In July, the Bosnian Serb Army overran the tiny hamlet of Srebrenica. The city's 3,000 defenders were no match for Serb tanks and artillery, and 300 Dutch peacekeepers were able to do little more than watch as the Serbs systematically rounded up the civilian population. Thousands of women, children and the elderly were bused to the boundary of Serb-controlled territory with only what they could carry in their hands--the latest victims of a war that has left more than a million homeless.
The buses that carried 6,000 to 7,000 Bosnian men, including young boys of 14 and 15 years, had a different destination. They travelled ten or twenty miles to the nearby town of Potocari. There, away from the prying eyes of international aid workers, they were taken out into the fields like herds of cattle, blindfolded, and systematically machine-gunned. Tractors stood by to dig mass graves where the bodies were thrown in, some while they were still alive.
The rape of Srebrenica strained the international community's Bosnian "policy" to the breaking point. The United Nations had designated Srebrenica a "safe area" and told the Bosnian Muslims who flocked to the tiny village that they would be protected there. Yet when the Serbs moved on the town, the U.N. had stood by powerless as its residents were massacred.
I was working for the Balkans office of the State Department at the time. We felt a horrible sense of despair, as if we were watching the beginning of the end of Bosnia. The U.N. allies would withdraw in disgrace. The capital of Sarajevo--whose residents stood in line each day for water and prayed that the Serbs' artillery barrage would not fall on them--would be captured. The dream of "Greater Serbia" might be realized. Our anguish mingled with the faint hope that the international community's latest humiliation might be its last, that the fall of Srebrenica would prompt the Western powers to respond.
And it did. The West's resolve finally materialized, as President Clinton finally decided to put himself on the line for Bosnia. Yesterday's peace agreement marks the fruition of three months of diplomacy. It is the product of the a coincidence of factors--NATO's airstrikes, Croatia's successful offensive--that convinced the Serbs that the time had come to sue for peace. But above all credit is due to the exhausting work and sacrifice of American diplomats, led by Assistant Secretary of State Richard C. Holbrooke.
Holbrooke's mission almost ended before it really began. In his first trip to the Bosnian capital, an armored personnel carrier carrying members of his delegation slipped off a rain-soaked road and tumbled down the mountain, claiming the lives of three men inside. Among those killed was Robert C. Frasure, who as the President's negotiator in the region had closer ties to the Balkan leaders than any Washington diplomat. The mission returned to the States, its future uncertain.
But the Americans bravely pressed on. Holbrooke reconstituted the team and only two weeks later, they made the same perilous trip to Sarajevo to continue where they had left off. Despite political theory to the contrary, diplomatic agreements are not simply the product of the convergence of interests. Those interests must be hammered out by men and women, and their final result often bears the mark of individuals.
The Balkan peace agreement, initialed by the Balkan presidents at an Air Force Base in Ohio, is the product of the work of Holbrooke and other members of the Clinton Administration, who worked tirelessly, endlessly, to stop the fighting, bring the parties together, and then bring them to an agreement.
The peace is a fair peace, if not a just one, for it offers a future to a tiny country that has seen nothing but war. Yet it is also a fragile peace concluded among distrustful upholding the agreement.
America then must finish what we have started and lead an international force to monitor and preserve the peace. If we have the resolution to carry it forward, yesterday will mark a victory for international security, for the Yugoslav people and for peace.