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The War in Bosnia and the Moral Dilemma of Refugees

The Bosnian War, which began April 5, 1992, was the result of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Pressure began to build in Bosnia-Herzegovina in February 1992 after the government passed a referendum for independence from Yugoslavia, which further exacerbated ethnic tensions in the already tense territory. Bosnian Serbs, who wished to be united in a Greater Serbia, boycotted the referendum and launched an attack on the capital city of Sarajevo after Bosnia declared its independence. The Croats and the Bosniaks possessed their own forces and the three competed in a bloody battle for dominance over the territory. One of the conflict’s tragic features was ethnic cleansing, which was carried out primarily by the Bosnian Serbs, though all sides were guilty of it to some degree.

Ann B. Sides was the Chief of the Visa Section at the embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia during the beginning of the war and later relocated to the consulate in Zagreb, Croatia. Her experiences provide valuable insight into what was occurring on the ground:  the violence, chaos, and propaganda, and how the United States government chose to respond. Her unique position of processing visas during the influx of refugees is a poignant view of the tough choices Foreign Service Officers are forced to make during such crises. Sides was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in October 2010.

You can also read about Sides’ run-in with Bianca Jagger and others as well as about a similar moral quandary over visa issuance to Iraqi Kurds in Iran and on Romanian orphans. Go here for Tom Niles’ analysis of the collapse of Yugoslavia.


“You could see the country breaking up”

SIDES: By the time I arrived, Slovenia had just left Yugoslavia. The rest of the other republics were still formally part of Yugoslavia, but they were in the process of separating. It was probably analogous to the United States in early 1861 when some of the Southern states had already seceded and more were about to….

Q: What did it feel like when you arrived at the embassy? 

SIDES: We never had a normal day. I don’t know what a normal day was like there, because we were already on the downslide. Mr. [Warren] Zimmerman [the U.S. Ambassador to Yugoslavia] compared it once to like being in a barrel heading toward Niagara Falls and not knowing exactly when you were going to go down or where, but knowing it wasn’t going to be a happy ending. Everybody worked long hours.

Even the relatively non-political work I did was very much affected by the accelerating collapse. Many prosperous, professional-level people who were applying for visas appeared to me to be basically taking out an insurance policy in case they had to leave the country. This was particularly true with ethnically mixed couples.

You could see the separation of the republics, for example Croatia from the rest of Yugoslavia, was placing great strain on Serb-Croat, Muslim-Croat, or Serb-Muslim couples. You could see the country breaking up, the families breaking up, society breaking up. Meanwhile, we were getting more and more visitors from Washington; more and more requests for reporting. There was a lot of strain on everybody, from the ambassador on down.

Q: What was going on sort of in the street?

SIDES: Well, what I remember most about those times were the news broadcasts, the radio and television; those, gloomy, doomy urgent voices on the airwaves. They stirred up fear and hatred constantly. It was like listening to Glenn Beck, 24-7. I acquired a whole new vocabulary in Serbo-Croatian, words I remember to this day:  “ratnizlocinac” (war criminal), “facistichkesnage” (fascist forces—they called the Croatian army that), “bombardiranje,” “miniranje,” “snajiperi,” “ranjene” (wounded), “smrt” (death). Always “smrt.”

I have an MA in Communications, and I was fascinated by the way the populace was being manipulated by the press. People will believe anything if you tell them one, consistent message and nothing else. You can tell them the moon is made of green cheese, and absent a countervailing message, they will believe the moon is made of green cheese, especially if they are predisposed to. I found that sometimes even we [the consulate officers] who were much more politically sophisticated than the average Serb, were influenced to some degree by the relentless barrage of propaganda.

As for demonstrations, there were student demonstrations. I remember one very well downtown, near the Moskva Hotel. I observed it from the crowd. The riot police were gathered around, very tense. It ended peacefully. The students were protesting the rule of Milosevic’s Communist regime, but they had no clear program….

“We faced a moral dilemma”

Q: When you reach a critical situation where people are trying to bail out, often the visa section of an embassy bears the brunt of it, and there is an inclination to be a little more lax, or tough in making visa decisions. What was your attitude?

SIDES: We faced quote “a moral dilemma.” In this particular circumstance, in 1991-92, our application rate in Belgrade went up 60 per cent. We saw a lot of people from the middle class or professional class, who would normally be very well qualified for visitor visas, applying for them clearly as an insurance policy, and an increasing number of displaced people, Serbs from Bosnia or Croatia. At first, we applied the same rules we always applied. People who had property and family to anchor them in their home country, and did not appear to be a risk for illegal immigration, received visas.

Many middle and upper class people—to the extent that there were upper class people in Yugoslavia—had a lot of savings in foreign currency. One day the Serbian government just confiscated the hard currency, leaving these people almost destitute in their old age. You would see some very respectable people who were applying for visas, giving all sorts of plausible reasons for their trip, but they had an air of desperation, not the usual happy tourists. I at first gave them the benefit of the doubt, but by the time we left in June, 1992, it was very difficult to distinguish the legitimate visitor from the potential refugee. Our refusal rate had gone up a lot….

We all believed that the decision-makers in Washington didn’t really understand what was going on; that their assessment of the situation reflected the reality they wanted, rather than what was actually happening. It’s important to understand the context of the times, which led to a lot of wishful thinking….

The post-Communist Europe was still coalescing in 1991. It absorbed the European Bureau’s resources, attention and energy. I hope I’m not being unfair in concluding, as I did then, that Washington just figured the Yugoslavia situation was one of these icky Balkan things and the best we could do was let the Yugos settle matters among themselves however they could, and recognize whatever the result was….

“That was when the Bosnian War started”

Q: Did you know you were going to be pulled out of there? 

SIDES:  No, it was a complete shock. Perhaps we should have seen it coming, but I was a naïve optimist. By the spring of ’92 the atmosphere in Belgrade was starting to get really ugly. The tension in the embassy was intense. We had to take turns sitting up all night in the embassy in case Washington called and wanted to know what was going on. We would watch television and report on what little we could figure out.

I remember I was the duty officer, it was in April 5, 1992, and I got a call at home that the Marine had put through to me. It was from a man in Bosnia and he was speaking a little bit of broken English and I couldn’t understand what he was saying very well. My Yugoslav friend, my college classmate, happened to be there, and we were having tea. I said, “Vesna, Could you talk to this guy? I don’t understand what he is saying. He has got this Bosnian accent and he is yelling. It is something about people being killed and shot and we are supposed to do something. I don’t understand.”

So she talked to him and her face turned white.

She turned to me and said, “He says that people were being shot down in the streets of Sarajevo by snipers during a demonstration. They want the U.S. government to intervene.” I called the embassy and reported what I had heard, and soon it was on the news, and people started paying attention to it. That was the peace demonstration that was fired on by Karadzic’s [leader of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina] people from the windows of the Holiday Inn. That was when the Bosnian war started….

One of the things I remember about this period, although I can’t place it exactly in time, was that Ambassador Zimmerman invited all the officers into the bubble, which is the secure room we had in the embassy….

The discussion was about recognition of Bosnia and Croatia. The Ambassador told us he wished to give the Administration in Washington his best advice, and invited his officers to state their views. There were no good choices.

Some colleagues thought recognition would protect Bosnia. Others believed it would assure a bloody civil war, which in fact is what happened…. We were well aware that lives were at stake…. [Ultimately, the United States] recognized Bosnia and Croatia in April 1992. Slovenia, also….

By June 1992…[the Embassy] said we were to report to the Chargé’s  house the following morning at 11:00 A.M. for an important meeting. We thought, “Uh-oh, this doesn’t sound good.” So the next morning… we all sat down and were handed our seating assignments for the evacuation buses. That is how we found out we were going to leave….

“There has got to be a way to solve this”

I made some calls, and as it happened, they were staffing up the Consulate General in Zagreb, which was to become our embassy to the newly independent nation of Croatia. So four days later we leased one of the embassy recreation association vans and hired one of their drivers to drive us to Croatia….

[At the Consulate]…we lived in more or less constant crisis. My job was to restore full consular services and get the visa section reestablished…. The post had been performing mostly emergency consular services since the evacuation in ’91. The summer of ’92 was more peaceful in Croatia, but things really went down the chute in Bosnia. The summer of ’92 was the massacre summer….

The Serb forces started with the towns along Bosnian border, like Brcko, Foca, and Visegrad in ‘92. They would round up the military-age Muslim or Croat men and kill them or put them in concentration camps improvised from schools or factories. Helpless old people were driven out of their villages or murdered. Some of the worst stuff happened to women. They gathered up the women and put them into camps where they were raped systematically….

In the summer of 1992 the front line was about 30 miles outside of Zagreb. It was terribly sad to see these villages destroyed, houses wrecked and abandoned that people had scrimped and saved to build. You’d see people’s clothes still folded on the shelves, kids’ dresses all ironed. The school books, pictures,things people gathered through life, who then had to leave it all in a few minutes.

The visa work was very stressful. There were a lot of Bosnian visa applicants at that time who had been driven out of their home towns and had fled to Croatia at the time when Croatia was fighting the Serbs. Although some of the refugees from Bosnia were ethnic Croats, most were Bosniaks, which was the Muslim ethnic group….

The Bosniak refugees in Croatia therefore found themselves in a very vulnerable situation.

They began showing up at the visa window, applying for visitor visas. The vice consul and I tried to apply the law impartially, but the law requires that the applicant demonstrate ties, like a home, job and so forth, that would compel departure from the USA after a visit. These poor souls weren’t going to America to see Disneyland or attend an academic conference and go back to Bosnia.

We refused most of them. We felt we had no choice. It was awful. I remember one old lady in a headscarf with bright blue eyes; she looked like my grandmother. I reached my hand under the window to get her passport and documents, and she seized my fingers and kissed them. I had to leave the window for a while.

We were afraid the people we refused would soon be sent back by the Croatians to Bosnia, perhaps to their deaths. One day Rick Holtzapple, the vice consul on his first Foreign Service tour, said “I don’t think I can do this anymore. I feel like those consular officers who refused visas to Jews and sent them to their deaths in World War II.”

We used to keep a bottle of whiskey in the bottom of the filing cabinet. As I recall it now, we were sipping whiskey out of some nice porcelain teacups I kept in my office. I said, “There has got to be a way to solve this.”

“Come here if you want to go to America as a refugee”

By then, Washington had seen quite a lot of reporting about what was going on in Bosnia in these camps. I asked Ron Neitzke’s [the Consul General at Zagreb] advice, and we sent a cable to Washington laying out the situation with the Bosnians and the danger of their “refoulement” [expulsion of persons who have the right to be recognized as refugees] from Croatia back to Bosnia.

We must have gotten somebody’s attention,because within about two weeks, Terry Rusch, a refugee programs officer from the PRM [the State Department’s Population, Refugees, and Migration] Bureau and some people from the Immigration and Naturalization Service showed up in Zagreb and said, “We are here to start a refugee program.”

I suppose it helped that Ambassador Zimmerman was at that time the head of the PRM Bureau. Anyway, Terry and her team and I went to Karlovac [city in central Croatia],where an old barracks from the Austro-Hungarian times was being used as a refugee facility. As I recall, I got up on a bench and said in Serbo-Croatian, “Come here if you want to go to America as a refugee.” People gathered around, but many said, “Oh I don’t know, it is so far away. We are hoping the war will be over and we can go back to our homes.”

They were real refugees, not the phony kind. All they wanted to do was go home, but eventually many accepted the refugee visas. Terry’s people set up the program. They got non-governmental organizations to interview people, and to set up places in America to receive the refugees. I felt that Rick and I were in a much better position morally to refuse visitor visas when we knew there was a legal alternative for people who were fleeing the war.

Q: Did you sense there was an exodus of people going to other parts of Western Europe? 

Oh yes, they were going wherever they could. They went to Austria; they went to Germany. They went to Slovenia and Italy and France….When my husband was hospitalized in Vienna, the Bosnian mop ladies working in the ward translated Serbo-Croat into German for me so I could talk to the doctors and nurses. Most of the Bosnian displaced people didn’t want to go to the United States, but eventually many did because they couldn’t get into other countries. So if they had relatives or friends in the United States who would help, that’s where they’d go. They were mostly simple folk, worked at farms and factories and stuff. They’ve done very well in America….