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coercing and enforcing


ONLINE contents

- reclaiming the silence
- coersing and enforcing
- arms trade map
- lives together

During a break in the fighting in Sarajevo a Bosnian soldier
reassembles a dummy used
to draw sniper fire.

Photo Tom Stoddart

Voices from conflict zones
Tajikistan: ‘The ordinary people don’t want war, but the policy people make it.’ ‘We can train our children not to hate.’ ‘I’m teaching my children and grandchildren not to seek reprisals, and not to play at war games.’

Lebanon: ‘If we only rebuild the stone and sand and steel, but not the people, peace won’t be sustained. Reform for the people is more important because they’re the ones who will rebuild the country.’

El Salvador: ‘Peace doesn’t mean we must forgive the wicked things. But we must continue the struggle, not through arms but through our voices, our thoughts.’

Burundi: ‘Explaining to your children is a long-term job. The message has to be repeated again and again. You keep on. That is the only way to change anything. For the time being it might be difficult to achieve anything, but you have to start somewhere. We have started.’


On February 5 1994, a 120mm mortar shell plunged into Markale market place in Sarajevo. A US journalist wrote down what he saw. One of the stallholders, ‘his wife eviscerated at his feet, lifted his head, stared upwards, and, raising a fist, began to shout. Along with several others I followed his gaze and picked out the glinting specks in the bright blue sky: the planes of NATO, patrolling over the “safe area” of Sarajevo. Amid the human wreckage of this sun-filled square, what could that phrase possibly mean?’

Sarajevo had already been relentlessly shelled for two years, but it was that market massacre (68 dead, over 200 wounded) that jolted international attention. Another, at the same place eighteen months later (5 mortars, 37 killed, over 90 wounded), finally drove the West – trying to come to grips with what had just happened in Srebrenica – to acknowledge that UN presence had been impotent and NATO’s patrols irrelevant.

Almost at once the UN abandoned its peace-keeping mission and became ‘in the position of combatants, coercing and enforcing’; and a NATO bombing campaign was under way. When the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed in November 1995, it was enforced by NATO’s 60,000 strong International Implementation Force (IFOR), later to be SFOR (S for Stabilisation), which is still there. The UN not only had no peace-keeping role, it had been excluded from the Dayton ‘peace process’ altogether.

‘Peacekeepers had been sent into Bosnia when there was no peace to keep. Now a much larger force of warriors had been sent in when there was supposed to be no war to be fought. Of such contradictions was policy made by the international community’.

Today Srebrenica’s population is almost entirely Serb: many are refugees themselves, driven out of Bosnia’s Croat and Muslim partitions. Quite a number are from Sarajevo. They regard themselves as victims: they have no fresh water, no jobs, nothing to do and nowhere else to go. But a few Muslims have returned – one of them is the town’s mayor, though the people who elected him are scattered elsewhere. He says stoically, ‘We have to be optimistic. There is no other way.’ A couple in their 80s came back in April this year and found their cottage still standing. They cleaned and repaired it, and slowly their neighbours began to turn up offering help. They weren’t surprised: ‘My father and grandfather were born here. We’ve always lived among Serbs. They’ve been good to us.’

Also in April, the town of Brcko, commanding the 3-mile wide strip of transport links between the two sections of Serbian Bosnia (Republika Srpska), succeeded in establishing a multi-ethnic local government. The town is mostly Serb, but some formerly resident Muslims have returned. ‘Strangers killed my mother, not the Serbs I know. We must all live together now. Now I want to rebuild my house, the freedom to seek work, and the unexploded bombs taken away so that my children can play outside.’ The Brcko government’s inauguration was attended by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and EU Commissioner Chris Patten: a significant reminder of the powers behind them.

‘It’s like you have to give people a course in economics before they can join in the protest,’ said an experienced activist, in Prague this September for nonviolent direct action against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The IMF and the WB have something to answer for in the Balkans which needs to be recognised. How does the imperialist tendency in global economics work? If economists may be believed (and understood), it goes something like this:
If you’re a major power (and fuelled by global corporations) looking to control a minor one, first you define your objective. (The USA’s covert policy for Eastern Europe in the 1980s was ‘to promote a ‘quiet revolution’ to overthrow communist governments and parties’ while integrating EE countries into the world market.) You consult with your financiers (the IMF and the WB). You check your military resources (NATO). You make sure what you’re going to do is legal or can quickly be made so, especially where banking law is concerned. Then you lend money to your chosen prey, ostensibly so he can drive his own economy. You let him accumulate debt and debt-servicing costs. You watch his currency devalue and his economic growth falter and recede. Then you tell him exactly what he must do to pay back what he owes you. He must take out further loans to pay interest; sell off his public industries and let firms go bankrupt; lay off workers or freeze their wages; allow his banking system to be dismantled and handed over to yours; and hand over key controls to you. And he can’t refuse your conditions: he is trapped.

Something like this happened in Yugoslavia (once a regional industrial power and economically successful) from 1980 onwards. The result: rising poverty and unemployment, social hopelessness and despair. In such circumstances, if there’s potential for disintegration, it will happen: as Belgrade struggled with its foreign debts, Yugoslavia’s constituent republics were left to fend for themselves, leading to discontent and rapid secessions. The 1990 elections in Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia were won by separatist coalitions: communists were now out of office, just as the major powers wanted.

And then? Here’s an economist’s summary: ‘The IMF-sponsored package of January 1990 contributed unequivocally to increasing enterprise losses, while also pushing many of the large electricity, petroleum refinery, machinery, engineering and chemical enterprises into bankruptcy. Moreover, with the deregulation of the trade régime, a flood of imported commodities further destabilised domestic production. These imports were financed by borrowed money granted under the IMF package. While this helped to pile up Yugoslavia’s external debt, abrupt increases in interest rates and input prices that were imposed on national enterprises speeded up the displacement and exclusion of domestic producers from their own market.’

In such circumstances, if there’s potential for cultural or ethnic division, it will happen: and so Bosnia-Herzegovina has ended up torn in three. It was easy for the republics’ leaders, facing blame for economic disaster, to choose war: war disguises its own causes. In the competition for survival, reactivated ethnic divisions were a fine alternative focus for hostility.

At the end of the Bosnian war the peace settlement was enforced by the military, making Bosnia essentially a divided and occupied territory under foreign administration: colonisation by other means. The foreign administration hasn’t seemed all that interested in ‘reconstruction’, either, preferring to investigate possible riches from untapped coal and oil deposits. Reconstruction money has certainly (and generously) been pledged: but the debt-trap means that it goes to pay for the NATO presence, and, even more, to repay the major creditor – the IMF. Debts have built up again, the economy hasn’t. And as for the people: how can they rebuild their social fabric and institutions when their livelihoods have been destroyed, their basic needs are scarcely met, and their future looks hopeless?

Well, it’s the people, some of them, who have made what moves there are. When the Bosnian war began, a group who disagreed with the ethnic division called for by their leaders started their own citizens’ forum. Over 2000 came to the first meeting, and within a year there were 15,000 members. During the siege of Sarajevo, Muslim and Serb women looked after each other’s children – ‘We had been friends – we couldn’t let the fighting end that’. Convoy drivers making dangerous trips often kept in touch with drivers on ‘the other side’, developing a supportive brotherhood across the ethnic divides. There were frequent stories of individuals (on both sides) refusing to take part in the war, or saving lives (on both sides) by risking their own.

After the war, people with shared interests – choirs, orchestras, study groups, youth clubs – were ready to renew association with people who only recently had been ‘the enemy’. Other kinds of reintegration and defusion were worked out: for example, aid agency drivers ferrying supplies for the Muslim sector through Republika Srpska were repeatedly stoned – until they suggested buying the goods from the Serbs. Once this trade had begun there was no more harassment.
Stones greeted the displaced people who tried to return home in the months following the Dayton Peace Agreement – or they found that their homes had burned down just before they reached them. But this year over 12,000 Muslims, most of them elderly, have safely returned, albeit to undamaged homes in remote areas unaffected by the war. Conversely, foreign Islamic militants are being evicted from Serb properties they’ve refused to leave.

But the ethnic conflict continues, bitterly maintaining territorial divides. When, in July, 3000 Muslim widows of Srebrenica returned there for a few hours, to perform an act of remembrance, they were watched, as they prayed together for peace, by Serbs jeering and whistling abusively. It’s been said that Bosnia is now a protectorate, and that many of the Bosnians don’t object to living in one, only to the fact that it doesn’t protect them.

However, across the Bosnian border, in eastern Croatia, something positive is happening. The Osijek Centre for Peace, an NGO founded in 1992, has created ‘peace teams’. Their ‘Nonviolent Listening’ initiative gives local people the chance to talk about their war traumas, their difficulties and needs. Problems are thus identified, and, importantly, people themselves are involved in tackling them. Says a leader: ‘I realised that ideas have to come from ordinary, local people, and we have to work with those ideas, not impose projects destined to fail because the people haven’t been consulted’.

More good news from the Balkans: surveys show there’s been a massive drop in nationalism. Two years ago 40% of Serbs said they wanted to live in an ethnically homogenous country; now it’s only 12% – ‘the European average for xenophobia’ says the head of Belgrade’s independent Radio B92. That rapid change ‘owes more to the independent media and NGOs’ and to forward-looking new youth action groups ‘than to the international community’.

Meanwhile, the UN as peace-keeper has lost respect. Unarmed, it is abused. Armed – in any case a contradiction in terms – it’s ineffectual. There have been stories of Serb soldiers in stolen UN blue helmets luring Muslim civilians out of safe areas to be shot, and of UN troops in Sierra Leone defecting to the rebels they were supposed to pacify. NATO, up front or disguised by humanitarian acronyms, perpetuates the idea that violence works, and does no more than hold down the lids on enmities kept hot by what armed enforcement represents. An international will for peace is absent in practical terms; international policies create the very situations that are most explosive.
There are crumbs of hope in the few peace accords that are holding without the help of armed enforcement. There’s something to be learned from the peace processes that got them there, and how post-war problems everywhere are addressed. There’s something to be learned from any peace accord which allows the people to be consulted (as the Dayton-devised Bosnian Constitution, despite leadership elections, does not). But the effects of war on those people’s lives and hearts and minds can’t be undone.

If ever there was an irrefutable argument against war, it is the peace that war leaves behind it. In such peace there is trauma, not tranquillity; lives that are fractured, not fulfilled; despair, not aspiration; relief, but little promise. Even where reconstruction is possible, it’s built on ruins of which people are reminded every day. Working for peace at all costs is the only truly appropriate and healing way into the future. It’s also the only truly appropriate way to commemorate the many millions whose lives have been brutally cut short by war.

Sources include:
William Shawcross: ‘Deliver Us from Evil’, Bloomsbury, 2000
Deborah Eade (Editor): ‘From Conflict to Peace in a Changing World’, Oxfam 1998
Mary B Anderson: ‘Do No Harm’, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999

Margaret Melicharova


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