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Issue Date:  January 13, 2006

What is Dayton?

A Sarajevan reflects on the nightmare of war, a decade of peace


Mum, what is Dayton?” my 4-year-old daughter asked recently. She almost certainly had overheard the word on the TV news, where here in Sarajevo there have been constant reports on the 10th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accord that ended the war. “Dayton?” I responded. In an instant, I was transported back to a moment nearly 13 years ago.

It was when I was 17. I looked into the eyes of my boyfriend and said, “Please go. Take care. There will be a war and we will not see each other again.” I was full of fear.

“War in Sarajevo?” he said. “That’s nonsense!” He kissed me, held me tight and said, “Take care of yourself.” Then he left. We never saw each other again. That’s how our last date ended. A few days later, the first barricades were erected and Sarajevo became a war zone.

A few months passed and I turned 18. Ordinary rites of passage took place in extraordinary circumstances. I lit my first cigarette during a battle where, as a nurse, I was awaiting the first wounded. My first cup of coffee was a replacement for a meal. My mother gave it to me to satisfy my hunger.

Well-known faces of my school friends became the faces of the warriors. We missed so much of what 18-year-olds are supposed to experience. There was little time for the rituals of adolescence, like dating or hanging out with friends. Those of us who tended the wounded could only focus on saving a life or sewing up a leg or an arm.

I can’t forget their screams. Anesthesia was saved for only the very worst cases. It’s hard to believe that horror like this can easily become part of everyday life. I got used to the screams, as one can get used to anything with time. But terrifying screams still echo in my dreams.

And I can’t forget the fear, the hunger and the death. Some 250,000 people killed in the brutal three-year war, another 2 million people becoming refugees or internally displaced. The war destroyed communities throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina physically, economically and morally. Images of suffering often come back to me. I can see frightened children’s eyes, crying mothers trying to save their children, old people running from their homes.

Then, the Dayton agreement was signed on Dec. 14, 1995. I didn’t understand it at the time. All I knew was that the war had stopped.

And here I am now, 31 years old, and I find myself helping to make real the peace that Dayton promised. For the past five years, I’ve been working with Catholic Relief Services. The first project I worked on involved helping people return to their homes from the collective centers: the dismal shelters and camps where the internally displaced had been living. Part of my job was to help bring together two groups of women from different nationalities. It was hard to get them to even sit together. They had lost their dearest, many of them. Yet the women conquered their prejudices. After the first few conversations, they opened up, started to talk and asked about the people they knew. Who survived? Who is still missing? They began crying. So did I.

The Dayton agreement is not perfect, and many hope the recent announcement that it will be reformed into a new constitution will soon become a reality. But step by step, reconciliation has been happening for people living here. Families and old neighbors have connected. Houses have been rebuilt and many have returned to their neighborhoods.

One day not too long ago, I found myself standing in front of one of many houses Catholic Relief Services has reconstructed. In front of me stood a mother not unlike my own. She hugged me so tightly that it hurt. I guess she hugged me like she would hug her own child whom she never found in any of the mass graves -- she and thousands of other mothers.

I turned to go. I left her in the new-old home with the hope of a more peaceful life, if nothing else. At least there’s hope. Now, I must return to my own home, where I live with my mother. She is waiting for me. Unlike so many other mothers here, she knows where her daughter is and that I will return home.

The voice of my daughter roused me from my daydream. “Mum, what is Dayton?”

“Dayton, my dear, is a town in the United States,” I replied, unable to utter another word. One day she will understand just what “Dayton” means to people in Bosnia-Herzegovina and just how much this agreement has affected our lives.

Mira Mehmedovic is a project officer for the Catholic Relief Services/Bosnia-Herzegovina country program.

National Catholic Reporter, January 13, 2006

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