Lessons of Sarajevo

In our case, two peoples fight for the same piece of land. In Bosnia's case, it was three - Muslims, Serbs and Croats. There, a solution has been found, one state for three peoples.

During the prolonged siege of their city, residents of Sarajevo dug a tunnel 800 meters in length, and used it to smuggle arms and food into the town, and the wounded and infirm out of it. One shrewd Bosnian decided to make some profit out of the tunnel, which runs through his yard - he opened a museum to commemorate the site, and nowadays tourists come from around the world and pay a few Bosnian marks to pay homage to the Sarajevo population's forbearance.

Perhaps some day a similar museum will stand in the town of Rafah, also known for its underground tunnel. Such a museum would memorialize Palestinian forbearance. But before such a day comes, we are well advised to consider how the war in Bosnian finally came to a halt, and learn from it.

The Bosnian debacle throws some perspective on our own rituals of killing and suffering. During three-and-a-half years of war and siege, 200,000 people were killed in Bosnia, most of them civilians. Some 2,000 children and teenagers perished in Sarajevo. Virtually every house in the city was damaged in the bombing. Even after two intifada uprisings, there is no city in the occupied territories in which the level of devastation compares to the rubble of Sarajevo; and no Palestinian city has withstood the same sort of ferocious siege. The destruction in Jenin is limited mainly to its central refugee camp; life in besieged Nablus goes on more securely than it did in war-torn Sarajevo. These facts, of course, are cold comfort for Palestinians; but they cannot be ignored.

One chilling conclusion can possibly be drawn from this comparison: perhaps the bar of suffering and bloodshed has to be raised rather higher for both sides to be forced to pound out a settlement. A second, less debatable, conclusion is that only international intervention - American persistence in particular - can bring a violent dispute between peoples to a halt. And a possible third conclusion: when the Americans are determined to forge a solution, they can do so, even in a dispute as complicated and explosive as Bosnia and Herzogovina. In 1993 in Sarajevo, nobody believed that within two years the war would end.

The war in Bosnia was shorter, and bloodier, than our own. Any visitor to Sarajevo during the war witnessed brute hatred and remorseless cruelty that exceeded forms of hostility between ourselves and the Palestinians. There are quite a few lines of similarity threading between these two disputes; and, as mentioned, there are also significant differences. The essence of both disputes was/is nationalist rivalry; in both cases, elements made efforts to give the conflict a religious character.

As the war in Sarajevo reached its peak, the Oslo Accords were signed in Washington. Ten years later, everything here is seeped in blood, where residents of Sarajevo follow a relatively tranquil routine, albeit one shadowed by problems and fears. A city that hosted Winter Olympic Games eight years before war erupted in it today provides its residents security, eight years after the war and siege came to an end. In its way, this Sarajevo sequence should raise our hopes: if the fighting ended in violent, contentious Bosnia, one might conclude that any dispute eventually has a resolution.

In our case, two peoples fight for the same piece of land. In Bosnia's case, it was three - Muslims, Serbs and Croats. There, a solution has been found, one state for three peoples; this solution is founded on rococo arrangements whose long term viability can be doubted (two entities in one small state; three presidents whose terms rotate under an eight-month system; and so on). Today, eight years after the signing of the Dayton Agreement, serious doubts continue to cloud the future. But nobody in Sarajevo, not even inveterate skeptics (who are not few in number) believes that war could erupt anew in the foreseeable future.

The war there ended without victors. Perhaps that is a formula to resolve disputes: no side has a thirst for revenge, a lust to restore wounded national pride. Residents in Sarajevo yearn only for the heads of fugitive Serb leaders like Radovan Karadzic. "I'd give my life to kill Karadzic," said one young woman, who told me that she spent her childhood in the siege separated from her parents. In the same breath, the woman, a waitress, said that she'd serve coffee to any Serbian customer, and that she no longer bears hatred toward the Serbian nation.

Everyone lost in that war. In Sarajevo, there's no graffiti to be found and in nearby Pale, the former Serbian capital, there is little. No flags or emblems of victory are to be found on the streets. Sarajevo is trying to heal its wounds, and its residents grapple with the everyday - unemployment, poverty and post-war corruption.

Some residents express longing for the bonds of solidarity that remained intact throughout the siege - they speak of them wistfully, as though the bonds are nowhere to be found today. That points to another possible lesson - the spirit of a people cannot be beaten by force. During the bleakest days of siege in Sarajevo, defiant songs could be heard in the street, far more than today.

Hanging over everything else is the universal, virtually self-evident truth: the total futility of war. "What was it all for?" one war invalid kept saying. His brother died in front of his eyes during the fighting and he was riddled with bullets trying to remove his brother's body. That question now haunts every nook and cranny in Sarajevo: it is asked by young people who lost their parents, by adults who fought on the front lines, by elderly people who were tortured by hunger and wants.

The war victim who lost his brother provides the most convincing single answer to that troubling query. What was the war for - "it was for criminal politicians who only wanted to keep their posts," says this war veteran. Can there be a more compelling explanation of Sarajevo's tragedy? And of other violent disputes?