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After Dayton: Post-Conflict Reconstruction in Bosnia

The Dayton Accords peace agreement represents one of the most pivotal of its time. Signed on November 21, 1995 at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, the accords brought a negotiated end to years of brutal conflict. But just as the road to the Dayton Accords had been filled with stumbling blocks, the subsequent implementation would also be filled with challenges, as evidenced by the experiences of Ambassador Robert M. Beecroft.

The musician Vedran Smailović plays the cello among the ruins of the National Library in Sarajevo (1992) Mikhail Evstafiev | Wikimedia Commons
The musician Vedran Smailović plays the cello among the ruins of the National Library in Sarajevo (1992) Mikhail Evstafiev | Wikimedia Commons

In 1996, Beecroft arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina as one of the many members of the international community responsible for aiding in post-conflict reconstruction in the region. The lessons he learned in Bosnia would stay with him for his entire career.

One of the challenges of bringing peace to Bosnia and Herzegovina was the complicated nature of the conflict that had emerged there. Following the collapse of communism in Europe, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was beset with myriad economic and political ills. Rising nationalism in the republics led to secessions in 1991 and 1992. The splintering began when two of its republics, Slovenia and Croatia, declared their independence. In 1992, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence. Ultimately, only the republics of Serbia and Montenegro remained, forming the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Tragically, the dismantling of Yugoslavia would give rise to one of Europe’s most devastating conflicts.

Within Bosnia, the three main ethnic and religious groups were Orthodox Serbs, Bosniak Muslims, and Croat Catholics, with Bosniaks being the largest group. In 1992, Bosnia held a referendum for independence from Yugoslavia, which was highly unpopular with the republic’s Serbian population. In response, the Bosnian Serbs declared their own republic within Bosnia and began to take over territory. The Bosnian Croats also declared a republic. As Bosnian Serb forces attacked the capital of Sarajevo and majority-Bosniak towns, they ethnically cleansed Bosniak civilians, subjecting women to a campaign of mass rape. In July 1995, Serb forces attacked the city of Srebrenica, which had been designated as a safe haven by the United Nations. UN peacekeepers failed to stop them from storming the city, where they massacred over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys. The Srebrenica genocide and other atrocities shocked the international community, and NATO intervened with airstrikes. With the fighting subdued by NATO and a ceasefire in place, the international community moved ahead with a plan for peace. But by the time of the intervention, over 100,000 people had been killed, and about two million—about half the population—had been displaced.

The Dayton Accords designated Bosnia and Herzegovina as a federal state that would be divided between a Bosnian-Croat Federation and a Serbian Republic. They specified that Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and Croatia should all respect each other as sovereign equals. They included the provision that the human rights of all people within Bosnia and Herzegovina should be respected.The Accords also provided for the creation of an international stabilization force (SFOR). President Clinton agreed to contribute 28,000 troops to the force. In the years after the war, the international community, including the United States, would continue to play an important role in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we see that when Robert M. Beecroft arrived in the country as the Special Envoy to the Bosnian Federation, he quickly discovered that there was a tremendous amount of work to be done to heal the country and restore essential institutions. On top of all the material and logistical issues, Beecroft had to learn to work in a country where the population was experiencing severe shock and trauma. Although the international community was playing a major role, peacekeeping troops and other international staff had also been implicated in major human rights violations, including human trafficking. Moreover, the unholy nexus between criminal, religious, and political actors had the potential to be deeply destabilizing.

In the midst of this volatile situation, Beecroft had to persuade the leaders and members of different factions to work together despite their deep enmity. One of his major tasks was getting the Bosniak and Croat co-presidents of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina to meet and work together on establishing good governance. After a great deal of persistence and negotiating, Beecroft did manage to get leaders from the different communities together for discussions on issues like education and religion. However, intercommunal cooperation remained slow and halting. The task of rebuilding Bosnia was so enormous that progress was very slow. Nonetheless, Beecroft’s experiences demonstrate that diplomacy is one of the most important tools in resolving and recovering from conflicts.

Robert M. Beecroft’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on September 17, 2004.

Read Robert M. Beecroft’s full oral history HERE.

For more Moments on the Bosnian War click HERE and HERE.

Drafted by Artemis Maria Katsaris

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Excerpts:

“I wouldn’t even call it a country, it was a collection of peoples who were still in a state of collective shock at what they had done to themselves and each other.”

A Country in Shock:
I arrived in August. The shooting had stopped six months earlier. It was—I wouldn’t even call it a country, it was a collection of peoples who were still in a state of collective shock at what they had done to themselves and each other. You soon began hearing tales of those first few days in the spring of 1992, when Sarajevo was first targeted by Serb cannons, tanks, and mortars. Everybody, whatever their ethnicity, all said the same thing: this is obviously just a passing phase. It won’t last. Well, it did last. It lasted for three and a half years. People are still getting over it. I can tell you because I just left there last July, when I finished my second tour in Sarajevo. The first time, in ’96, I went out as Special Envoy to the Bosnian Federation. There are two so-called entities inside Bosnia and Herzegovina. One of them is primarily, but not totally Croat and Bosniak, Bosniak being Muslim. That’s the Federation. The other is overwhelmingly Serb, the so-called Republika Srpska, or RS. Now, at that time the RS was sort of a pariah, because we had Radovan Karadžić running around—sadly, he still is running around.

“My job was to try to get the Croats, who are Catholics, and the Bosniaks, who are Muslims, to work together and make the Federation succeed.”

Making the Federation Succeed:
The Dayton Accords are still in force. The Bosnian Constitution is Annex Four of the Dayton Accords, drafted at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Dayton and in Washington by State Department lawyers. My job was to try to get the Croats, who are Catholics, and the Bosniaks, who are Muslims, to work together and make the Federation succeed. The Croats and the Bosniaks together constituted 51 percent of the territory and something like 60 percent of the population. There was a certain logic in the Bosniaks and Croats working together, but they had also been shooting at each during the war, so there was no love lost. I spent a lot of time talking with Alija Izetbegović, who was the great wartime hero of the Bosniaks, and with Krešimir Zubak, two of the three co-presidents under the Dayton constitution. Zubak who was a timid, lawyerly soul who kept his head down and didn’t take risks. Izetbegović, by contrast, was a calculating politician and a very angry man, because of what had happened to his people, the Bosnian Muslims.

From the outset, I did a lot of traveling around the country. I went down to Mostar a lot, because that’s the heartland of the Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I worked regularly with Carl Bildt, the former Swedish boy wonder prime minister who was the first High Representative under the Dayton Accords. The Office of the High Representative, or OHR, was established at Dayton as the international community overseer of the peace process. The governor general if you will. He’s not a UN official—the BBC still makes this mistake and calls him the UN High Representative. The UN, I can’t overstress this, failed badly in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nobody—not the Serbs, not the Croats, not the Bosniaks—has much good to say about the UN to this day.

“It’s a co-presidency, collective presidency. But they had never met together.”

The Federation Forum:
I ran something that the United States had started, called the Federation Forum. This was a way to get the two sides, the Croat and the Bosniak sides of the Federation to work better together. Once a month or so, I would chair these meetings with the support of the Deputy High Representative, Bildt’s deputy, either in Sarajevo or in Mostar. We would talk through current issues and try to get the Federation authorities to begin to see themselves as part of a single enterprise. There would also be a representative there from what was then IFOR and later became SFOR. Under the Dayton Accords, under the constitution, there are three presidents. It’s a co-presidency, collective presidency. But they had never met together. They all knew each other well, because they’d all been in the old Bosnia and Herzegovina parliament together under Tito. High Rep Bildt and I succeeded in bringing them together for a face-to-face meeting in the fall or ‘96. It was like pulling teeth. We got them to meet in a hotel called the Saraj, as in Sarajevo, overlooking the city. They finally agreed to meet, but only if the meeting wouldn’t be seen as official. They just nickel-and-dime you to death, but they did meet and that broke the ice.

“You have—and this is true of all three ethnic groups—a kind of an unholy alliance between ethnic political parties, ethnic mafias and religious organizations.”

Residents of Sarajevo collect firewood during the siege (1992) Christian Maréchal  | Wikimedia Commons
Residents of Sarajevo collect firewood during the siege (1992) Christian Maréchal | Wikimedia Commons

The Challenges of Reconciliation:
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, you have Croats. They are citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, not citizens of Croatia, although a heck of a lot of them carry two passports. Likewise, Serbians are citizens of Serbia, but there are lots of Serbs in Bosnia. The Bosnian Croats are in something of a privileged situation. First of all, as I said, a lot of them have two passports, both Bosnian and Croatian. Second of all, they have a huge and prosperous mafia, so there was a lot of money pouring in, including during the war. Third, the influence of the Catholic Church is huge—and I’m talking about very hardline elements of the Catholic Church, especially in Herzegovina down near the Croatian border. One of the difficult situations that we internationals all faced was how to deal with the Bishop of Mostar, Branko Perić, who is close to being a fascist. I went to the Vatican twice and met with the Foreign Minister of the Holy See to discuss this problem. You have—and this is true of all three ethnic groups—a kind of an unholy alliance between ethnic political parties, ethnic mafias and religious organizations. These people have an investment in not seeking reconciliation. That’s why it has taken so long to get where we are now in Bosnia and Herzegovina, because they’ve got a lot invested in not reconciling with the other groups.

“If things fail in Bosnia, the region will know it and there will be repercussions.”

Slow Progress:
I guess the short answer is not nearly as much [progress] as we would have liked, because nobody understood at the outset what a tough nut this was going to be. Bosnia and Herzegovina, geographically and historically—along with Kosovo for different reasons—is kind of a linchpin of the Balkans. If things succeed in Bosnia, they can succeed anywhere in the region. If things fail in Bosnia, the region will know it and there will be repercussions. Why? Because you have these overlaps across the borders. Serbia is mainly made up of Serbs, but not only. Croatia is mainly Croats, especially since the war, but not only. Bosnia is all of the above. It’s Croats, it’s Serbs, it’s Muslims. It’s also Jews, Roma, Romanians, Hungarians, Ukrainians, and Italians, who were brought in by the Austro-Hungarians. It’s a real hodgepodge. It’s also geographically very difficult. I like to say it’s West Virginia with much higher mountains. So you also have this fragmentation and separation caused by geography—deep valleys, little villages, occasional big towns, a couple of major cities. The entire population in 1991 was only four million, and with the war it’s now probably about two thirds of that. There were two million refugees and IDPs out of four million people, of whom one million have come back to settle their property claims. Many of them have stayed on, but Bosnia and Herzegovina lost one quarter of the population at least.

“We finally succeeded in getting the four of them to meet together.”

Education and Religion:
We at the Embassy were beginning to work with the Council of Europe and NGO’s like the Center for Civic Education, which were trying to build a viable education system. There were three different systems, and the textbooks in each were calling the other two peoples inferior human beings, that kind of thing. We also worked hard to establish an InterReligious Council, consisting of the senior religious leaders of the Islamic, the Orthodox, Serb, Croat and the Jewish faiths—the Raïs ul-Ulema, the Vladika, the Cardinal and the head of the Jewish community. In the summer of ’97, we finally succeeded in getting the four of them to meet together.

“The three ethnic mafias cleaned out a minefield and installed wooden walkways and lean-to shacks.”

Arizona Market:
Have you ever heard of Arizona Market? Okay. Brčko is a river port city across the Sava River from Croatia, way up north. The highway that leads south out of Brčko toward Tuzla was named Arizona Highway by SFOR. In 1996, south of Brčko, right on the boundary line between the two entities, an ad hoc market sprang up. It looked for all the world like a souk, a Middle Eastern bazaar. The three ethnic mafias cleaned out a minefield and installed wooden walkways and lean-to shacks. It was something you’d expect to see outside of Istanbul. You could buy anything at Arizona Market. You could buy a television. You could buy a nice young lady from Moldova. You could buy a Mercedes stolen off the streets of Berlin yesterday—name your color. It was all there. Everybody profited. These guys all knew each other, all understood each other and they cut the pie very efficiently.

“The U.S. Embassy in the early days, OSCE later on, really got involved along with UNHCR in creating circumstances for return.”

Post-Conflict Rebuilding:
They [the NGOs] were especially active in five areas: health; humanitarian demining; housing rehabilitation; refugee return, which is related; and education. Bosnia and Herzegovina, after all, had been a constituent republic of Yugoslavia, with a very good standard of health care, excellent hospitals in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Mostar, Banja Luka, Gorazde, other cities. During the war, a lot of dedicated doctors, Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs, others stayed on, and many died. A lot of NGOs were active, such as CARE, who came in and helped to re-start the hospital system.

Then there was humanitarian demining. Estimates for land mines still in the ground in Bosnia and Herzegovina today vary between 500,000 and a million. The various militaries in Bosnia and Herzegovina had planted some of the minefields, so there were some records as to where some of them were, but others had been planted by peasant farmers who managed to get access to weapons storage sites. They wanted to discourage people from taking over their farms if they were forced off the land. So you had these random landmines scattered here and there. Today, animals, and sometimes children or adults, are still being killed by these incidental mines. No one had the money or the resources necessary to take all these mines out of the ground—either the random mines or the minefields that had been planted by the military along the confrontation line. A number of NGOs with expertise in demining came in and began getting to work, training locals to do it. Some war veterans who were looking for work anyway were hired on. It was a drop in the bucket, but it was a start.

As for refugees—Save the Children, Red Cross, Red Crescent, UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees]—lots of organizations focused on refugee issues. UNHCR is not an NGO, but they helped launch and organize the process. This ties directly to reconstruction, facilitating the return of people who want to come back and finding places for them to live. The U.S. Embassy in the early days, OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] later on, really got involved along with UNHCR in creating circumstances for return. This has been one of the good news stories in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It will never be what it was before, but the advocates of “ethnic cleansing” never fully accomplished their mission either.

“To come back and see what had happened to it was shocking.”

The City of Mostar:
Actually, the first time was as a tourist in 1974, with my wife Mette and then six-year-old son Christopher. To come back and see what had happened to it was shocking. There’s a grand avenue, called the Bulevar, that parallels the river on the west side of town. The buildings along it looked like Swiss cheese. You had the Croats on the west side of the street and the Bosniaks on the east side, firing at point blank range for the better part of three years, every caliber of weapon. It looked like pictures of Stalingrad in 1943. The bridge of course was gone, the famous Turkish bridge over the river. The shelling had been such that even when you were a few blocks away from the boulevard, the buildings were pretty badly beaten up. No one was talking to anybody. You would go to east Mostar, the Muslim side of town, and you’d talk to the Bosniak mayor. Then you’d go to west Mostar and you’d talk to the Croat mayor. You had, in effect, two estranged halves of a single city. Mostar has recovered from that only very slowly. No one could solve it quickly.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in French, University of Pennsylvania 1958–1962
Certificate in Phonetics and Linguistics, University of Strasbourg 1962–1964
Joined the Foreign Service 1971
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso—Deputy Chief of Mission 1988–1991
Brussels, Belgium—U.S Mission to NATO 1991–1994
Amman, Jordan—Deputy Chief of Mission 1994–1996
Sarajevo, Bosnia—Special Envoy 1996–1997