e-mail us


For this American in Bosnia, ‘big picture’ offers reason for staying

Mary Adele Greer has since March 1998 been on assignment for the American Bar Association with the Central and East European Law Initiative, a program aimed at helping the countries of that region develop a legal infrastructure that protects due process and human rights.

She is currently in Orasje, Bosnia, conducting training for lawyers, judges, prosecutors and police. She expects to be in Bosnia at least until September.

A graduate of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., and the St. Louis University School of Law, Greer has been using E-mail to stay in contact with friends and family. The following letter, lightly edited, was written to them from the capital of Bosnia where a United Nations peacekeeping force is stationed. It was written soon after the current NATO campaign against neighboring Kosovo began.

Sarajevo, Bosnia

One day at the start of the bombings, my friend Brid, an Irish detective now working for the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague in the Netherlands, took me to the British post exchange where I purchased an American boom box using German marks. (I love this city.) We did a quick run through the American post exchange, where I grabbed some cherry licorice and the new Life magazine -- the one with big pictures and little analysis or text. Sometimes you can learn just as much if not more by looking at pictures.

I am going to leave the analysis of what is going on or should not be going on here in the Balkans to those who have the energy for it. I will concentrate on the big and little pictures -- the sights and sounds of “life” here -- close to where bombs and planes are falling, where refugees are fleeing for safety and where in our own little war-torn corner we live among those who experienced the same things not long ago. I hope that, just looking and listening, we can let all our viewpoints and perspectives be open, without any specific destination or allegiance to past ideas and opinions.

The CNN and Sky News coverage of the initial air strikes quieted the whole city. It also disquieted all those back in the states worrying about us and trying to follow developments.

Sarajevo, at first glance, really seems the same as it was before the air strikes. We have always had huge numbers of military people, guns and tanks around. The Italians have lots of baby-faced soldiers who carry the biggest, scariest guns. The Norwegians are the most serious soldiers, with the Germans not far behind. The Turks are lots of fun and will show you pictures from home. The French are charming but can get cranky pretty easily. Of course, the Brits have the best sense of humor (by their own admission) and have the best “on base” pubs. Most Americans are locked down in Tuzla, sober and trapped behind barbed wire and walls, but standing ready for drifting MiG fighters.

It used to be only on sunny days that the tanks would come out and envelop every corner. Now they are out all the time, and the drivers whose heads stick out in that bubble on top are not smiling. Now the military presence feels ominous, and although I am so glad they are here, I wish they weren’t.

The Sarajevo airport has been closed since the first night of the bombings. Thus the noise in the sky is not Swiss Air arriving from Zurich with a plane full of internationals, but NATO bombers heading to or from their targets. We hear them often in the day and all night. Hovering helicopters used to mean Madeline Albright was in town. Now we don’t know what they mean, and they are everywhere, so they are scary.

Our embassy has not had any problems, but around the world the new wave of embassy demonstrations and attacks is more than unsettling.

The night we got word about the Yugoslav fighters flying into Bosnian airspace was a particularly bad one for me. As I was watching the news reports, my Hague friend telephoned to tell me she was on alert because they expected to be making some arrests of war criminals over the weekend (from the “old” Balkan war, the one in Bosnia). I went to a birthday party that night, thinking that being with other internationals would calm me. But the conversations about mass graves and sad stories about displacement and homelessness weighed heavily. I went home and reread the liturgy written for me by Sr. Lillian when I left Benedictine College in Atchison a year ago and slept like a baby, thanks to my friends on the Mount.

I woke to a bright, sunny Saturday morning and went for a long distance run with a friend from USAID. As we neared the end of our run, we watched two bombers take off from the “closed” Sarajevo airport and disappear amazingly quickly into the horizon. God knows where they were going.

We did training a few days ago in Tuzla. I awoke to the terrible news about the U.S. servicemen being abducted while on patrol in Macedonia and then watched the exclusive CNN interview with Arkan, the mastermind of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia just a few years ago, who I am sure is being just as “helpful” with the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. The interview was interrupted by the Serbian TV newscast showing the bruised and bleeding faces of our soldiers. I wandered downstairs and started the training. I was startled to see about 20 soldiers walk in. It turned out they were local military police there to learn about the new criminal codes. Had there been one of those hovering helicopters nearby I might have hopped on and not looked back. But it is not that simple.

I am scared. My nerves are wearing thin. I can look out my window and see Kosovo. The pictures flashed on CNN seem duplicative. Here in Bosnia, there are villages everywhere and large sections of Sarajevo that are so desolate, having been so maliciously and intentionally destroyed, that it is almost as if smoke is still spilling from the roofless shells of what used to be people’s homes and what used to be people’s lives. The faces of the Bosnian farmers, tanned and weathered, are full of tales still too fresh to be told, especially to those who don’t understand because they weren’t there.

I can go just a few blocks from my house and meet at least one or two persons missing a foot or a leg and walking with a cane or getting around in a wheelchair. Land mines are everywhere here, still, and are being laid fresh every day all over Kosovo -- in plowed fields, under bridges, in churches, cemeteries and near schools. It is the ultimate, really, in cowardice -- in spineless, random warfare with an almost satanic lack of regard for human life.

The area next to my house used to be a park. Now it houses almost 1,000 graves of civilians killed by Serbian troops during the siege of Sarajevo. My landlord’s eldest son and wife are buried there.

What I can’t see from my window are the refugees -- because, of course, they are all gone. They are in Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom, Greece, Italy, France, St. Louis and Iowa. They probably will never feel at home there or here.

The big surprise of this new war seems to be that there are so many refugees. It’s almost as if the war in and around Bosnia, which lasted for over four years and ended just three years ago, never happened. Now the number of refugees in this war is up to 800,000. How many football stadiums would be filled by all those people, displaced perhaps forever? It wouldn’t be an orderly scene, because they are frantic for food as well as for word about family and friends. They are cold and filled with despair. All they have left is the clothes on their backs and each other. And memories that will haunt them forever -- of the lives they lived and lost and the horrific manner in which they have become homeless.

So, why stay? Because there is a bigger picture. I was the guest of honor at Easter dinner with the family of my new Serbian friend, Melica. It had been several days since they had been able to confirm the safety of their family in Serbia after NATO had stepped up the bombing. Many of those bombers travel daily from Missouri. Yet a Missourian was placed at the head of the table for Easter dinner. Afterward I hurried to send off our trainers in Zenica, amid best wishes for a Sretan Uskrs (Happy Easter) from each of the people at the dinner (two Serbs, two Muslims and one Croat). That totals 10 kisses (double cheeks), and one big smacker by the assistant to the minister of justice.

These folks seem to have no trouble seeing the big picture, and, although they may have their opinions about what should or should not be happening in the Balkans and what the extent of international involvement should be, it does not interfere with their friendships, fellowship and commitment to their work.

We are over halfway through the second round of training on the new criminal codes. Our road show is drawing an even bigger crowd than before, since the legal and police communities have been using the laws for several months now and are desperate for the implementation advice of our (I mean the Bosnian) expert team. I am committed to doing what I can to help craft a legal system here that is grounded in due process and human rights protections. If so many Bosnians weren’t so inspiringly dedicated as well, I would already have jumped onto that hovering helicopter.

But I am equally if not more committed to preserving my safety and sanity. I will stay as long as I am not in jeopardy and I am not putting our local partners at risk. In the meantime, in a few weeks when this training cycle is over, I am off to visit friends in England. I’ll be back when things have settled down, when I can hear Swiss Air overhead again, not bombers, and when I can again focus on helping to build a legal system grounded in the rule of law in one still very fragile area of the Balkans. I want the sad scenes to fade away and the majestic Yugoslavian mountains to reappear -- resilient, strong, steadfast and interconnected.

The big picture.

National Catholic Reporter, April 30, 1999