Sarajevo: Mirror to the World

MY mother was from Sarajevo. It was, in great part, through her Sarajevo eyes that her children became ethnic-blind. Neither then nor after would we notice or care whether our friends were Muslims, Serbs, Croats, or Jews. People were just people. That was the spirit, the gift, of Sarajevo.

Now we hear, with a shrug, that Sarajevo must fall. It will be conquered and "ethnically cleansed." Or it might be partitioned and dismembered. We don't know which. But we can darkly guess. For, when it comes to Sarajevo, the world has seen, heard, and learned everything. Nothing is hidden anymore.

By now almost half of Leningrad's 900-day ordeal during World War II has been enacted before our eyes. On the threshold of the 21st century we have seen, and are seeing, bread lines, water lines, children's hospitals, homes for the elderly, and funerals - blasted. We watch carnage and mayhem flood city streets. The entire world knows who is doing this.

We have also heard presidents, prime ministers, secretaries of state, foreign ministers, generals, secretaries-general, diplomats, and international organizations find creative ways to prevaricate, obfuscate, and break their word. We have seen them make studied empty gestures - even hobnob with the aggressors, the "ethnic cleansers." False hopes have been officially raised. The weak are pressured, then betrayed. An entire strata of Western elites have used each other's welcome indifference as alibis for their own supineness.

Compared to 16 months of Western policy on Bosnia, Neville Chamberlain may seem almost a knight in shining armor. He could at least claim he tried (however misguidedly) to avert world conflagration in 1939. He flinched from the world's mightiest war machine.

We have now heard all of the rationalizations about why nothing more could or should be done. We have heard that national interests are not at stake. That it is a quagmire. That it is a uniquely intractable problem. That all sides are to blame so there is no moral obligation to help. That there is no genocide. That there never really was a Bosnia anyway, and that even if there were it is lost now. That "containing" the war in Bosnia is enough. Why bother to go in harm's way if these backward people are b ent on killing each other? After all, there are so many similar horrors in the world, and the international community cannot deal with all of them. Finally, as for Sarajevo - well, tough luck. It is just an unfortunate part of a sad, sad picture.

What, in the late 20th century, are we to make of this? It would be presumptuous in this tiny space to discourse on whether humanity is morally progressing or not. In travels around the US, I've heard parents say they would expect their grown-up children to risk their lives to save a child or an elderly person from drowning or a fire. It wouldn't matter if the misfortune were at home or abroad. The idea of moral obligation, solidarity, an agreement to help another, even a total stranger, at the risk of o ne's life, in peacetime, is admitted.

Yet these same parents were very much against their children endangering their lives in a place like Bosnia - or in any international collective effort to stop such slaughters.

What is one to think? Is there any connection between lives permitted to be cheap and unprotected in Sarajevo, Mogadishu, Belfast, Kabul - and lives getting cheaper and less protected in Washington, Los Angeles, Liverpool, Rostock, Palermo, or Belgrade?

There are a billion reasons to laugh off such an idea. The cases are all different. Yet I cannot rid myself of the untutored thought.

Whatever happens, the world must now bow in deepest gratitude to Sarajevo and its heroic stand. For it has held up for 16 months a mirror in which the world's governments can see themselves. The picture is not reassuring.

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