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Backing the Balkans.

Grim absurdity is perhaps the best way to describe life in Bosnia and much of the rest of ex-Yugoslavia a year after the Dayton accord. This was driven home recently in a letter from Michael Sells, author of The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia and president of the Community of Bosnia Foundation, which raises U.S. scholarships for Balkan war refugees:

In our little foundation, the students we have sponsored from Serb and Croat controlled territory cannot return home.

In the case of a student we have sponsored to Villanova University, the student's father and uncles were last seen alive at the Keraterm and Omarska camps. Her mother is now being deported from Germany back to Bosnia on the grounds that after Dayton, she has the "right of return."

Guess who is a police official near her home town of Prijedor: Zeljko Meakic, former commandant of the Omarska camp, who has been indicted for genocide by the International Tribunal in the Hague. Meakic's assistants in the police department at Prijedor are his former camp guards (also indicted by the Tribunal).

When the tiny remnant of Muslims were attacked and their homes burned in Prijedor, the NATO/IFOR force charged with enforcing the Dayton accords told them to complain to the local police (i.e., to Meakic and co.)...

In that light it is hard to take much comfort from the ten-year prison sentence just handed a low-level Republika Srpska thug by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Such willed blindness to the imperatives of either justice or reconciliation comes from the fact that this peace was brokered from the interests of states, not peoples: of Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia and Franjo Tudjman's Croatia, intent on maintaining their ethnically cleansed territorial gains; of a United States that has no interest in independent international pursuit of war crimes; of a Western Europe eager to rid itself of the troublesome legions of refugees.

It is time to turn the discourse on the Balkans away from its exclusive focus on the actions of the United States and the region's leaders and focus instead on ways to aid refugees, sustain democratically inclined groups and pursue war criminals. If peace is still possible, it will rely on the strength of nonstate democratic institutions: unions, independent media, political coalitions and other groups. The hunger for independent and accountable politics is evident. The fact that many of Milosevic's and Tudjman's opponents are themselves of a dangerously nationalistic or authoritarian stripe makes serious support for democrats all the more crucial.

In the short run, Serbian dissidents are likely to need international help when Milosevic runs out of patience and stages a crackdown. Refugees, too, are in desperate straits, between a Europe using the "right of return" as an excuse to kick them out and regimes at home using them as pawns to "purify" territory through resettlement. Those refugees and dissidents need immediate support from U. S. unions, journalists and social-action groups. In the long run, peace will depend on such efforts.

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Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Dec 23, 1996
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