IN April 19, 1943, some 3,000 Waffen SS and auxiliary forces entered the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. Their goal: total liquidation of the remaining 380,000 Jews forcefully held there. On that day, the brave and determined resisters sent out their last message for help, but no one answered their anguished plea.
Fifty years later, a commemoration ceremony took place in Warsaw. The past was remembered as the same atrocities were being repeated in the present. On that very day, I was on my way to the former Yugoslavia in my United Nations capacity. But, it was only in Sarajevo where I felt what it must have been like in Warsaw 50 years earlier, even though nothing can really compare with the Warsaw horror.
Sarajevo, lodged in a narrow valley, is a charming old city full of historic monuments that many will remember as the site of the 1988 Winter Olympics. Its quarter of a million population was the epitome of pluralistic coexistence between Muslims, Catholics, and Serbian Orthodox. Now, only Bosnian Muslims, some Catholic Bosnians of Croatian origin, and a few urban Serbs remain in the city.
The Serb combatants occupy the hills, mountains, and surrounding forests where their artillery and sniper positions constantly shell the vulnerable city and its civilian inhabitants. The Bosnian Muslim forces defending the city are without artillery or armor. The odds are far from even.
For over 13 months, Sarajevo has been besieged and its only food and other essential supplies arrive on United Nations trucks, which the Serbs have allowed passage the last few months. The city has been without water and electricity for over 200 days; now it is partially restored in some areas. A third of the city has been destroyed. Almost every mosque and church has been hit, as have all major buildings. Every hospital has been hit, particularly the principal one, which has been deliberately and repeat edly targeted. And, according to Bosnian sources, there are over 12,000 civilian casualties, among them 1,304 children. All these are "protected" targets under international humanitarian law, and unless they can be shown to have had some military significance, or that they have been hit accidentally by reason of military necessity, such attacks constitute war crimes.
During my three days in Sarajevo, I stayed at the Holiday Inn, which has also been hard hit. The glass in the window of my room was shattered, and two bullets pierced the drapery. Day and night I heard the shelling and sniper fire all over the city. Civilians fell, randomly hit by mortar and cannon shells or sniper bullets. The Olympic Stadium, once the symbol of world friendship, is a heap of twisted metal beams and charred remnants.
One day, William Fenrick, my colleague on the UN commission, and I, went up one of the mountain roads behind Serb lines. We were stopped by the Serbian militia and detained there for over an hour. To diffuse the situation, I engaged the militiamen in light conversation through our interpreter.
An English-speaking militiaman, a Serbian university graduate, told me his version of the conflict's history. It was simple: The world continues to conspire against Serbs; Muslims and Croats do not belong here; either these people leave or they shall be killed; there is no such thing as Bosnia-Herzegovina; the Pope is the principal culprit because he supports the Catholic Croats who are the natural enemies of the Serbs, and upon whom the Serbs are only taking justifiable revenge. (The Croats during World
War II sided with the Germans and killed an estimated 200,000 Serbs.)
As to the Muslims, they betrayed the Serbs when they embraced Islam several hundred years ago and sided with the Turks who occupied the Balkans. In his view, the Serbs were victims defending themselves and taking justifiable revenge against their enemies and aggressors. I debated his position and argued for peaceful coexistence and pluralism, but to no avail. The other militiamen sat in a row outside the bunker as a well-disciplined and attentive audience at an academic debate. But, soon they lost intere st. The only benefit of the exercise was that they realized I could not be intimidated.
During the same week, the Warsaw ghetto uprising was commemorated and the Washington Holocaust museum dedicated. How extraordinary that the human conscience can commemorate past horrors while simultaneously witnessing present ones.
Lest people make the mistake of stigmatizing all Serbs, it must be said that they, too, are victimized by Croats and Muslims, even though in much lesser numbers. And lest people also think that everybody in this terrible conflict is a savage brute, it must also be said that there are many cases of unsung heroes and heroines on all sides who acted with humanness and compassion toward their enemies.
All is not bad and bleak. What is needed is an appeal to the best in all of us. That is why, when I met with the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle, I suggested that he meet with the Catholic Archbishop of Zagreb and the leading Iman of Bosnia and that they should collectively appeal for peace.
At a time when everyone is speaking of war, it is necessary to speak of peace and reconciliation. But, until such time comes, those of us who bear witness must not let others forget.