead.
Thing is, to my American eyes, the people who spilled from the buses, the people who had lived in Brod, whose homes now stood in ruin, looked very much like the rock-wielding crowd, and I knew they had similar horror stories to tell. They had faced executions, rape, torture, and starvation, and the angry mob who faced them had been their neighbors. The crowd quieted for the hour or more during which negotiations took place inside. Their fervor spent, many left.
Civil affairs soldiers and translators worked their way through the remaining groups, talking about reconciliation, reminding members of the mob that peace had been officially declared, shops had reopened, kids had returned to school—all signs of normal life returning. Didn’t they want more of that? Some in the crowd seemed willing to say, “I will if they will.” Most were too angry to listen. Others patiently waited, and when the Bosniaks returned to their buses, the smaller mob that remained threw insults, rocks, and bricks again.
It took decades, but, eventually, a string of politicians and military leaders would be found guilty of war crimes in the Hague for the rape hotels, the genocide, and for turning neighbor against neighbor in Bosnia-Herzegovina. When Radovan Karadzic, nicknamed the Butcher of Bosnia, was convicted, I felt great satisfaction. When Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president, died alone in his cell, I felt his ending well deserved. But all these years later, their verdicts and deaths don’t explain what happened in Bosnia. And no one will be tried for continuing to stoke the hatred they left behind that led grandmothers, sisters, husbands, and sons to throw rocks at us and the Bosnians from Brod that day.
So I lie awake at night, thinking about Bosnia and Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, knowing that each death, each rape, each atrocity is a new excuse for war to continue. And I wonder if hate always leaves seeds of past outrages lying dormant and waiting. No matter how long the seeds remain buried there, all hate needs to germinate is for someone to sprinkle a bit of water on it. In which case, I pray for it not to rain.