Category Archives: U.N.

Sectarian Standoff in Central African Republic

This update on the sorry state of affairs in the Central African Republic (CAR) is in memory of my closest brother, who died a year ago today just before his 64th birthday. He served as a Peace Corps Volunteer on rural health projects in what was then Emperor Bokassa‘s Central African Empire during the late 1970s, and later went on to become one of the tiny handful of academic experts on the country. For his memorial service, his old Peace Corps colleagues recommended redirecting contributions to Water for Good, which builds wells to provide clean water throughout the CAR.

The following excerpt is from a detailed and depressing firsthand report in Foreign Policy by Ty McCormick headlined ‘One Day, We Will Start a Big War’: Outgunned by powerful rebels in the Central African Republic, the U.N. can’t even protect civilians. Now it’s pushing for early elections that could destroy a fragile peace.

There are scarcely 200 paces of tarmacked road in Bambari, a sprawling city of rusty tin kiosks and crumbling concrete edifices, smudged with rust-colored clay, deep in the heavily forested interior of the Central African Republic (CAR). They span the length of a single-lane bridge across the Ouaka River, a muddy torrent that cleaves Bambari in half from north to south. They also happen to be the most important 200 paces of road in town, though for reasons unrelated to the quality of the driving surface. The bridge marks the boundary between two dangerously divided communities, a red line across which visitors from the other side risk death, occasionally by decapitation.

The east bank of the Ouaka is controlled by remnants of the Seleka, a largely Muslim rebel coalition that pillaged and raped its way across CAR before seizing power over the country for a brief period in 2013. The west bank belongs to the anti-Balaka, the knife- and machete-wielding Christian self-defense militias that sprang up to counter the Seleka but managed to make the Muslim rebel coalition’s abuses look relatively mild by comparison. “Muslims are too afraid to travel to the [west] bank,” the mayor of Bambari, Abel Matchipata, told me recently. “Some Christians are traveling to the [east] bank, but they are doing so with a lot of fear.”

Bambari’s stark divisions mirror those in the rest of CAR, a Texas-sized swath of rainforest and savannah that is sandwiched between Chad, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among other troubled neighbors. Even before the latest crisis, CAR was “worse than a failed state,” according to the International Crisis Group. Now, after two-and-a-half years of turmoil stemming from the Seleka coup, the country is de facto partitioned: anti-Balaka in the southwest and former Seleka fighters in the northeast, where they fled after the coalition was disbanded and its leader stepped down under intense international pressure in January 2014. (They are now known as ex-Seleka, an umbrella term that refers to a smattering of armed groups lacking an organized central command.) Outside of CAR’s capital city, Bangui, virtually nothing is under government control. At least 6,000 people have been killed and 832,000 displaced — 368,000 inside the country and 464,000 abroad. About half of the country’s 4.7 million inhabitants are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.

When I visited Bambari last month, ahead of planned elections that many fear could be destabilizing, the city of just under 50,000, the third-largest in CAR, was still reeling from its latest spasm of violence. On Aug. 20, a Muslim taxi driver was plucked from his car outside the city and beheaded by anti-Balaka fighters. The incident provoked a backlash from the Muslim community and a counter-backlash from the Christian community, both of which have acquired a healthy appetite for revenge. By the time the dust had settled, at least 10 people were dead and dozens more wounded, including two aid workers from the Red Cross.

The unenviable task of keeping Bambari’s residents from each other’s throats falls mainly on a single battalion of U.N. peacekeepers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is itself home to the largest peacekeeping operation in the world. The Congolese are part of a 12,000-strong U.N. force in CAR known by its French acronym, MINUSCA. Authorized with a robust Chapter VII mandate to protect civilians and support the transitional government that replaced the Seleka, MINUSCA has been dogged by persistent charges of abuse and incompetence since taking over for a beleaguered African Union force in September 2014. U.N. peacekeepers have been accused of rape and of firing indiscriminately on civilians. They have also struggled to halt periodic outbursts of violence, like the spate of clashes and looting in late September that paralyzed the capital for close to a week. “Plagued by accusations of sexual abuse and facing mounting violence, MINUSCA threatens to turn into a disaster for the U.N.,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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How NGOs Feed Corruption in Cambodia

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 4386-4443:

In 2009 more than 2,000 donor and NGO organizations were based in Cambodia—more per capita than most anyplace in the world. And the money they disbursed per person far exceeded the average for poor countries receiving foreign aid. Some donors were huge government agencies, like the U.S. Agency for International Development or the Department for International Development in Britain. Others were large international organizations, like the United Nations, World Bank, or International Monetary Fund. Still others were small, local groups, like the Alliance Association for Rural Restoration. It appeared to have fewer than a dozen employees.

Overall, so many donors and NGOs were pursuing projects in Cambodia that they were tripping over each other. Several reports on their work noted that many didn’t coordinate with each other and ended up spending time and money on duplicative projects. The government often had no idea what they were up to. “Some of them, particularly the smaller ones, I don’t know what they are doing,” said Im Sethy, the education minister. No matter. The foreigners stationed in Cambodia savored the lifestyle. “People move here just because it is a nice place to live,” said Sara Colm of Human Rights Watch. “There’s Internet, restaurants.”

For many aid workers this was a delightful change, given where they had been based before. Jean-Pierre de Margerie, head of the World Food Program office in Phnom Penh, had just moved from a posting in North Korea. Richard Bridle, head of the UNICEF office, and Douglas Broderick, head of the UN’s mission in Cambodia, had been stationed there, too. In Pyongyang they led controlled, constricted lives. “The government was always playing mind games,” de Margerie recalled. Phnom Penh, in comparison, was quite pleasant.

But for the WFP and other UN agencies much of Cambodia was still listed as a hardship post, just like North Korea or Burma, with commensurate salary supplements. In those other countries, though, they couldn’t walk along the riverfront and stop in any of half-a-dozen espresso bars and pick up one of the two better than average English-language newspapers.

Teruo Jinnai, head of the UNESCO office in Phnom Penh, had worked previously in Tanzania—and Rwanda “just after the genocide,” he said. By comparison, he said, Cambodia was like a ball of clay that he could shape any way he wanted. “Here I have found my own passion. Here, I can work and cause the result I am after. In France, or America, you don’t see results. But here I can set my own target. If I want Cambodia to be like this or that, I can see the result. So that gives you more power, more energy, more passion.”

Critics of the donors and NGOs often noted that they favored expensive Basque, northern Italian, and Japanese restaurants that charged more for a meal than some Cambodians earned in a year. That may have been unfair; you don’t have to live like the people you are helping to be compassionate and effective. Nevertheless, it was clear that these people had a lifestyle they wanted to protect.

Though their work was challenging, it was often rewarding. Many were highly paid, and Cambodia charged no income taxes. They could live in sumptuous homes and hire as many servants as they wanted.

If they cut off aid to the government, as the human-rights groups were demanding, many donors would lose their jobs, or at least their postings. In a Brookings Institution report entitled Aid Effectiveness in Cambodia, two Cambodian economists argued that donors were eager to begin programs that required their continuing participation and assistance because they “wish to maintain their presence in Cambodia.” The donors’ favorite project: good governance, an objective certain to require many years of work. So far it had produced few if any useful results. At one point in 2008, the Brookings study found that donors were pursuing 1,300 different projects nationwide, and 710 of them were ongoing, meaning they required a continued donor presence to keep them running.

So what happened each year when the donors’ meeting came around again? Hun Sen stood before them and one more time said, this year, we are going to reform education, health care, land usage. Every year human-rights groups and opposition candidates cried out: Hold back your donations until they end land seizures, illegal logging and corruption, until teachers stop selling test scores and doctors stop demanding bribes!

But most every donor in the audience had spent the past few months negotiating contract renewals with their home states or organizations, agreements allowing them to continue their work for the coming year. Here at the meeting they were to announce what they were now planning to do and how much they intended to spend. Human Rights Watch and the others were asking them to rip up their new contracts and go home, jobless.

Naturally, none of the donors said that bleak possibility was the reason they would not hold back aid. Instead, they argued, “If you hold back money, the people most affected would be the poor,” explained In Samrithy, the NGO liaison coordinator for the Cooperation Committee of Cambodia, a donor umbrella group. He acknowledged that corruption was so rife that government officials helped themselves to money and goods that donors had dedicated to the poor. Even when they “distribute rice to the poor who they have evicted from their homes—they take some for themselves,” said Kek Galibru, director of Licadho, the human-rights group. “They can’t help it. It’s a habit.” Still, In Samrithy said, “the poor won’t get the services they need,” if aid is cut off. As for the corruption, he explained it away. “Some money goes this way or that way. But it’s useful if some of it reaches the poor. Not all of it does, but some does. That’s better than nothing.” That was a popular rationalization among donors.

A few months after parliament passed the 2010 anticorruption law, a routine government census turned up about 2,000 ghost workers—phantom employees whose salaries went into their supervisors’ pockets. The government declined to prosecute, saying, “We must first warn those individuals who are getting money from ghost names,” as Cheam Yeap, a senior member of parliament, put it.

The next month, Hun Sen addressed the annual donors’ conference once again and promised one more time that soon “we will have the capacity to fight against this dangerous disease” because “corruption will damage our institutions.” The donors awarded him $1.1 billion—the largest pledge in a generation.

Some Cambodians and others remained astounded by the donors’ behavior—even people who worked for them. “I don’t understand their policy,” said Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of another donor umbrella group. “The government has learned that the donors are not serious.” He leaned forward in his chair and spoke softly, as if he were confiding a secret. “They do not stand behind what they say. Sometimes I don’t think some of the donors are really here to fight corruption.”

Year after year the foreign donors continued meeting with the smiling health minister who flattered, and coddled, them. They reached agreements to begin new projects and then joined their friends or lovers at the new Greek place for dinner. After the donors handed over the money to build a new health clinic, the deputy minister took out enough to pay his son’s school tuition bill. The assistant minister took enough to buy new tires for his car. His deputy simply stuffed some cash in his pocket. After all, government commerce was carried out entirely in cash. When the clinic was finally built, so little money was left that the contractor had to use cheap and flimsy building materials, raising the real risk that the structure would collapse in the next big storm—just like that new school building in Kampong Thom.

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Albright Deaf to Cambodia, 1997

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1906-1950:

Phnom Penh was growing increasingly tense. By the spring of 1997 gun battles on the streets were becoming commonplace. Senior government officials from both the CPP and Funcinpec built sandbag bunkers around their houses; guards stood behind them, their automatic-rifle muzzles pointed toward the street.

Both Hun Sen [head of CPP] and Ranariddh [head of Funcinpec] had personal bodyguard forces that now numbered in the thousands. Not infrequently the two sides exchanged fire. Some soldiers and bodyguards were routinely killed. Just outside Phnom Penh both sides reinforced encampments for large numbers of their personal militia members. “The place was stirred up,” Quinn said, and he made a practice of driving around the city in the evening to “look at the guards outside the houses. Were they slumped down, smoking a cigarette, or maybe asleep?” If so, Quinn knew he could relax for the night. “Or did they have their helmets on, standing behind the sandbag with weapons out?”

It was obvious: A war was about to begin. Diplomats from Europe, Asia, and elsewhere began arriving to talk to Hun Sen and Ranariddh. Don’t do it, they would say. Call it off. But no one was listening.

The embassy looked at all the intelligence and made an estimate of when the fighting would start. They placed the date on or about July 1. But then, out of the blue, Washington told [Ambassador Kenneth M.] Quinn that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wanted to stop by for a visit at the end of June, as part of a larger visit to the region. The country was tumbling toward violence, but “she wanted to talk about a success story, and see Angkor Wat,” Quinn said.

Albright was an inveterate tourist. Whenever she could she would visit countries that also gave her an opportunity to see major attractions. Of course, she did plan to meet with Hun Sen and Ranariddh, as other visiting diplomats had, and warn them not to squander the advances Cambodia had made, thanks to the UN occupation and the $3 billion the world had invested in the state. So she was planning a two-day visit, one day in Phnom Penh for business and the second day at Angkor Wat.

Quinn had been sending regular cables telling the department about the deteriorating situation. But he had no way to know who actually read them. A few days earlier three influential senators—John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts; William Roth, Republican of Vermont; and Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee—had written Albright a letter, saying that despite receiving almost $3.5 billion in international aid in recent years, Cambodia “has become the single fastest-growing narcotics transshipment point in the world; scores of journalists, human-rights workers and political activists have been killed in political violence; the government has failed to establish critical constitutional bodies or pass some of the country’s most basic laws; and corruption has infested and overrun almost every government institution.” Was this really the nation that everyone had spent $3 billion to create?

But these concerns fell on deaf ears. Albright was coming to celebrate a new democracy—though, in Washington, she also said, “I will make very clear that it is important for them to proceed down the democratic path.” But Quinn could see that major violence was now inevitable. He told the State Department she shouldn’t come. “People will set out to embarrass her,” he wrote. “There will be violence. That will make her look weak.” He feared that a bombing, grenade attack, or some other violent act by someone trying to embarrass the government would force her to flee. He was looking out for his secretary, but the department “reacted badly,” Quinn said. The tenor was, “What’s wrong with the ambassador? He isn’t on the team. She’s already announced she is coming.”

In mid-June 1997 real fighting broke out between the two bodyguard units in Phnom Penh. Both sides fired assault rifles at each other and tossed grenades. Explosions rattled the city. Thousands of residents locked their doors, closed their shutters, and huddled together, trembling. One rocket landed in the yard just beside Quinn’s house. It happened to be Quinn’s birthday. “My family had arrived” for the celebration, he said. “They stayed in the States while I was there because there was no high school for my kids in Phnom Penh. We were watching a video, The Thin Man, when we heard a click. I asked, ‘Did you hear that?’ Then a big boom. We threw the kids on the floor. My wife and I lay on top of them.” No one was hurt, and damage was minimal. But he called the State Department Operations Center to advise them of what had just happened.

Quinn was vindicated. The next day the department announced a change in plans. Yes, Phnom Penh was a dangerous place. Perhaps Ranariddh and Hun Sen could come out to meet Secretary Albright at the airport and have their talk. Then she could fly on to Angkor.

Needless to say, Ranariddh and Hun Sen were not talking to each other. They spoke with their guns. But they did manage to agree on one thing: There was no way two heads of state were going to drive out to the airport to meet with a foreign minister—even the American secretary of state. What were they, her supplicants? Ranariddh was a prince, heir to the throne, and the head of state. Hun Sen had been the nation’s undisputed ruler for a decade—and obviously planned to assume that status again, very soon. If she wanted to see them, she would have to drive into town, come to their offices. No, they told her. We won’t do it. Ranariddh showed considerable tact when he explained the decision. “She wanted us to come to the airport,” he told reporters, “but Hun Sen and I agreed that if we just met her at the airport, we would be breaking the principles of protocol.” But then he couldn’t seem to help himself and added, “It’s insulting.”

Using the missile assault on Quinn’s house as the pretext, the department canceled Albright’s stop in Cambodia. She’d have to visit Angkor some other time. Nevertheless, the debate over her visit threw off the American Embassy’s carefully calculated time line. Rather than starting on July 1, as expected, the violence would begin five days late.

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UN Occupies Cambodia, 1992

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 144-165, 1178-1197:

In fact, the Cambodian “war” had ended in 1979, more than a decade before the UN occupation began. An old leader had regained his strength while new ones had emerged. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the consummate self-interested monarch who was extremely popular with most of the Cambodian people, had ruled Cambodia since 1941, until a military coup deposed him in 1970. The Khmer Rouge brought him back as their titular head of state—though he was imprisoned in his palace during their reign. Then, as the UN troops began arriving in 1992, they made him honorary king again. But he wanted nothing less than his old job back—the all-powerful monarch, just like the kings who had ruled Cambodia since the beginning of time. Now, however, he had competitors.

During the Vietnamese occupation, from 1979 to 1989, a young Khmer Rouge officer named Hun Sen was named prime minister. He was barely educated, but clever and utterly ruthless—as one might expect of a young man trained by the Khmer Rouge and then the Vietnamese military. The prime minister’s job was handed to him in 1985; he was not about to give it up.

A third competitor arose, Norodom Ranariddh, one of Sihanouk’s sons. He had led a hapless guerrilla organization, funded by the United States. Its goal was to drive the Vietnamese and their appointed government, including Hun Sen, out of the country. After Vietnam pulled out, Ranariddh coveted power too. He seemed to know or care little about governance. But as prime minister, he knew he would be able to enrich himself. Ranariddh was not as clever as Hun Sen, but he was of royal lineage, which gave him a strong advantage.

So, past examples like Germany and Japan—even South Korea—simply were not useful models for this grand experiment. In fact, the Cambodian venture was unprecedented. Even before the UN troops left, the three aspiring leaders were grappling for power, as if the UN election had never taken place. Their contest lasted many years.

The troops may have left, but the United Nations was still there, running a phalanx of charitable organizations—UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Food Program (WFP), and the rest. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, and other major relief agencies from around the world worked alongside the UN. In fact, in time, 2,000 different donors and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) set up shop in Cambodia. As the power struggles grew heated, even violent, the government grew ever more corrupt, and the donors began pushing the leaders to live up to their promises, to serve their people.

Hun Sen, Ranariddh, and the king offered little more than lip service to those demands, but that seemed to be enough. The donors kept giving money, hundreds of millions of dollars, year after year—even as the nation headed for a military showdown to settle the power struggle once and for all.

If anyone had doubted Hun Sen’s true intentions, he made them clear during the first Paris Peace Conference, in 1989, when he declared, “You can talk about sharing power in Paris, but not in Cambodia.” Vietnam had handed him the nation in 1985. He had ruled it uncontested for seven years. He would not step down or share his throne without a fight. And now, with wide reportage of the bamboo-pole incident [in which UN representatives were turned back at a bamboo-pole roadblock], Hun Sen and everyone else realized that the UN was not to be feared. It was nothing more than a paper force. A correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, reporting from Cambodia at the time, put it this way: “The Cambodian people believed that the UN blue berets were like Jupiter threatening to unleash lightning against the Khmer Rouge. What do people see? UNTAC pulls back.”

The fact remained that the Khmer Rouge had not been defeated. The UN’s deputy military commander, Michael Loridon, a French brigadier general, urged his commander to attack and “deal with the Khmer Rouge problem once and for all.” That never happened, though the debate continued for years, until the last UN officer boarded a plane home. From the first days of the UN occupation, everyone knew that over ten years the Vietnamese army, with hundreds of thousands of troops, had never been able to defeat the Khmer Rouge. So what could the UN possibly do now?

By December 1992, more than a year after the Paris Peace Accords, the United Nations finally had its full force of soldiers and administrators in country. They were too late. Every Cambodian already knew that Jupiter had never climbed up the mountain. Pol Pot and Hun Sen were ignoring the UN and facing no penalty. But the truth was, the UN force offered a great deal more than the prospect of military reconciliation. Most Cambodians loved having them in town.

The visitors spent money, more money, and then more money still—$3 billion in all. Every staffer was given a daily living allowance of $145 on top of his salary—a year’s income for most Cambodians. Contractors had quickly put up apartment buildings and now were taking in $2,000, $3,000 a month—ridiculously high rents for Phnom Penh. Hotels were full, and new ones were under construction. Anyone who’d ever had a fleeting thought of running a restaurant scrambled to open one. Everyone with a car hired himself out as a driver. Brothels worked overtime; UN doctors treated thousands of their men and women for sexually transmitted diseases. Liquor vendors couldn’t keep up with demand; restaurant and bar owners had to replace fixtures and furniture broken in drunken brawls almost every evening. UN vehicles and equipment routinely disappeared in the night, but no one was sure whether the thieves were Cambodian or renegade UN employees.

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Sarajevans Angry at Everyone, 1994

From Logavina Street, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2012), Kindle Loc. 2113-2184:

NATO had executed maneuvers during 1994 to try to dissuade the Serbs from their attack. In April, U.S. F-16s and FA-18s bombed Serb troops when they attempted to overrun the UN safe haven, Goražde, in eastern Bosnia, and NATO warplanes struck again in November to protect the enclave of Bihac.

The air strikes were timid measures—pinpricks, denounced the critics. They only enraged the Bosnian Serbs, who retaliated by seizing UN soldiers as hostages and cutting off humanitarian access to Sarajevo.

The NATO ultimatum was a bluff and the Serbs had seen through it. By mid-December, the Bosnian Public Health Institute reported 109 Sarajevans killed and more than 500 wounded since February 9, when the ultimatum was issued. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter flew into Bosnia the weekend before Christmas to patch together a new cease-fire. He was in Pale with Radovan Karadžić the afternoon of December 20, when two 120-millimeter mortar shells hit Marije Bursać Street, around the corner from Logavina. They mangled a bicycle, sent laundry flying, and annihilated the kitchen of a house whose elderly occupants were out collecting humanitarian aid.

Logavina residents were enraged, none more so than Esad Taljanović. The dentist’s six-year-old son, Emir, was playing outside when the shells detonated about a hundred yards away. Emir came back home, frightened and tearful.

“You see, I should not let my son out for thirty seconds,” raged Taljanović. He was furious with the Serbs, the United Nations, and Jimmy Carter. “It is the same thing as if Truman stood next to Hitler and negotiated with him.”

Ekrem Kaljanac picked up the telephone, the only working appliance in his apartment, since the electricity was off again.

“Yes, hello,” he said. Then, cupping his hand over the mouthpiece, “It’s Hillary Clinton. She’s worried about us and was wondering how we’re doing.”

Ekrem’s mischievous performance was intended to point out the absurdity of the idea that anybody in the United States, least of all in the White House, cared about Sarajevo.

Sarajevans were fed up with politicians, diplomats, bureaucrats, relief agencies, and everybody who had promised to help, then failed to deliver.

People were especially frustrated with the United States and the vacillating policies emanating from the White House. Sarajevans had believed Clinton when he promised, during his presidential campaign, to be more proactive in Bosnia than George Bush. “If the horrors of the Holocaust taught us anything, it is the high cost of remaining silent and paralyzed in the face of genocide,” Clinton had said in August 1992, while Sarajevans were huddled helplessly in their bomb shelters.

Ekrem mercilessly teased his wife. Minka, like many of the women on Logavina, had been charmed by Clinton, who they thought resembled John F. Kennedy.

“I saw Clinton a lot on television. He was so good-looking. He was promising a lot and I believed him,” Minka confessed sheepishly. “I was convinced that the Americans were going to bomb the Serbs and end the war.”

“Clinton lies. He behaves like an actor,” interjected Ekrem bitterly. His brother, Safet, joined in. “I watch the news. Americans are more interested in a cat in New York than they are in Bosnians.”

It was not only Clinton’s political rhetoric that persuaded Sarajevans the United States would rescue them; they saw America as the embodiment of the multiethnic state they hoped to create in Bosnia.

A popular poster hanging in cafés around Sarajevo depicted an American flag with a Bosnian lily next to the stars, suggesting that Bosnia become the fifty-first state. Moreover, Bosnians were so utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause, they simply couldn’t believe that the United States would not do something—anything—to intervene.

The invective was also directed against journalists. An emotionally unbalanced woman in her thirties who lived in the Kaljanacs’ apartment building cursed and spit on the ground whenever she saw us coming. Although most Logavina residents remained unfailingly polite and hospitable, they, too, vented their frustration.

“Aren’t you ashamed that your country has done nothing but stand by and watch us die?” Esad demanded of us as his wife served us coffee in their dining room.

Sead Vranić best encapsulated the mood of Sarajevo during that increasingly dangerous month of December 1994. “All days are the same now. You get up and see if you have electricity, or water. You listen to what Clinton says in the morning, and hear that he’s changed his mind by afternoon, then discover in the evening he has forgotten what he said in the morning,” Sead said wearily.

It was not as though Bosnia was being ignored. The peacekeeping mission in the former Yugoslavia was the largest and costliest in the United Nations’ history, consuming some $1.6 billion a year. That didn’t take into account the extra $700 million spent by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The UN Security Council had passed more than one hundred resolutions dealing with the Yugoslav conflict. Most of them were laughably ineffectual. For example, Resolution 752 stated: “The Council demands that all parties concerned in Bosnia and Herzegovina stop the fighting immediately.”

Between the diplomats and bureaucrats, the soldiers, aid workers, and journalists, there were more foreigners in Sarajevo than there had been since the 1984 Olympics. By a conservative count, there were at least 150 nongovernmental agencies working in the area, ranging from Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) to the comic spin-off Clowns sans Frontières, which brought jugglers to entertain Bosnian children.

Yet all the money and good intentions didn’t alleviate the cold, dark nights with nothing to eat. It didn’t stop the shellings and it didn’t stop the sniper fire. Sarajevans resented the foreigners, witnesses to their indignity. They scorned the UN anti-sniper teams who did too little to stop the snipers. They hissed at the TV crews that staked out the dangerous intersections, waiting to film the next sniper victim.

Sarajevans had turned against the United Nations since Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s visit to the city on New Year’s Eve 1992, after which he commented: “I understand your frustration, but you have a situation that is better than ten other places in the world.… I can give you a list.”

Their anger had turned to outright paranoia. “It is like they are experimenting on us to see how much we can take,” remarked the normally sensible Jela, echoing an increasingly common sentiment.

Sarajevans were angry—at everyone. Their free-floating rage hung over the city. The summer of 1994 had been like a furlough from prison, a chance to relax. Having let down their guard once, they couldn’t psychologically gird themselves for the relapse of war. They were starting to lose it.

The spirit of cooperation that had sustained Sarajevo through 1992 and 1993 was under enormous strain. Hardliners in Izetbegović’s ruling Party of Democratic Action proposed banning Serbian songs from the radio. Sarajevans cherished the maudlin Serbian love songs and the proposition failed, but the militants persisted and in October, BiH Television censored a comedy skit poking fun at Islamic fundamentalists. Ljiljan, an Islamic magazine, set off another debate by questioning the propriety of mixed marriage.

“To be honest, I hate Serbs a little more now. The Croats, too,” Ekrem Kaljanac declared in a pique of resentment. Sarajevans were quicker to speak deprecatingly not only of Serbs and Croats but also of the Muslim refugees who were pouring in from the villages of eastern Bosnia. They called the refugees papaks, or peasants.

The neighbors on Logavina Street quarreled more frequently. Jealousy was rife, especially when it came to utilities. One evening when I was visiting the Kaljanacs, the family was using enough stolen electricity to illuminate a twenty-five-watt lamp. Each time they heard steps in the hallway, they guiltily unscrewed the pathetic little lightbulb, lest anyone discover their secret.

Twenty years later, the “International Community” has hardly changed its modus operandi.

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Serbs Stymie UN, NATO, NGOs, 1994

From Logavina Street, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2012), Kindle Loc. 2413-2434:

Whatever semblance of order the United Nations had brought to Sarajevo disintegrated in the last week of May. Serb soldiers marched into a UN-guarded compound and rode off with confiscated tanks and heavy artillery that were off-limits under the latest cease-fire. In protest, NATO warplanes bombed a Serb ammunition depot near Pale.

The Serb retaliation was pitiless and highly effective. They shelled a strip of outdoor cafés in the northern Bosnian city of Tuzla, killing seventy-one people, mostly teenagers. (Unlike the February 5, 1994, market bombing in Sarajevo, nobody bothered to deny it. Serb commander Ratko Mladić boasted that the shelling was punishment for the NATO air strikes.)

Across Bosnia, the Serbs captured hundreds of UN peace-keepers as a deterrent to further air strikes. Pale television flaunted the Serbs’ captives, broadcasting footage of the peace-keepers shackled to poles and bridges. On June 2, a U.S. F-16 flying above the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Banja Luka was shot down and disappeared.

“They are the UN Protection Forces, but they cannot even protect themselves,” said Bosnian prime minister Haris Silajdžić.

It was almost unbelievable. The Republika Srpska, with a population of 800,000—about the size of Greater Pittsburgh—had brought the combined powers of the United Nations and NATO to their knees.

The roads northwest of Sarajevo that the United Nations had been using for land convoys were now shut down. The Serbs stepped up their attacks on the Mount Igman Road, opening fire with anti-aircraft guns on the armored cars of journalists and aid workers. With the siege tightening, there was no flour or sugar for sale anywhere in Sarajevo.

I ran into Suada’s sister-in-law, Aida, who was desperately looking for powdered milk. She had had a baby in May and her breast milk had dried up from poor nutrition. The monthly distribution of humanitarian aid had dwindled to one cup of oil and half a pound of dried peas, beans, and rice per person.

“Believe me. The person who is eating only that humanitarian aid is dead already,” declared Jela.

The sense of abandonment was acute. “The whole world is protesting three hundred UN peacekeepers in chains while we, an entire nation, have been in chains for three years,” complained Esad Taljanović.

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Hoping for D-Day in Sarajevo, 1994

From Logavina Street, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1930-75:

Enough was enough. The shelling of Sarajevo had to stop. Led by the United States and France, NATO issued an ultimatum: The Serbs were to withdraw their heavy-caliber weapons twelve miles away from Sarajevo or place them under the control of United Nations forces. Any weapons left within striking distance of Sarajevo would be subject to air strikes. The Serbs were given ten days to comply. The deadline was set for one o’clock on the morning of February 21—D-day as the Sarajevans were calling it, giddy with anticipation.

The planes were invisible, obscured by the persistent cloud cover of a Bosnian winter, but they made an impressive roar, drowning out normal conversation and rippling the plastic sheeting taped across the broken windowpanes. Sarajevo shuddered, but nobody complained about the noise. They looked up to the fog-shrouded skies with anticipation that the roar was a message from above and redemption was on its way.

“I’m so happy. I’m trembling when I hear the airplanes,” said Delila, her eyes glittering with excitement.

NATO forces had been patrolling the skies over Bosnia since 1992 as part of a limited mandate to enforce the no-fly zone, and to provide air cover for the UN troops on the ground. The United States had the largest number of planes in the NATO fleet, and Sarajevans had cherished the belief that these Americans would eventually come to their rescue. It was a hope nurtured by a steady diet of American films, television, and recollections of World War II.

Alija Žiga, the seventy-two-year-old head of the mosque behind the courtyard, had just finished leading services for the start of Ramadan when he came out to talk to some neighbors. He had fought with Tito’s partisans. “I was behind the front lines. The Germans had us surrounded and they were trying to starve us to death. Then, all of a sudden, these American planes flew overhead and they dropped—you are not going to believe this—hot goulash.”

Some had darker recollections. In 1943, when the Allies tried to bomb a Nazi headquarters housed in the Razija Omanović school, they mistakenly hit the Hajrić house two doors down. Suad Hajrić’s father was killed in the accident.

Almost all anybody could talk about was how the Americans were about to liberate Sarajevo. They imagined it would be a cross between the Normandy invasion and the Desert Storm bombing of Iraq in 1991. Nermin Džino declared, “The Americans missed a few targets in Iraq. I want the air strikes, even if they end up bombing my backyard by mistake.”

Delila agreed. “If I get killed by an American bomb, I won’t mind so much as if it’s a Chetnik bomb.”

As the deadline grew closer, and the Serbs continued to balk, the NATO planes flew lower and more frequently, buzzing the Serb artillery positions in warning. Everybody was convinced the Serbs would be bombed into submission. Delila was out of control. Four nights before the deadline, she ran out of the bomb shelter in the orphanage at midnight to cheer at the NATO planes flying low through the clouds.

“Come on! Come on! Do it!” she yelled, until a policeman walked by and urged her to go back inside.

Tarik Kaljanac woke up one morning, stumbled into the kitchen as his parents were watching the television news, and asked Minka, “Mom, is this the end of the war? Are the Americans really going to help us?”

The weekend before Monday, February 21—D-day—police knocked on doors up and down Logavina Street, advising people to take precautions in case the air strikes missed their targets, or, more likely, the Serbs sought retribution. A rumor swept Sarajevo that the Serbs had a new weapon, a poison gas they planned to unleash on the city. The police showed residents how to fashion a gas mask out of dishwashing liquid and a cotton rag.

After one police visit, Minka confessed she was more afraid than ever. “I worry that the Chetniks will be so angry they have to withdraw that they’ll shell us with all they’ve got. They are sore losers.”

As darkness descended on Sunday evening, Minka hung a heavy blue wool blanket over her living room window, which faced Mount Trebević. You never wanted any light glinting out to make a target for the gunners in the hills. She packed sleeping bags for the family, bread, and a canister of water in case they needed to take cover in the basement of the school. The dishwashing liquid was on the kitchen table, just in case.

The anticlimax should have been predictable. First, the Serbs balked at the conditions set by NATO and Sarajevo filled up with television crews from around the world who were expecting a rerun of the Persian Gulf War. Then Russian president Boris Yeltsin offered to send Russian troops to secure areas from which the Serbs had withdrawn. The Serbs viewed Russia as their political ally and accepted a deal under which most of their heavy weapons were delivered to UN-monitored collection sites.

Ekrem and Minka had stayed up until 1 A.M., playing cards and listening to the radio. “You always expect something to happen, and then the next morning, it is just the same old crap,” Ekrem complained the following day as he wolfed down a lunch of rice and canned meat.

Kira was also annoyed, having stayed up all night not to await the NATO bombardment, but because the baby was fussing. “Let me tell you about the world,” she said wearily. “I’ve heard all of it before. They always make promises they don’t keep. They said they would attack—they didn’t do it—and now, whatever they do or say really doesn’t interest me.”

Yet it couldn’t be denied: The shelling had stopped. Sarajevo was quiet again. You could even hear the birds. Sure, there was an occasional burst of gunfire around the Holiday Inn, or an odd boom from the direction of the front lines, but Sarajevo was, for the most part, safe.

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