Martin is a Franciscan lay missionary whom I befriended early in my stay in Tuzla. Over beers at the Harley-Davidson, a bar popular with the international crowd, he explained, “A lot of organizations will be pulling out at the end of the year. This year is real important. If the democracy will hold, it has to right now” (a reference to the then-upcoming elections). “USAID is cutting back here. The business development program is already run by Bosnians, but the other projects [which included municipal infrastructure rebuilding and support of political parties] will be scaled back or shut down. You will see a mass exodus in December.”
I had been in Bosnia a month, teaching English at a teen center in Tuzla, about 100 kilometers north of Sarajevo. I was in the country courtesy of the support given to me by my college, Dartmouth. Bosnia in many ways is similar to the New Hampshire I have grown to love, but the political and economic, not to mention security conditions, are vastly different from anything I have experienced in the United States. Before I went to Bosnia, people frequently asked me why I wanted to travel to a war zone. I explained to them that the war had been over for about three years and that there were several thousand well-armed American soldiers around the city in which I would be living. Bosnia is not presently a war zone. What I did not realize until I arrived, however, is that Bosnia is a colony.
In the late 20th century, the idea of imperialism has become unpopular, but that is not to say that imperialism does not exist. In the 19th century, the influential countries of the world were known as the “Great Powers”; in the Balkans today, they are called the “Contact Group.” The Contact Group is composed of countries with an interest in the region, based either on history, such as Russia, or proximity, such as Germany. Perhaps the most significant difference between these two centuries is that the United States, a product of the imperialism of England, is a member of the “Contact Group.”
One of the first things you notice when arriving at the airport in Sarajevo is the alphabet soup of trucks. UNHCR, OSCE, CARE, USAID, JOG, and the rest cry out like mantras to some unseen god of refugee relief Similarly, the hodgepodge of military uniforms is intriguing. Italian, German, American, Hungarian, and a few other nationalities can all be seen in the three-hour drive from the capital to Tuzla, and that is just one region in the country. It does not include the British “sector” in Banja Luka, in the western portion of the country, nor the other contingents based in the American “sector” of Tuzla. Present-day Bosnia resembles post-World War II Berlin, without the single wall dividing the city. In Bosnia, the lines are not so straight and defined.
Aid organizations are abundant, installing Internet access, checking satellite dishes at refugee camps, or spreading the Baptist faith, as if what this country needs is the Starr Report online. Baywatch episodes, and Protestantism. Of course, most, if not all, of the men and women I talked to genuinely believed in what they were doing. Few of them, however, spoke about the big picture while discussing their work.
One hundred years ago, imperialism meant occupying soldiers and colonial administrators; it still does. The question of U.S. troops stationed in Bosnia elicits mixed responses. Younger people, teenagers in particular, see the troops as a blessing. “When the Americans came, the war stopped. I like it that they are here,” I heard throughout my stay. Some of the older people have a different opinion.
In 1995, when it became evident that American forces would be deployed to Bosnia, many small-business owners invested what little money they had in stores or restaurants in anticipation of the rich soldiers who would be coming. Once the soldiers arrived, they were horrified to discover that the Americans were not allowed off the base except for official duties. Near one of the many American bases scattered throughout the Tuzla valley, a beautiful new building contains a restaurant named “Kalifornia Pizza,” or something along those lines. The building is remarkable for its glitter and for the fact that the restaurant does not have a single patron. The owners clearly had hoped to cash in on the American troops, who have no choice but to dine in the Burger King and Baskin-Robbins facilities which the Army has installed on each of its bases.
Walking through the streets, it is easy to spot the American soldiers. When off the base, they are required to wear full battle gear, including a flak jacket, kevlar helmet, and an M16. All movement requires at least a three-truck convoy. Each Humvee has a crew-fed machine gun, which is manned. Some of the soldiers I talked to agreed that these measures, while intended to ward off trouble, may in fact invite it. But should someone take a shot at them, the soldiers are ready.
“I can clear this square in 30 seconds if I have to,” bragged one SAW machine gun operator while we chatted near the large marketplace in the center of town.
Like soldiers of all ages, they miss home and do not particularly like being stationed in Bosnia. All are tired of garrison life.
The new imperialism is driven by money as much as by military force. By threatening to withhold funds, or the outright buying of support, the West has established a government which is on the verge of collapse. The recent elections were managed by OSCE, which is affectionately known as the “Organization for Stupidity and Chaos in Europe.” Posters advertising the various political parties could be seen throughout the city with “USAID” or “OSCE” stamped in the corner. The West did not pretend to want anything less than having its handpicked candidates win. In some parts of the country, the people do not even have the illusion of self-government. United Nations’ or OSCE diplomats manage these places directly, such as the town of Breko, north of Tuzla.
Recent history has shown that the United States has anything but a Midas touch when it comes to maintaining governments in foreign countries. The fall of the Shah of Iran, of Marcos in the Philippines, and the entire history of what was South Vietnam should give the present leadership in Sarajevo pause. With last September’s elections bringing victory to many leaders not associated with the West, it would appear that the people are rejecting what OSCE, the United Nations, and the United States have to offer. The division of Bosnia into two “entities” does not answer the question of how to get the various groups to live together. There is no incentive to resolve any disputes peacefully.
The teenagers with whom I worked all said the same thing: “We’ve seen war, and we want peace.” But they could not deny the fact that tensions between the groups still exist. One older Serbian boy spoke to me about younger children, Muslims, who called him names behind his back. During our conversation, he nearly burst into tears; the frustration of the situation was almost too much for him to bear. He is 16 years old.
The tension is evident in other ways. Behind the center at which I worked was a large Serbian Orthodox church. The structure showed little, if any, signs of damage, while the library next door still had the distinctive marks from the shell fragments which had hit it. However, on a small wall surrounding the church were the words, “Keep on Rotting.”